Gavin Newsom is almost certain to win re-election as governor of California in November, and a little-known Republican state senator is the only thing standing between him and a second term leading the nation’s most populous state.
That’s why Newsom’s campaign is more about his political future and overhauling the Democratic Party ahead of the 2024 presidential election — the success of which is much harder to predict.
It’s only been two years since Democrats retook the White House by lining up behind Joe Biden, an old-school elected official who came of age before social media amplified the worst parts of politics and changed what it takes to win.
Now many in the Democratic Party worry whether Biden can win in 2024, especially in a rematch with former President Donald Trump who, despite his legal troubles, could still be a formidable opponent. If Biden does not run, Newsom has been placed as a potential replacement for him on the ballot.
Newsom’s recent actions have done nothing but reinforce that notion. His campaign paid for ads in Florida and Texas, home to Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, the country’s two most outspoken Republican governors and potential GOP presidential candidates in 2024.
He quickly moved to build support among the party’s base of liberal voters and donors, ordering state regulators to phase out gas-powered cars and signing more than a dozen bills to make California a haven for women in other states seeking abortions that the U.S. Supreme Court has now overturned. Roe v. Wade.
“He doesn’t want to talk about his race in California, he wants to talk about running for president. Because, again, it’s all about him,” said Brian Dahle, a Republican state senator who challenged Newsom on the ballot this fall.
Newsom insists he is not running for president, saying he supports Biden and, if Biden does not run, Vice President Kamala Harris – who came into politics at the same time and place as Newsom, and the two even shared political advisers.
While Newsom’s focus on national Republicans infuriates the California GOP, it’s the best strategy for him right now, said Eric Schickler, a political science professor at the University of California-Berkeley.
“Yes, he could attack California Republicans,” Schickler said. “But it seems that probably more California Democrats know who Ron DeSantis is than Brian Dahle.”
Instead, Newsom says he’s tackling a perhaps even bigger project: a complete overhaul of the Democratic Party’s messaging ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
Democrats, in Newsom’s opinion, are too soft. He says Democrats are always on the defensive, never on the offensive, a strategy that allows Republicans to control the political narrative on cable news and social media.
He is careful to praise party leaders, including Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But in a recent interview, Newsom made it clear that the party’s strategy to try to bridge the gap between the country’s left and right wings will not work.
“I think the president learned that the hard way,” Newsom told MSNBC during a campaign trip to Texas. “I mean, he’s wired for a different world, and that’s gone.”
Instead of appealing to a broad base of voters, Newsom’s TV ads in Florida told residents that “freedom in your state is under attack” and urged them to move to California. In Texas, Newsom ran a full-page newspaper ad with a quote from Abbott about children losing their lives to abortion, editing it to read “gun violence” instead.
And in seven conservative states that have banned or severely restricted abortion, Newsom has paid for billboards urging women to come to California for the procedure — including a link to a website that will show them how California taxpayers will help pay for their travel expenses.
“I’m optimistic about (Democrats’) ability to turn this around — if we go on the offensive,” Newsom, who declined an interview request from The Associated Press, told MSNBC. “That’s why I make billboards. That’s why I do these commercials.”
Newsom’s aggressive criticism of the Democratic Party “rubs some people the wrong way,” said Steven Maviglio, a Democratic political operative in California who clashed with Newsom on a statewide ballot initiative that would raise taxes on the wealthy.
If Newsom really wanted to help the party, Maviglio said, he would have spent his time and resources helping California Democrats win and keep their seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, which could determine which political party controls Congress in the final two years of Biden’s term.
“Here’s a popular governor who should be paying attention to close races not only in his home state but across the country instead of this vanity campaign,” Maviglio said. “Any national Democrat would agree that it is more beneficial to raise money and campaign for candidates in tight races than to promote yourself two months before the midterms.”
Newsom campaign spokesman Nathan Click said the governor is supporting all Democratic candidates in California by holding fundraisers for them or collecting money on their behalf via email.
“He has one of the best email lists in the country — we often get more (with) one email than a traditional event,” Click said.
Click also said Newsom is raising money for Democrats running for governor in other states, including Katie Hobbs in Arizona, Charlie Crist in Florida, Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Chris Jones in Arkansas and Beto O’Rourke in Texas. .
Newsom’s campaign says he is also the second-largest contributor to Proposition 1, a ballot measure that would enshrine abortion rights in the California Constitution. Last month, Newsom’s campaign donated more than $876,000 to the campaign.
“He’s helping the entire party elevate its national message in ways that people who are in competitive races and in smaller states might not be able to do,” said Matt Barreto, a UCLA political science professor and senior adviser to the nonprofit Building Back Better that was launched to support agenda of the Biden administration. “I don’t see him taking anyone’s attention away.”
Newsom overshadows Dahle, his Republican opponent. Dahle is a farmer from the far northeast corner of the state and is little known outside of his county. He doesn’t have enough money to run television commercials across the country, so he’s been traveling a lot and promoting himself on social media.
Dahle’s only chance against Newsom will be during Sunday’s debate, broadcast live on Sunday afternoon radio during the NFL season.
“I’ve been an outsider my whole life,” Dahle said. “I believe I can win.”