Gavin Newsom keeps picking exactly the kinds of fights that presidential candidates like to pick.
On Thursday, he joined Donald Trump’s social media network — to rebut “Republican lies,” he said. He posted another “truth” on the former president’s site on Monday, using the platform to promote what he cast as the superior economic performance of blue states.
For months, Newsom, the 54-year-old governor of California, has been taking swipes at red-state governors known to have presidential ambitions.
He has ripped unnamed fellow Democrats, too: In May, after Politico published a draft Supreme Court decision that would strike down Roe v. Wade, Newsom groused that Republican cultural warriors were winning on issues like abortion and L.G.B.T.Q. rights with no vigorous response from the left.
“Where the hell’s my party?” Newsom said. “Where’s the counteroffensive?”
He is always careful to explain that he means no disrespect to the gerontocratic official leaders of the Democratic Party: President Biden (who is 79), Speaker Nancy Pelosi (82) and Senator Chuck Schumer (71), the majority leader.
And though Newsom has declared that he has “subzero interest” in running for president — and aides insist that he is deadly earnest about that — he appears to be not only positioning himself as a point man for blue states but also laying the groundwork for a future White House run.
During an interview with my colleagues Shawn Hubler and Jill Cowan in March, Newsom said he felt a “real sense of obligation” to speak out.
“There’s something really profound happening at the state level, and I just think we’ve been sleepwalking,” he said.
As demoralized Democrats search for political heroes, Newsom offers the allure of a proven winner. He crushed a recall attempt last year and emerged stronger. In California’s recent primary election, he finished ahead of his closest opponent by nearly 40 percentage points.
“On election night, Newsom will be the winner of the largest state and by the largest margin,” Mike Madrid, a former Republican political consultant based in Sacramento, predicted about November. “There’s no way he cannot be part of a national conversation.”
Last week’s editorial choices by The Atlantic, the proverbial in-flight magazine of Air Force One, were especially striking: Ron Brownstein, the influential Los Angeles-based pundit and CNN analyst, gushed over Newsom’s leadership in one breath while Mark Leibovich, a former New York Times writer, raised doubts about Biden’s re-election chances in another.
During the Trump presidency, as blue-state governors battled with the White House over pandemic restrictions and immigration, Newsom often seemed to be competing with Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York for influence. But Cuomo resigned in 2021 amid allegations of sexual misconduct, leaving Newsom as the nation’s most powerful Democratic governor.
“He’s filling a vacuum,” said David Atkins, a Democratic National Committee member from California. “Newsom really understands the current political moment and what the modern Republican Party has become.”
Trouble in Washington
The surge of interest in Newsom comes as Democrats begin to openly debate whether Biden, given his age (which is high) and his approval ratings (which are low), ought to bear the party’s standard again in 2024.
Most such conversations begin with two assumptions: that Vice President Kamala Harris is Biden’s natural heir, and that she would face many Democratic challengers should he bow out.
On Saturday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois was the keynote speaker at a dinner for the Democratic Party of New Hampshire, prompting speculation that his motives go beyond the stated goal of helping fellow governors who support abortion rights.
Newsom’s rise coincides with a series of stinging defeats for prized progressive policies and goals. The Supreme Court appears poised to reverse Roe, while Republican-led states like Florida and Texas are enacting new restrictions on what teachers in public schools may say about gender and sexual identity. In Congress, Republicans have foiled Democrats’ attempts to pass legislation aimed at protecting voting rights, slowing the pace of climate change and a host of other priorities.
“If the president were not to run, it’s hard to imagine that Newsom would not be sorely tempted to enter the race,” said David Axelrod, a longtime Democratic strategist and political adviser to former President Barack Obama.
“Newsom is young and politically muscular,” Axelrod added, “which may be just what the market will be seeking post-Biden.”
Does California know how to party?
But the “People’s Republic of California” can be a dual-edged blade for Democrats with national aspirations.
With a population of nearly 40 million people, hordes of wealthy liberal donors and an economy larger than India’s, the state is an appealing platform for a presidential run.
All three of the country’s Californian presidents — Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan — were Republicans, however. No Democrat from California has ever been elected to the Oval Office.
“They’ve never really been to college on how to win a Michigan or a Wisconsin,” said Mike Murphy, a Republican political consultant based in Los Angeles. “So their instincts tend to be wrong.”
Mr. ‘Subzero Interest’
Aides to Newsom say there’s no hidden agenda here: He just wants to prove to Democrats across the country that taking on Republicans, forcefully and directly, is a winning political move. And in a state as diverse and geographically complex as California, he can reach more Democratic voters by popping off on “Maddow” than by appearing on, say, local television.
Newsom’s political advisers have studied the way Scott Walker handled a similar drive to recall him as governor of Wisconsin in 2012. Walker survived with 53 percent of the vote, setting him up with a national following and donor base on the right.
But Walker’s ensuing bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination flamed out quickly. Broke and polling badly, he dropped out in September 2015, months before the Iowa caucuses.
For Newsom, gleaning insights from Walker’s recall was simply a matter of political survival, aides say. And today, by defining Republicans as capricious and cruel, he is merely taking full advantage of his platform.
“He’s expressing general concern about what’s happening and offering up California as an alternative vision,” said Anthony York, a spokesman for the governor. “The stuff that’s going on in other states across the country is dangerous.”
The Kamala factor
Complicating Newsom’s calculations, Democratic insiders say, is his relationship with Harris, who served as California’s attorney general before her successful run for Senate in 2016.
Taking on Harris would put Newsom at odds with the only Black woman ever to serve as vice president. Whatever private doubts many top Democrats voice about her viability in a hypothetical contest with Trump, she would be a formidable opponent in early presidential primary states like South Carolina, where Black voters powered Biden to victory in 2020. Most of the highly speculative, early polls presuming a Biden-free Democratic primary in 2024 place Harris atop the heap.
Newsom and Harris have also shared the same political consulting firm and swim in many of the same elite waters. Megadonors and other power brokers in California are likely to blanch at the prospect of an open conflict between the state’s two most powerful Democrats.
“I can’t imagine a world in which they would run against each other,” said Michael Kapp, a Los Angeles County official and D.N.C. member.
Newsom might be better off running in a year that looks more auspicious for Democrats, such as 2028. At that point, the governor would be 61 years old and amply seasoned after two terms in office, though he would need to amass and smartly package a record that could appeal to primary and general election voters alike, Murphy cautioned.
For now, in taking on Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, his ambitious counterparts in Florida and Texas, Newsom is stoking cross-country rivalries that could benefit all three governors. He has mentioned DeSantis dozens of times over the last few years, while jabbing Abbott somewhat less often. Most recently, Newsom criticized DeSantis on Twitter for refusing to assist with the distribution of federally supplied vaccines for children.
“He tweets all the time about my boss,” said Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for DeSantis who spars frequently with the California governor online. “Newsom seems to be trying to start some kind of feud.”
If so, it’s a two-way affair: DeSantis has blamed liberal voters for turning San Francisco into a “dumpster fire” and said he didn’t want residents from California moving to Florida because “they would continue to vote the same way.”
Shawn Hubler contributed reporting.
What to read tonight
As the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack resumed its public hearings today, it revealed that Donald Trump was directly involved in a scheme to put forward slates of false pro-Trump electors in states won by Joe Biden. Read how the afternoon unfolded.
Vice President Mike Pence is trying to navigate a difficult political moment as his former boss faces withering scrutiny over Jan. 6, Maggie Haberman and Reid Epstein write.
Voters in Alabama and Georgia were making their final selections today in congressional runoff elections, and Virginia primary voters were choosing party nominees for two of the most closely watched House races in the country. Follow our live updates here and watch the results as they arrive here.
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