Newsom and his odd campaign

Gov. Gavin Newsom unveils his budget proposal for the 2023-24 fiscal year during a press briefing at the California Natural Resources Agency in Sacramento on Jan. 10, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

His advertising and name-calling against potential future presidential rivals like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott drew stares during the last campaign season, even though it cost him only a few hundred thousand dollars, a political pittance.

His get-tough and get-active advice telling fellow Democrats to cease their consistent passively defensive stances and instead take cultural battles to Republicans in red states they dominate opened eyes nationally, as Newsom took on the role of a party leader, a function largely abdicated by President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

But it was his early spring tour of the Old South that drew the most attention and speculation. He was variously described as meddling and inspirational, vain and helpful.

Perhaps it was all those things, made necessary by a political calendar that poses unique challenges for Newsom, who cannot change it.

Like most California governors, he plainly would like to run for president, much as he denies it. That’s been obvious since he ran for governor in 2018, espousing causes like abortion availability and universal pre-school, combined with respect and trust for science and scientists, cultural touchstones controversial in many places.

Newsom’s tone didn’t change much while touring the South, including Florida, where even Democrats chafed at his very direct comparisons between California and Florida, where DeSantis regularly picks fights with everyone from local officials to his state’s largest private employer, Walt Disney World.

Newsom visited civil rights monuments in Alabama and encouraged Democratic politicians in Arkansas.

He stayed out of states like Iowa and New Hampshire, usual stomping grounds for early presidential candidates.

Newsom’s choices today may be dictated by Biden’s stated plans to seek reelection, which no serious Democratic politician will contest, now stymie his 2024 desires.

This immovable political calendar (if Biden runs next year) will see Newsom without an office or active government title in 2027 and early 2028. That means he must establish a voter base outside California and keep it supporting him and his ideas until the 2028 primary season begins almost five years from now.

Why head to the Old South in this circumstance? Newsom knows there is no major Democratic presence in most of that region. DeSantis demonstrated this last year, when his reelection landslide in Florida included carrying Miami’s surrounding Dade County, the first Republican in a generation to manage that.

Newsom stepped into this vacuum rather than visiting early primary states, trying to lay a foundation for a national campaign later on.

It drew mixed reviews in some of the states he visited.

Some local Democrats said Newsom should instead just send campaign money. Others were more positive. “We’re at a moment now where national Democrats are saying ‘Wait a minute, we have to look beyond the coasts and lean into the entire country,’” said Chris Jones, an Arkansas Democrat and unsuccessful 2022 candidate for governor.

Neither Biden nor Harris does much of that. Yes, Biden makes forays to factories and construction sites where laws he pushed now provide jobs. But he has largely avoided Republican controlled states.

Newsom seeks them out, likely because he knows they, too, send delegates to Democratic Party nominating conventions — people who can further his presidential ambitions.

Republicans do this all the time, with figures like DeSantis and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas making California and New York forays to attract campaign donations and possible delegate votes in Democratic states.

So Newsom, like potential future opponents he so often derides, takes his ideas — he calls them “California values” — to places like Jackson, Miss. and Montgomery, Ala. He has drawn tart responses from GOP figures like Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, who said “tourism helps drive Mississippi’s economy, so I am glad to welcome Gov. Newsom. I disagree strongly with his extreme COVID lockdowns, his insistence on letting boys play girls sports, his advocacy for abortion all the way up until birth and his enthusiasm for gun control, among other things.”

Through all this, Newsom maintains he’s not really running for president. But they all say things like that, until they formally start running.

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