SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Gavin Newsom will almost certainly win reelection as governor of California in November, with a little-known Republican state senator the only thing 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 been just 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 doesn’t run, Newsom has been floated as a potential replacement for him on the ballot.
Newsom's actions of late have done nothing but reinforce that idea. His campaign has paid for ads in Florida and Texas, home to Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, the country's two most outspoken Republican governors and potential 2024 GOP candidates for president.
He has moved quickly to build support among the party's base of liberal voters and donors, ordering state regulators to phase out the sale of gas-powered cars and signing more than a dozen laws to make California a sanctuary for women in other states seeking abortions now that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade.
“He doesn’t want to talk about his race in California, he wants to talk about him running for president. Because, again, it’s all about him,” said Brian Dahle, the Republican state senator challenging Newsom on the ballot this fall.
Newsom insists he isn’t running for president, saying he supports Biden and, if Biden doesn’t run, Vice President Kamala Harris — who came up in politics at the same time and place as Newsom, with the pair even sharing 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 probably more California Democrats know who Ron DeSantis is than Brian Dahle.”
Instead, Newsom says he is tackling perhaps an even bigger project: a complete overhaul of Democratic Party messaging ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
Democrats, in Newsom's view, are too soft. He says Democrats are always defending and never attacking, a strategy that lets Republicans control the political narrative on cable news and social media.
He's careful to praise the party's leaders, including Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But in a recent interview, Newsom made it clear the party's strategy of trying to bridge the gap between the country's left and right wings won't work.
“I think the president's learned it the hard way,” Newsom told MSNBC during a campaign trip to Texas. “I mean, he's hardwired 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 is under attack in your state” and urged them to move to California. In Texas, Newsom took out a full page newspaper ad featuring a quote from Abbott about children losing their lives to abortion, editing it to say “gun violence” instead.
And in seven conservative states that have banned or severely restricted abortion, Newsom has paid for billboards urging women there 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 with The Associated Press, told MSNBC. “That’s why I’m doing the billboards. That’s why I’m doing these ads.”
Newsom's aggressive critique of the Democratic Party is “rubbing some people the wrong way,” said Steven Maviglio, a Democratic political operative in California who has 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 be spending his time and resources to help California Democrats win and retain their U.S. House seats, which could determine which political party controls Congress for the final two years of Biden's term.
“Here’s a popular governor who should be paying attention to tight races not only in his home state but across the country instead of this vanity campaign,” Maviglio said. “Every national Democrat would agree that it’s more helpful to raise money and campaign for candidates in tight races than it is promoting yourself two months before the midterm.”
Newsom campaign spokesperson Nathan Click said the governor is supporting all of California's congressional Democratic candidates by either hosting fundraisers for them or raising money on their behalf through email.
“He has one of the best email lists in the country — we often raise more (with) a single email than a traditional event,” Click said.
Click also said Newsom is raising money for Democrats running for governor of 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 financial contributor backing Proposition 1, a ballot measure that would enshrine the right to an abortion in the California Constitution. Last month, Newsom's campaign donated more than $876,000 to the campaign.
“He’s helping the entire party elevate their national message in ways that people who are in competitive races and in smaller states maybe can’t do,” said Matt Barreto, a UCLA political science professor and a senior adviser to Building Back Better, a nonprofit that launched to support the Biden administration's agenda. “I don't see him as taking any spotlight away from anyone.”
Newsom is overshadowing Dahle, his Republican opponent. Dahle is a farmer from the far northeast corner of the state and is little known outside his district. He doesn't have enough money to run statewide TV ads, so he's been traveling a lot and promoting himself on social media.
Dahle's one chance against Newsom will be during a debate on Sunday, broadcast live on the radio on a Sunday afternoon during the NFL season.
“I've been an underdog my whole life,” Dahle said. “I believe I can win.”