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The Rise of Gavin Newsom
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The Rise of Gavin Newsom

The California governor is marshaling support for Joe Biden but has his own challenges to navigate—and potential future aspirations.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signs legislation raising California fast food workers minimum wage to $20 an hour on Thursday, September 28, 2023. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

SIMI VALLEY, California—Nobody looks to be having more fun at the second Republican presidential debate than a certain prominent Democrat, Gov. Gavin Newsom.

California’s affable, telegenic chief executive holds court with reporters, spars with conservative activists, and mixes it up with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. Newsom does it all with a seemingly permanent smile on his face, with the easygoing disposition of a politician enjoying the fruits of the pressure-free spotlight that accompanies promoting someone else’s White House bid. The governor was dispatched here, to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, by President Joe Biden, to do just that.

“I revere the president of the United States. I’m here having his back,” Newsom tells a throng of journalists Wednesday in the spin room at this Reagan shrine, site of the latest Republican debate, televised by Fox Business Network. The governor hasn’t been doing anything more than run-of-the-mill surrogate duty for Biden. But the president’s age—he turns 81 next month—leads to inevitable questions about which White House contest Newsom might have in mind: Biden’s in 2024 or his own in 2028?

Newsom, 55, is a smooth operator, difficult to pin into factually and politically uncomfortable corners. He’s always armed with a raft of data bolstering his position—or preferred narrative—on myriad topics, regularly challenging adversaries to “Google” the subject matter at hand and fact check his assertions. And when he wants to, such as last Wednesday, this demonstrably liberal governor knows how to speak swing-voter and drive a wedge into the heart of a fragmented Republican Party.

More than a dozen times during a 15-minute news conference, Newsom admiringly invokes Reagan and his iconic legacy as the 40th president and 33rd California governor. “I encourage these presidential candidates to take some time, maybe actually visit the library and learn a little bit about Ronald Reagan,” he says. “I’m not ashamed, as governor of California, a Democrat, to be here. Nor am I ashamed that I married into a family with a lot of Republicans.” 

“I have great respect and admiration for people I disagree with. I don’t want to demonize people,” Newsom adds. “But nor do I want to watch people be demonized by the Republican Party that are focused on false separateness at a time when we need unity.”

This is Newsom’s forte. 

It’s impressive because the governor suffers from dyslexia. His condition makes it difficult for him to read from notes or teleprompters, and prompts him to memorize vast amounts of information about issues and people, some Democratic operatives in California say. It’s also a window into what Newsom might look like as White House contender in 2028, a candidacy many California Democratic insiders are convinced would prove formidable. 

“He’s probably the most adroit politician in America right now,” says veteran Democratic strategist Dane Strother, who is based in Sacramento. “He wants to be a good team player and build credibility and chits for the future. I’ve been around Lloyd Bentsen, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton over the years. He’s as good as there is.”

Even some Republicans agree. “When it comes to how he’s playing up his ambitions by implication and then explicitly denying them, it’s brilliant,” says Rob Stutzman, a GOP operative, also based in the state capital. “He’s positioning himself as one of the few tier one leaders of his party nationally.” 

Yet Newsom is hardly a nonpartisan actor—and he’s far from a centrist, although he occasionally plays that role to rein in an often leftwing California Legislature. 

Throughout the day last Wednesday, as the governor spoke on Biden’s behalf in advance of and after the GOP debate, he knocked Republican presidential candidates with zingers and rhetorical brickbats. In particular, Newsom ridiculed the field for attempts to take out the frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, that he described as both underwhelming and futile. Trump, leading the Republican field with more than 50 percent, skipped the debate.

“This is the XFL, this is JV,” Newsom said, referring to the second tier professional football league. “Honestly, this is maybe—maybe, a vice presidential debate. These guys are getting lapped by Donald Trump. It’s not even close; it’s not even interesting. And I think what’s most interesting to me is, do they recognize that?” 

Asked about the possibility of a government shutdown in Washington, Newsom said the GOP was being led “off a cliff” by “three blind mice”: Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a constituent of the governor’s from Bakersfield. “It’s student government. These guys can’t be serious.” 

But Newsom has political liabilities that risk undermining his ambitions and effectiveness as a Biden advocate. Chief among them are California’s homelessness crisis and the rampant crime plaguing the state’s major cities. 

Federal estimates put California’s homeless population at roughly 170,000. According to the Los Angeles Times, homelessness in Los Angeles County spiked 9 percent in 2022 and jumped 10 percent in the L.A. proper. In Cal Matters, veteran columnist Dan Walters reports on crime statistics issued by the state showing violent crime in California increased 6.1 percent since 2021, with property crime up 6.2 percent and robberies soaring 10.2 percent.

Meanwhile, gas costs an average of $6.08 per gallon in California, the highest of any state in the union (Newsom claims the oil companies are price gouging), and the state’s median price tag for a house also tops the country. Newsom easily survived a 2021 recall attempt and was handily reelected last year, winning with 59.2 percent. But during his tenure, many Californians have voted with their feet, with approximately 800,000 of them moving elsewhere from 2020 to 2023 according to some studies—leading to the state losing a representative in Congress, a first.

Some Democrats in California concede Newsom needs to make progress on these issues if he wants to realize his national aspirations, though they tend to say so only privately. Republicans, obviously, are happy to point out the governor’s vulnerabilities. “We can’t be successful as a country if people aren’t even safe to live in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said during the debate, in a dig at Newsom. (The two are scheduled for a one-on-one debate later this fall.) 

All of which is to say that if Newsom is going to realize his potential and achieve national aspirations many California political operatives believe their 40th governor has, he is going to have to do more than just communicate effectively. Newsom is going to have to execute, showing he can get things done on the major problems impacting the quality of life in the nation’s most populous state. 

“He’s prone to making sweeping declarations with very poor follow through,” Stutzman, the Republican operative in Sacramento, says.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.