Is Gavin Newsom on a Fast Track to a 2020 Bid?

Is Gavin Newsom on a Fast Track to a 2020 Bid?
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
Is Gavin Newsom on a Fast Track to a 2020 Bid?
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
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In news from last week not related to White House intrigue or California wildfires: Richard Ojeda is running for president. In case you missed it, Ojeda is a West Virginia Democrat and 2018 congressional candidate best known for a military-issue buzz cut (he is a former U.S. Army paratrooper) and the media sobriquet “JFK with tattoos and a bench press.”

The ex-military officer is hardly alone in his White House aspirations. Ballotpedia lists 44 “politicians” mulling a 2020 run. Add “business executives and public figures” (Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, The Rock) and the count swells to 55.  That’s far too many candidates, of course. A more likely field is this Washington Post ranking of the top 15 contenders (Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren leads the way).

As we ready for more Democrats to formally commence with their presidential runs now that the midterm election is out of the way, it’s worth a quick look at what’s worked for the party in the more recent past. That would be the winning campaigns of John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – the only four Democrats to capture the presidency, as non-incumbents, in the modern era.

What do those four have in common?

Kennedy: age 43 in 1960; the father of a 6-year-old daughter and a son just weeks shy of birth.

Carter: age 52 in 1976; the father of three sons and a daughter ranging from their 20s to 9.

Clinton: age 46 in 1992; the father of a lone 12-year-old daughter.

Obama: age 47 in 2008; the father of daughters ages 10 and 7.

This formula isn’t infallible. Al Gore sought the presidency in 2000 as a 52-year-old father of four children in their teens and 20s. He lost to a 54-year-old Republican who was the father of twin college co-eds.

Still, you’ll notice a trend. The Democratic presidential candidates with the most success are the ones with a youthful outlook and a youthful family working to their advantage (OK, the no-frills, sermonizing Carter didn’t exactly embody a JFK-esque “vigah,” but daughter Amy did represent a child’s innocence).

So let’s go back to those compilations of 2020 hopefuls and find a Democrat who has these winning qualities – youthful presentation, young family. There’s an obvious choice, only he’s not to be found on that WaPo top-15 list: Gavin Newsom, California’s governor-elect.

Why Newsom? He turned 51 last month. He’s the father of two girls and two boys all under the age of 10. Listen to his rhetoric and track down his policy stances and one discovers a fondness for the term “future.”

Newsom’s repeatedly denies interest in a 2020 run. Then again, Bill Clinton spent a lot time convincing Arkansas voters in 1990 that he wanted to be their governor for the next four years (Clinton got around that pledge by touring the state the following summer and coming to the conclusion that his constituents didn’t care if he reneged on his word).

Besides, there’s California precedent. Jerry Brown was first elected governor in 1974 and sought the presidency in 1976 (and again in 1980, two years after his gubernatorial re-election). Ronald Reagan was first elected governor in 1966 and gave it a go in 1968 (unlike Brown, Reagan’s second presidential run would wait until he was an ex-governor).

Newsom would face two challenges were he to seriously mull a 2020 run (well, three if you consider the telenovela that is his ex-wife dating the son of his political arch-nemesis).

The first obstacle: a pair of California Democrats – Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Sen. Kamala Harris – who are further along in their presidential pursuits and, presumably, already asking California’s considerable Democratic donor base to start choosing sides.

Newsom could always find California money (this is the upside of being governor – donors don’t want to offend the state’s chief executive). And Newsom does have all sorts of connections to Hillary Clinton’s world (beginning with his new chief of staff) should the 2016 nominee formally take herself out of the running, thus freeing up her fundraising empire. But Newsom has to start signaling those donors and bundlers and wannabe-ambassadors far in advance of an actual run – i.e., right now.

The second obstacle: timing.

Newsom will be sworn in as California’s 40th governor on the first Monday in January. As far as the presidential calendar is concerned, he’ll lose precious time in the following months as he works on his first budget and legislative agenda while managing the likes of wildfire and other natural disasters.

However, the timing may not be as bad as it seems.

Newsom likely will have a budget in place by July 1, the beginning in California’s new fiscal year. By then, he probably will have been in a six-month war of e-words with President Trump, a frequent target of Newsom’s more pointed tweets (the two met this weekend, when Trump visited California to inspect wildfire damage, but don’t expect the truce to last).

Ethan Rarick, a longtime California political observer, noted a few months back in an op-ed that Newsom could use the Golden State’s deep aversion to Trump as the justification for a White House run, with this kind of spin: “I never wanted to be president, but Donald Trump’s latest outrage against decency and democracy means that all of us must join the fight. As the leader of the state that leads the resistance, I have a unique perspective, a unique experience, a unique voice. And so today I am announcing that I will be a candidate.”

And if Newsom came up short, as did Brown and Reagan in their first-term quests? It’s hard to imagine a backlash that would cost Newsom his day job. At last count, he’s received a record 6.6 million votes for governor – 2.4 million votes more than Republican John Cox. Take away every vote Newsom earned in Los Angeles and San Diego counties (1.827 million and 530,000 votes, respectively) and he still defeats Cox by 80,000 votes – more than double Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis’ margin of victory in Florida.

The most practical way to unseat Newsom, other than a recall and a special election (which is how Arnold Schwarzenegger rose to office in 2003): run another Democrat in the 2022 top-two primary, then see if that challenger can unseat the incumbent in the general election. That was Newsom’s fear in 2018: running in the general election against former Los Angeles mayor and fellow Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa.

However, there are a couple of flaws in that approach. For starters, the two Democrats currently best suited to do this because of their networks and name-recognition – Garcetti and Harris – are also in the presidential mix. In theory, they’d be guilty of the same distracted governing crime as Newsom. So much for moral superiority.

Moreover, California hasn’t tossed a first-term governor since 1942, when Democrat Culbert Olson was shown the door in favor of law-and-order Republican Earl Warren. Olson has one other historic distinction: He was California’s only avowed atheist governor (he didn’t put a hand on a Bible; he purposely avoided the “so help me God” part of his gubernatorial oath).

Newsom’s no Olson – he identifies as Roman Catholic. Time will tell if he deems the presidency his divine calling.

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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