SACRAMENTO — Barely a month into his first term as mayor nearly two decades ago, Gavin Newsom took a polarizing stand: He told a clerk to defy state law and start issuing some of the nation’s first same-sex marriage licenses.
The 2004 episode, supporters and advisers said, helped establish the political strategy of the now-governor of California, who has plunged himself into the center of the nation’s raging fights over abortion, guns and LGBTQ rights — sometimes dividing and criticizing fellow Democrats. “Where the hell’s my party?” he asked this year.
But unlike the relatively lonely crusade he waged 18 years ago, Newsom (D) has found an audience in many Democrats who have grown dismayed at the Biden administration and party leadership in Congress after Republicans rolled back long-cherished protections on their watch. His combativeness, including a direct confrontation of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), and policy countermeasures, such as using Republican antiabortion tactics to tighten state gun laws, have stoked speculation about a possible run for president as soon as 2024.
“He’s giving a signal to others in the Democratic Party that this is not, you know, a time to be — ” Boxer said in an interview.
She paused, struggling to find the right words. “This is the time,” she continued. “It isn’t the time to be sweet and nice.”
Newsom sounded more alarms Wednesday about Democrats’ strategy during a trip to Washington, even as he said emphatically that Biden should run for reelection. He said the party has allowed Republicans to “dominate the narrative” and that a cohesive countereffort “just doesn’t exist, respectfully, from my vantage point,” shortly after using his speech at a national education conference to denounce the conservative backlash to school discussions of race, LGBTQ identity and “social emotional learning.”
The governor has said his calls for Democratic action are not meant to fault leaders like Biden, and political observers doubted Newsom would run against him. Advisers pointed to Newsom’s insistence he has “subzero interest” in a presidential bid, though one of them would not rule out a run even if a fellow Californian, Vice President Harris, is a candidate.
Biden’s stated intent to run for a second term has not quelled some calls in the party for a new direction, with growing concerns about his low approval ratings and his ability to run again in his 80s. Liberal activists launched a website this week urging him to step aside. Amid this rising angst, some Democrats see Newsom as an increasingly intriguing presidential prospect if there is an open primary.
Yet there are Democrats who say Newsom’s criticism of the party is counterproductive and fear centrist voters would view him as a polarizing avatar of coastal blue state elitism. As one Democratic pollster put it, the Republican attack ads would write themselves. The pollster, who like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more candid, also suggested that female leaders should take center stage on issues like abortion.
“Nooooo!” groaned Samantha Sears, 33, when asked at an abortion rights protest here this month if Biden should run for reelection. She said she liked Newsom — “I have said in our house that he would be a great president” — but echoed others who don’t see a heterosexual White male as the best face for a diverse party. “He’s a cis, White, hetero man,” she said, a “My Body My Choice” sign under her arm.
Still, Democrats across the spectrum said Newsom has channeled the raw anger that has gripped the party like few others. His campaign recently spent about $100,000 to air an Independence Day ad on Fox News. The commercial didn’t air in California, where Newsom is expected to comfortably win reelection in November, but in Florida. “Freedom, it’s under attack in your state,” the governor said in the spot. “Your Republican leaders? They’re banning books. Making it harder to vote. Restricting speech in classrooms. Even criminalizing women and doctors.”
After Texas passed an unprecedented abortion ban designed to evade judicial scrutiny, Newsom said his liberal state would use the same strategy against assault weapons; he signed the resulting legislation this week.
And at a news conference this year, as the Supreme Court closed in on overturning Roe v. Wade, Newsom railed against the conservative agenda — “they’re winning, they are” — and also questioned the Democratic response, asking, “Where the hell’s my party?”
“There’s this misconception that leadership necessarily has to start at the top and we need to get our talking points from Capitol Hill and the DNC,” said a longtime adviser to Newsom, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the adviser was not authorized to speak on the record.
When asked if the adviser could imagine Newsom running against Harris, this person replied: “I think the real answer is: Who the hell knows?”
Newsom said Wednesday that he plans to get lunch with Harris in Washington. “I think she’s been wonderful,” he said. “I mean it. Look — how do you judge that position? It’s difficult, because she has constraints in that office.” Newsom will also be meeting with members of Congress this week and discussing abortion rights, climate change and guns, aides said.
The governor told reporters his only ambition is “to express the frantic frustration, anger and despair a lot of folks are feeling about what’s happening in this country in real time. And it transcends the administration. But we have to have the administration’s back.”
Some Democrats said they have felt emboldened by Newsom’s fiery rhetoric. “Democratic voters are tired of feeling like we’re on defense and want our leaders to go on offense because we believe that we’re right on the issues,” said Ian Calderon, a former majority leader of the California State Assembly who welcomed Newsom’s Florida ad. “He sees this void and sees that he is somebody who can fill that,” Calderon added of Newsom.
Biden has moved more incrementally than many in his party have said they would like in the wake of Roe being overturned, embracing a change to Senate rules to enable Democrats to codify abortion rights only after pressure in the party built up. Democrats have also been frustrated with Republican moves to tighten voting laws in key states and target LGBTQ rights, wishing they could see a more forceful response from the Democrats who control Congress and the White House.
Biden “was nominated on the promise that he would try to draw the country together after the horrible divisiveness of Trump, and so he is never going to be the culture warrior leader that some people were hungry for,” said Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a center-left think tank. He praised Biden’s approach, but added, “If we presume that the Republicans will nominate Trump or somebody just like him — and I would put DeSantis in that category — whoever we nominate, whether it’s the president or somebody else, is going to have to be ready to fight.”
DeSantis’s gubernatorial campaign declined to comment.
Newsom’s posture has rankled other Democrats. Asked in May about Newsom’s “Where the hell’s my party?” comment on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said: “I have no idea why anybody would make that statement unless they were unaware of the fight that has been going on.”
Newsom also clashed with fellow Democrats after rising from mayor to lieutenant governor in 2011. That year, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Newsom criticized state government and drew some boos for saying former president Barack Obama should have done more to achieve his agenda while his party controlled Congress.
“He might win the presidency just energizing the heck out of the base,” said Evan Bayh, a centrist Democrat and former governor and senator from Indiana, speaking of Newsom. But Bayh said Democrats’ priority right now should be winning Senate seats — not “critiquing the president’s performance or setting the stage for the next presidential nominating process.”
Biden, 79, has said he plans to run for reelection, but some in the party hope he might change his mind. One liberal website that launched this week says, “With so much at stake, making him the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer in 2024 would be a tragic mistake.”
In such a scenario, many Democrats expect a potentially crowded primary with governors, members of Congress and Cabinet secretaries possibly making White House bids.
Newsom told the San Francisco Chronicle this year that he has “subzero interest” in running for president. “It’s not even on my radar,” he said. Harris — who made her career alongside him in California — should be next in line, Newsom said. (Some of his current advisers have worked on Harris’s campaigns.)
But skeptics point to Newsom’s recent actions — including his debut on Truth Social, former president Donald Trump’s social media platform, where his first post discussed a “red state murder problem.”
The White House and a spokesperson for Harris did not respond to requests for comment. Asked this month about Biden’s efforts on guns and abortion compared with other Democrats, including Newsom, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that "the president has been also very loud and also very focused on those two issues.” She pointed to the Biden’s leadership in the recent gun-control legislation he signed into law and added, “He welcomes other voices in the Democratic Party.”
Bakari Sellers, a surrogate for Harris when she ran for president, praised Newsom as “arguably one of our better messengers” — but said he has “a very difficult needle to thread” and “doesn’t need to be campaigning for president of the United States.”
With Democratic supermajorities in the state legislature and the ability to shape the world’s fifth-largest economy, Newsom has more leeway than many Democratic leaders in other states and Washington to champion liberal policies and produce results, at a moment when many Democrats have grown frustrated with the slow-moving agenda in the nation’s capital. Late last week, Newsom announced that California would produce its own insulin to sell “close to at-cost” as the fate of a federal bill to cap prices remains unclear.
When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to an abortion, state leaders moved to shield patients and providers in California from out-of-state liability. And last month, when the court curbed the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency, Newsom touted the California budget’s funding to fight climate change and said blue states have to “double down, quadruple down.”
Newsom has made himself a particular foil to DeSantis, who is also seen as a potential presidential candidate. DeSantis has championed “freedom” from some coronavirus restrictions and has moved to curb classroom discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity.
On Wednesday, at the 2022 National Forum on Education Policy, Newsom likened the latest policy battles to efforts to bar gay teachers from schools in the 1970s. “What the hell’s going on in this country?” he told a ballroom crowd.
At the abortion rights protest this month outside the California Capitol, some marchers were eager for new Democratic leaders.
Kim Coleman Berger said she would love to see Harris run in 2024. But she likes Newsom, too: “He’s the reason we’re married,” she said, standing beside her wife after the protest. The couple wore matching T-shirts with a profane message for members of the Supreme Court.
Newsom’s aggressive tone is more often adopted by leaders further to the left like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who left the party and teaches political communications in California.
“Newsom pushes back just as hard,” Schnur said. “But from the center-left.”
The recent enthusiasm for Newsom’s style is all the more striking given his vulnerability last year, when an effort to recall him from office prompted headlines like “Why Are Democrats Freaking Out About A Race In California?” and “Newsom’s big problem in the recall election? Likability.”
Recall proponents tapped into angst over Newsom’s coronavirus restrictions and accusations of hypocrisy, after Newsom went to a lobbyist’s birthday party at an expensive restaurant, the French Laundry, despite California’s restrictions on gatherings.
Opponents in the recall and past elections have portrayed Newsom as out of touch with his constituents — highlighting his family connections to wealthy donors, his children’s attendance at private school amid shutdowns, and his multimillionaire status as the founder of a chain of wineries, restaurants and hotels.
But Newsom defeated the recall decisively last November after casting the race as a referendum on “Trumpism” that would install a Republican in his place. He coasted in this year’s all-party primary, finishing as the top vote-getter.
This story has been corrected to reflect California's all-party gubernatorial primary system. A previous version inaccurately referred to it as a Democratic primary. The story also previously stated that Newsom told a clerk to issue the country's first gay marriage licenses; in fact, some licenses were issued in the 1970s.