Gov. Gavin Newsom and the race for the top prize

Gov. Gavin Newsom during a visit last fall to San Francisco. (Photo: Jana Asenbrennerova, via Shutterstock)

Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared flatly that he is not interested in running for president.

“I have sub-zero interest,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board recently. “It’s not even on my radar.”


Newsom is good-looking, relatively young at 54, has a beautiful wife, has climbed the slippery pole of politics from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to mayor of San Francisco to lieutenant governor to national prominence as governor of the nation’s most populous state. Traditionally, the governor of California is often viewed as a presidential contender.

Newsom aside, California governors have a long history of looking longingly at the White House, but only Ronald Reagan made it.

He crushed a feeble recall effort last year 62-38 percent. His biography shows no sign of a deficit in aspiration.

Newsom is probably sincere in his current distaste for the White House. But it’s also a truism that a governor, or any politician, can’t be seen as thirsting for the presidency, even if he or she really wants it badly.

Voters consider it unseemly to openly lust for the next step up on the political ladder. Instead, you have to look as if an adoring public has recognized your worth (finally) and forced you to take that job you want so badly. Newsom is following a time-honored practice. (Who, me? Well, if you insist…).

Newsom aside, California governors have a long history of looking longingly at the White House, but only Ronald Reagan made it. Another California politician, Richard Nixon, made it, too. Gov. Earl Warren was interested but finally settled for chief justice of the Supreme Court. Gov. Pete Wilson ran for president but bailed out within weeks after he suffered voice problems on the campaign trail and required surgery. Gov. Jerry Brown repeatedly sought the White House — unsuccessfully.

The first question is whether incumbent Joe Biden, who will be 82 years old in November 2024, will seek a second term.

Nixon reversed the usual order. He lost the presidency to John Kennedy in 1960, then ran for governor of California in 1962, and lost again. He then promised reporters at an L.A. news conference that “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore. Because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” But he was wrong: Nixon finally made it to the presidency in 1968 and had many more news conferences, before resigning during his second term because of the Watergate scandals.

Newsom, assuming he’s reelected, will term out of office in California in January 2027. That’s one of the factors spurring the usual seat-of-the-pants circus of “What’s next?” political speculation.

The first question is whether incumbent Joe Biden, who will be 82 years old in November 2024, will seek a second term. If he does, then any Democratic contender will square off against a Democratic incumbent — not a pretty sight and an unlikely move that could fracture the party.

A roadblock to any Newsom presidential attempt may be his friend and ally, Kamala Harris. As vice president, she would be the heiress-apparent if Biden decides not to run in 2024. But Harris’ favorability ratings have declined since she took office, and if Biden checks out, the Democratic field likely would be wide open.

If Biden decides to run and is defeated, Harris would lose some luster and would be less likely to run in 2028, making a Newsom candidacy more likely then, in theory at least.

“I’m hopeful that she’s (Kamala Harris) the next president of the United States.” — Gavin Newsom

There are several Democratic contenders already out there, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. In one ranking of possible candidates, the Washington Post ranked Newsom as ninth out of 10 contenders.

If a Republican wins in 2024, and Harris declines to run in 2028, Newsom would only be two years out of the governor’s office and, if he manages to stay in the headlines, a likely candidate for the top job.

“I’m hopeful that she’s the next president of the United States,” Newsom says of Harris.

Newsom, who was recently diagnosed with what appears to be a mild case of COVID 19, has gradually become more and more a spokesman against the hard right – a stance that probably benefits him among California Democrats and carries with it the potential of becoming a chief Democratic spokesman against Republican Trumpism.

“Why aren’t we standing up more firmly, more resolutely?” he recently barked into a bouquet of microphones outside Planned Parenthood’s Los Angeles headquarters. “Why aren’t we calling this out. … Where’s the counteroffensive?”

Whatever the future holds for California’s governor, it is unlikely to be a quiet retirement to a Northern California ranch. It may even be the White House.

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