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Opinion Gavin Newsom is working hard to be lucky

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) speaks in Vallejo, Calif., on Sept. 16. (John G Mabanglo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Dan Schnur teaches political communications at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Southern California.

Gavin Newsom says that he is not running for president. But you may want to judge for yourself.

The California governor has purchased ads for his reelection campaign in the Republican strongholds of Florida and Texas. Newsom rented billboards in seven pro-life states to advertise California’s abortion services. He even signed up for an account on Truth Social, Donald Trump’s social media platform, where he has promised to be active “calling out Republican lies.” Last week, Newsom challenged Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, to a debate with a taunt that was guaranteed to draw outsize media coverage: “I’ll bring my hair gel. You bring your hairspray.”

These steps can mean only two things, either that he is preparing a run for 2024 Democratic nomination or that he simply enjoys trolling out-of-state GOP targets in his free time. California has the fifth biggest economy in the world and faces epic housing shortages, wildfires, and daunting energy, education and homelessness challenges. It’s not as if his day job doesn’t keep him busy.

No, what is going on is that Newsom is working hard to get lucky. If health or some other factor leads Joe Biden to call a stop after one term, Newsom might as well get in line. If Biden does run, Newsom simply puts his nascent campaign on hold for another day. Either way, at least in theory, a heightened national profile rarely hurts an ambitious politician.

Newsom got busy earlier this summer, when Biden’s poll numbers seemed stuck at historic lows and his legislative agenda was going nowhere. At a time when many Democrats were frustrated by Biden’s refusal to take on his Republican detractors, Newsom’s combative behavior toward conservatives was precisely what the blue base craved. Soon, Newsom was cracking double digits in early primary state presidential polling.

Biden has since managed to put together a string of legislative successes and his poll numbers have edged upward. But Newsom is still spoiling for a fight: Last month, he donated $100,000 to Democratic candidate Charlie Crist’s campaign against DeSantis and has been trading barbs with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who drives liberals to distraction with his performative confrontations on issues such as immigration, abortion and guns.

On one level, Newsom is not that special: The Democratic Party has no shortage of fighters in its ranks. But most of its loudest combatants — Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — launch their attacks from the progressive wing of the party. What sets Newsom apart is that he is comfortable working from the center-left. His distance from Biden is less ideological than attitudinal — he can launch a strike against Republicans without alienating swing voters in the process.

Which is what makes Newsom’s recent decision to veto legislation that would have allowed government-supervised injection sites for drug users so interesting. Advocates for such an approach have long called for providing safer and more hygienic places for addicts to get clean, but opponents shudder at the idea of government-facilitated drug use.

Four years ago, during his first campaign for governor, Newsom said that he was “very, very open” to a safe injection pilot program. But that door appears to have closed.

Newsom has been known throughout his career for pushing ahead of public opinion on social issues such as same-sex marriage, cannabis legislation and curtailment of the death penalty. But the governor’s well-calibrated political antenna may have told him that 2024 might be a little soon for swing-state voters to get on board with government-sanctioned drug use.

Newsom did leave himself an escape hatch. In his veto message, he cited his concern about an “unlimited number” of injection sites the bill would authorize and directed his appointees to undertake a study to examine a more limited program.

In the past few weeks, he has hopscotched between measures designed to please progressives and then win the attention of centrists. Just days after Newsom vetoed the injection-site bill, his administration began to move forward on a plan to ban the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles in the state by 2035. That met with widespread applause from his California audience; it was quickly labeled as absurd by politicians in swing states that Democrats need to win presidential elections.

Newsom sent another strong message to progressives by signing legislation to raise the minimum wage for fast food workers, a move that has been harshly criticized by California’s business community but praised by labor leaders across the country. As organized labor enjoys a political renaissance inside the Democratic Party, that’s a trade that Newsom is happy to make.

From this point forward, every decision he makes will be judged by two different audiences — the mostly progressive voters of his own state and a more centrist electorate that picks presidents. It’s a balancing act worthy of Simone Biles, especially if Newsom opts to keep it up for two — or six — more years.