It's Newsom's Race to Win, Whether California Likes It or Not

It's Newsom's Race to Win, Whether California Likes It or Not
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
It's Newsom's Race to Win, Whether California Likes It or Not
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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A decade ago, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom was less a Democratic rock star and more a party millstone.

Four years after he’d defied state law as San Francisco’s mayor by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples – in the process, becoming something of a convenient fall guy for John Kerry’s lackluster presidential run – a statewide vote (2008’s Proposition 8) redefined California’s interpretation of the institution as strictly a male-female exchange of vows.

Even worse for Newsom, his smugness came back to haunt him.

The first ad by Prop 8’s proponents featured this video footage of the mayor telling a crowd after the state Supreme Court had earlier ruled in favor of same-sex marriage: “The door’s wide open now. It’s gonna happen, whether you like it or not.”

A decade later, Newsom is hardly between a rock and a hard place. On Tuesday, he received the most votes in California’s open gubernatorial primary. That makes him a prohibitive favorite to shorten his current job title come November.

If Newsom does succeed in becoming the California’s 40th governor, it will continue a 21st  century blue wave out west. The nation’s most populous state has been governed by a Democrat for 13 of the last 20 years. Never before has the electorate there chosen a Democratic governor three consecutive times.

However, recent Democratic California governors didn’t campaign as has Newsom. Gray Davis won the job in 1998 after seizing the high ground on crime from law-and-order hardliner Dan Lungren. In the recession-plagued California of 2010, Jerry Brown returned to the “Horseshoe” (the nickname for the gubernatorial office complex inside the State Capitol) after a 28-year hiatus by marketing himself as a Grim Reaper of budget austerity.

Neither persona fits Newson. His is a campaign built on pillars of civil rights (the gay marriage debate), successful ballot-measure fights (Newsom skippered gun-control and recreational marijuana legalization initiatives in 2016), and further government expansion (universal pre-kindergarten, two free years of community college and, perhaps most ominously, a pledge to create a single-payer health-care system in the Golden State).

So why the shift from more mild-mannered Democrats to a defiant liberal? In part, it’s an overdue generational turnover in California politics. The nation is on a run of four straight baby boomer presidents; California’s had but one boomer governor (Arnold Schwarzenegger, who turns 71 next month). Brown, at age 80, is the nation’s oldest governor. Newsom, born in 1967, would be the California’s first Generation-X governor – albeit a Gen-Xer campaigning more like a millennial (that includes quoting rapper Kendrick Lamar in his victory speech).

The other explanation: Newsom knows which way the winds blow in California.

Fitting for a Democrat long obsessed with Robert Kennedy, Newsom likewise has also undergone a liberal transformation. As a newly elected San Francisco mayor, his first claim to notoriety was a tough-love “Care Not Cash” approach to the city’s homeless population (housing and services replacing monthly lump sums of money). But beginning with the marriage debate, he’s championed liberal causes.

Newsom, Version 2.0, insists he’s still a pragmatist and pro-business at heart. Then again, he’s the pet favorite of the California Nurses Association, which is hell-bent on single-payer health care.

It’s the business community that bears watching in California between now and November. During the run-up to Tuesday’s vote, an independent committee invested over $23 million in a failed effort to elevate former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to second place and a shot at Newsom in November.

Their motivation: education reform. This particular band of California plutocrats – most notably, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings -- supports the charter-school movement and fears Newsom is too beholden to charter-averse teacher unions like the California Teachers Association, which supports his candidacy.

The question now: Will a similar effort be launched on behalf of Republican John Cox, the primary’s runner-up, with taxes in mind. Nonpartisan estimates have California needing at least another $200 billion in new revenue to create a Medicare-for-all system. One way to pull that off: a 15 percent payroll tax on California employers.

However, businesses won’t spend heavily against Newsom if Cox can’t credibly explain how he’ll reverse the state GOP’s misfortunes.

California hasn’t gone red in a presidential election since 1988. Take away Schwarzenegger’s recall win in 2003 and his re-election three years later and the high-water mark for a Republican gubernatorial candidate in the past 20 years is Bill Simon’s 42.4 percent in 2002. On four other occasions, the GOP nominee failed to clear 41 percent. That includes Meg Whitman, who earned just 40.9 percent in her 2010 run against Brown despite spending more than $144 million of her personal fortune.

Creating a multimillion-dollar independent campaign on behalf of Cox would help to level the financial playing field. But it won’t solve the riddle of what to do about President Trump.

Trump endorsed Cox late in the primary. It’s safe to assume that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who’s trying to protect seven targeted GOP House seats statewide and needs a strong Republican turnout in the fall, played a role in giving Cox this needed boost. Trump’s approval numbers are on the rise in GOP districts. That’s good news for Republican congressional hopefuls. But statewide, Trump remains below 40 percent. For Cox, that’s bad news as Newsom’s certain to wed the two Republicans for the next five months.

On Tuesday, Cox received 26.2 percent of the entire primary vote. One other way to look at it: Republican candidates received not quite 38 percent of the primary vote; the Democrats’ share was 61 percent.

That formula doesn’t bode well for November, now that Republicans in California trail both Democrats and unaffiliated voters in raw numbers. Even if the state GOP were to enjoy an enthusiasm edge this fall, that alone won’t make up for the Democrats’ 20 percentage-point advantage in voter registration.

What Cox will need, in order to win over unaffiliated voters and make it a competitive race, is a message readjustment. On immigration, for example, he likes to talk about ending California’s state sanctuary law. Meanwhile, a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California shows 67 percent of likely voters (including 75 percent of independents) believe that immigrants benefit the economy and the state. A softer approach would seem wise.

However, there are at least two openings for Cox. The same PPIC poll showed only 53 percent of Californians favoring single-payer health care – support that falls to 41 percent when told the new plan would increase taxes. Perhaps Cox should start pressuring Newsom to explain where he’ll find the extra revenue.

Cox’s other gambit: surf the wave of a November ballot initiative that would repeal last year’s 12-cents-a-gallon increase in California’s gasoline tax. One Democrat who voted for it – state Sen. Josh Newman – was trounced in a recall election on Tuesday night.

Absent Cox’s ability to plant those seeds of doubt, California seems destined for a new governor who’ll kick the state’s progressive expansion into overdrive.

In other words, a Gov. Gavin Newsom is going to happen – whether voters like it or not.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow who follows California and national politics, and host of Hoover’s “Area 45” podcast on the Trump presidency. He can be reached at


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