California governor’s star rises as Biden’s popularity sinks

Gavin Newsom is one of the Democratic Party’s best contenders if the president doesn’t run in 2024

California Governor Gavin Newsom on a visit to the Capitol on July 15.
California Governor Gavin Newsom on a visit to the Capitol on July 15.JIM LO SCALZO (EFE)

“It’s not even on my radar. I have less than zero interest.” That’s what California Governor Gavin Newsom told the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle in late May when asked about his interest in the 2024 presidential race. Several weeks later, Newsom seems to be testing the waters, despite frequent denials. As the leader of the nation’s most populous state, the Democrat has demonstrated a willingness to challenge the Republican Party narrative and speak out loudly on issues such as gun control and abortion. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden, who will turn 80 in November, is seeing his popularity drop amid doubts about his bid for re-election.

A native Californian, the 54-year-old governor seems to have been gripped by Potomac fever, as the pundits half-jokingly call the fervor to hold power in Washington, D.C. The governor has certainly exhibited some of the symptoms. Newsom visited the capital city in mid-July while Biden was in Saudi Arabia, fueling rumors about his political ambitions. He met with veteran California politicians Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein, and also with long-time colleague, Vice President Kamala Harris. Newsom and Harris had the same mentor, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

In mid-June, Newsom joined Truth Social, Donald Trump’s social network, one of the first Democrats to jump into that morass of Trumpism. He later tweeted that he joined the network to “call out Republican lies.” His first video post was about high murder rates in GOP-controlled states, a counterattack to the frequent Republican claim that large US cities (mostly controlled by Democrats) have high crime rates. “Eight of the top 10 states with the highest murder rates happen to be red states… What are the laws and policies in those states that are leading to such carnage?” asked the governor, who has crusaded for strict gun regulation.

Before the US Supreme Court repealed the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights, Newsom sounded an alarm that resonates strongly among Democrats. “Where the hell’s my party? Why aren’t we standing up more firmly? And yes, they [Republicans] are winning,” he said in May after the draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito was leaked. Newsom believes the November midterm elections will be defined by social issues like abortion rights, not economic issues. But recent polls don’t support the governor’s prediction. Newsom says the Democratic Party, often criticized by its left wing as being overly timid, must go on the offensive.

The son of a San Francisco judge, Newsom exemplifies the politicians of his native city, a bastion of progressive politics in the United States. The owner of PlumpJack Wines, a chain of wine stores and restaurants that he started in 1992, Newsom jumped into politics in the 2000s. He became mayor of the city in 2003 when he was only 36 years old. He was married at the time to Kimberly Guilfoyle, whom he divorced shortly after taking office. Now a television news personality, Guilfoyle is currently engaged to Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s son. In 2008, Newsom married Jennifer Siebel, a Stanford-trained documentary filmmaker and actress. The two have four children.

In February 2004, Newsom made national news for his outspoken support of same-sex marriage. He granted hundreds of same-sex marriage licenses despite the fact that prominent Democratic senators and presidential contenders John Kerry and John Edwards preferred civil unions over same-sex marriage. “In many ways, we represent the future of this country,” said Newsom in a 2004 interview with EL PAÍS. But in 2008, a conservative wave swept over California and a referendum vote banned same-sex marriages. The US Supreme Court legalized them nationwide in 2015, but now they seem to be in danger again given the Court’s conservative majority.

Newsom has demonstrated a willingness to swim against the tide. He became governor of California in January 2019, and gained accolades for his leadership during the pandemic until he was caught attending a birthday party in late 2020 at an exclusive Napa Valley restaurant, violating his own restrictions on public gatherings. It was a major blow to his popularity, and he barely survived an impeachment vote in 2021.

The governor seems to have broadened his horizons this year. He spent US$105,000 on advertising in Florida, a state that’s 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) from California, to challenge Ron DeSantis, a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Newsom remains focused on opposing conservative strategies and tactics. However, he took a page from the Texas legal playbook that allows civil suits against people who facilitate abortions, applying the same principle in California to allow victims of gun violence to sue gun manufacturers.

California has given three presidents to the United States – Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Herbert Hoover – all Republicans. Arnold Schwarzenegger also tested the presidential waters, but his Austrian birth prevented him from running. No Democratic politician from California has ever made it to the White House, although many have tried. Jerry Brown Jr. ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination three times, ultimately concluding that the California governorship was a “career-ending” job.

If Newsom does make a run for president, Kamala Harris will be standing in his way. The vice president and the governor avoided a battle in 2013 when both declined to run for governor, a race that Jerry Brown later won in a landslide. Harris opted to run for senator in 2016 while Newsom set his sights on the 2018 gubernatorial race. Bakari Sellers, a CNN commentator close to the vice president, recently compared Newsom to Icarus. “Sometimes he flies too close to the sun,” he said.

In his May interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsom said he wasn’t planning on running for president, later adding, “I hope Kamala Harris is the next president of the United States.” Much has happened since that interview.

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