CORRECTION: Ronald Reagan is the only California governor to win election to the White House. A previous version of this story included incorrect information due to an editing error.
While California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has repeatedly denied that his sights are set on the White House, experts believe that it’s not a question of if he will run for president, but when.
Newsom, 55, has long been seen as a politician with Washington ambitions, and while no Democrat has ever jumped from the California governor’s mansion to the White House, many believe Newsom would like to be the first.
“My sense is that the governor is trying to leave his options open,” Eric Schickler, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Hill. “I don’t think there’s any expectation at all he would challenge Joe Biden for reelection.”
“Building a national profile now, the most likely scenario where that really comes to fruition is for 2028,” Schickler said.
Newsom has been working to do just that, particularly in battling Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely seen as a likely GOP presidential candidate this year.
On Wednesday, he paid a visit to the New College of Florida, where he rallied against DeSantis’s efforts to gut the small public university’s diversity office.
Newsom argued that DeSantis has no “moral authority” and is “bullying and intimidating vulnerable communities,” according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
Just a few months ago, it at least seemed possible Newsom could be in the 2024 mix given Biden’s middling approval ratings and questions about the 80-year-old president’s age.
A strong midterm performance by Democrats largely quieted such talk, and while Biden has not officially announced his own reelection campaign he is widely expected to do so. Big-name Democrats have stayed out of the field, and it does not appear that Biden will face a challenger considered to be potent.
Schickler emphasized his doubts that the governor would be a 2024 candidate unless Biden is somehow unable to run.
“In that case, it’d be a very wide open, Democratic field and I think that Governor Newsom would be one of the people who would nationally be talked about as a serious contender,” the professor said.
Daniel Schnur, a Republican-turned-independent political strategist, echoed these sentiments, describing the governor as both “ambitious” and “impatient,” but “also very smart.”
“He knows that challenging a sitting president of his own party is not going to be good for his own political prospects. So if he needs to, he’ll wait another four years,” said Schnur, who teaches at both Berkeley and the University of Southern California.
If and when Newsom runs, Schickler said a big “wildcard” will be Vice President Harris, who has her own base of support and would be seen as Biden’s logical successor. That could make the two Californians friendly rivals in a future contest.
Newsom’s current term as governor would end in January 2027, setting him up for a potential run in 2028.
“It’s the governor of the biggest blue state out there, and his time in the governor’s mansion is going to end at the end of this term,” the professor said.
Newsom easily survived a recall election in September 2021, winning 61.9 percent of the vote.
A March poll from Quinnipiac found 44 percent of Californian respondents approving of the way he is handling his job as governor, compared to 43 percent who disapprove. About 70 percent of all respondents did not want him to run for the White House in 2024, including 54 percent of Democrats.
Ronald Reagan, a Republican, is the only California governor to make the leap to the White House. He served two terms as California governor from 1967 to 1975 before winning election to the White House in 1980.
Richard Nixon is another California Republican who won election to the White House in 1968. Nixon was a representative and senator from California as well as vice president before his White House victory. He lost a bid for California’s governorship in 1962.
Whether the Democratic leader of a state seen as a center of progressivism in the 21st century can make the leap to the White House is a matter of debate.
“When Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan ran for president, California represented America’s dream — all those Midwestern voters turned on the Rose Bowl parade on New Year’s Day and started thinking about moving to the sunshine themselves,” Schnur said.
“That’s simply not the way the state is perceived in the 21st century,” he continued.
Former California Govs. Jerry Brown (D) and Pete Wilson (R) both lost presidential bids in 1992 and 1996, respectively.
Schnur acknowledged that this “doesn’t mean a Californian can’t get elected,” but stressed that “the political winds are going to be in his face, not at his back.”
Schickler, however, said being a California governor is “not the kind of knock that it may have been 20 years ago.”
Newsom “is positioning himself as an upholder of sort of Democratic values” — someone who will go to bat against Trump Republicans and anti-abortion Republicans, he said.
Schnur similarly described the governor as “the most aggressive progressive fighter you’ll ever see on issues like abortion rights and gun control,” noting that he also strives to appeal to the center-left.
“One of the biggest challenges for somebody like Newsom running on the national stage is going to be the homelessness situation, housing situation in California,” Schickler said.
But there are also advantages to being at the helm of California, a state that often takes the lead on implementing new policies and legislation, particularly when it comes to environmental issues. “He can match [Sens. Elizabeth] Warren [D-Mass.] or [Bernie] Sanders [I-Vt.] word for word on most climate change policy,” Schnur said.
On the other hand, Newsom has had to contend with California’s massive drilling footprint, as well as ongoing nuclear operations — to which he recently granted his support, despite the opposition of green groups.
“At a certain point, even an ardent environmentalist like Newsom feels the need to bow to economic reality,” Schnur said. “He also can’t afford a summer of rolling blackouts.”
By targeting individuals like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and DeSantis, Newsom can “take harder shots than Biden wants to at this point,” in a way that bolsters his national stature and “boosts his stock with the hometown crowd,” according to Schnur.
“When Newsom talks about issues like housing and homelessness, the answers can be fairly complicated and controversial,” Schnur added. “For California Democrats, taking the shots at DeSantis and Abbott are a lot easier.”
Biden’s comparative restraint on such matters is also an opportunity for Newsom.
“If you asked who’s the Democrat that’s attacked Ron DeSantis, or targeted Ron DeSantis, the most — that wouldn’t be Biden, right?” Schickler asked.
He added that it’s natural a relatively young, term-limited governor would be spreading his wings beyond California.
“It would be surprising if he were doing nothing to burnish a national campaign,” Schickler added.
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