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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Newsom to Democrats: ‘Buck up’ and back Biden

President Joe Biden speaks with California Gov. Gavin Newsom as he arrives in Santa Clara County, Calif., June 19, 2023.

By Adam Nagourney

Over the past four months, Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor of California, has traveled to six Republican-led states. He has goaded Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Republican presidential candidate from Florida, to debate on Fox News. He has assembled a small staff of political advisers and created a political action committee to distribute $10 million to Democratic causes and candidates.

And last week, he raised $40,000 for a long-shot candidate for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee, one of the red states he has criticized his own party for neglecting.

By all appearances, Newsom is a man with an eye on the White House, building a national network of supporters and accumulating the kind of goodwill among donors, party operatives and voters that could prove critical should he decide to move beyond Sacramento, California. Newsom said in an interview that he was not running for president and that the time has come for Democrats to rally around President Joe Biden.

“The train has left the station,” Newsom said. “We’re all in. Stop talking. He’s not going anywhere. It’s time for all of us to get on the train and buck up.”

But it may be difficult for Newsom to quiet speculation about his own future. He has spent months positioning himself as one of his party’s leading voices during a time of deep Democratic worry and lingering unease about the political strengths of Biden, who is 80, and his vice president, Kamala Harris.

A CNN poll released Thursday found that 73% of all respondents were “seriously concerned” that the president’s age might affect his mental and physical competence. Some 67% of Democrats said the party should nominate someone else.

Newsom has, by his account, sought to reassure the White House in both public and private that he is no threat to Biden’s reelection campaign. And in turn, Biden’s team has appeared to pull him closer. The governor will be a top Democratic surrogate defending Biden when Republican candidates debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library later this month.

This dance — of raising one’s profile without undercutting the president — is the challenge for a class of Democrats-in-waiting, which also includes Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. But Newsom, a 55-year-old telegenic, popular-in-his-own-state leader, has made himself the most visible in this group, and he may serve as a reminder of Biden’s shortcoming as he seeks reelection.

“He’s got to be careful about it,” Joel Benenson, a pollster who advised Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, said of Newsom’s effort to raise his profile. “You don’t want to be too cute by half. If you are going to run, do it. If not, go out there and make the connections and talk to Democrats, learn about these states. The worst mistake would be the way to do it and seem sly about doing it.”

Newsom presents his travel to Republican states as an attempt to build up the Democratic Party in places he argues it has neglected. And while defending Biden, particularly on questions about his age and fitness, he also engages in a debate over cultural issues — transgender rights and gun control, to name two — that Democrats have sometimes avoided.

Newsom spent nearly an hour with Sean Hannity on Fox News in June to make the case for Biden and to defend his own record in California. “You have to give Gavin Newsom a lot of credit,” Hannity said in an interview. “He knew it wasn’t going to be an easy interview.”

Newsom recently turned up at a Boise, Idaho, bookstore to denounce “the insane book bans happening across the country. ” He has picked arguments with Republican governors like DeSantis and Greg Abbott of Texas, on abortion, gun control and trans rights.

“He is taking the fight to the Republicans,” said Jared DeLoof, the executive director of the Democratic Party in Idaho, where Newsom appeared in July. “Too often, Democrats shy away from things like critical race theory or transgender rights or some of these issues that Republican like to pop off about. The governor showed he was really effective on these issues; we can take them on, and we can win.”

Newsom said his activities were done with the consultation and approval of the White House, an assertion confirmed by White House aides.

“I am sensitive to that,” he said, noting that he has made a point of not visiting states that are at the center of the presidential battleground. “I am trying not to play into the presidential frame.”

(Newsom, however, did suggest that his still-unscheduled debate with DeSantis take place in, among other states, Nevada and Georgia, both of which are likely to be in play in 2024.)

A spokesperson for Biden’s reelection campaign, T.J. Ducklo, said in a statement Friday that Newsom “forcefully and effectively makes the president’s case publicly and is an enormous asset to our fund-raising and organizing operations.”

There are other potential sources of friction as Newsom’s profile rises. Newsom and Harris are ambitious Democrats from the same state who are of similar ages — she is 58 — and have, over the years, had to navigate around each other as they traveled down the same political roads. Harris would almost certainly be a rival in a Democratic presidential primary in 2028.

Newsom, who is banned from seeking a third term as governor, has assembled a skeleton structure of campaign aides — in effect, a campaign-in-waiting.

He has raised $3.5 million for Democratic candidates, Biden among them. He is also distributing money from his political action committee, Campaign for Democracy, further enhancing his standing with Democratic candidates and political operatives around the country. “If he ever ran for national office, he has a record to run on,” said Sean Clegg, one of Newsom’s top advisers.

Still, should Newsom seek to expand his political ambitions, he faces some serious obstacles.

Newsom won a second term as governor in 2022 with nearly 60% of the vote. But he is a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Democratic state and has never had to face a tough Republican opponent.

Newsom has become the face of a state with a long history of innovation and prosperity, but that state also brings with it some of his party’s biggest challenges: homelessness, a housing crisis and what may be the end of the kind of growth that has defined the California dream. California has always been a political and cultural outlier and has, more than ever, become a rallying point of the right on issues like crime.

Jessica Millan Patterson, the leader of the California Republican Party, said Newsom could prove an appealing national candidate but that he would not play well with swing voters in many states.

“It’s a really difficult sale,” she said. “I don’t think most of the country is looking at California and saying, ‘That’s what we should be doing.’”

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