When Californians elect a governor this November, they will be choosing someone to run the state for the next four years. Or will they?
Gavin Newsom is almost sure to win, and he will immediately move into the top tier of Democratic presidential contenders. (Sen. Kamala Harris is already there.) Newsom has sworn off interest in the 2020 White House race — “That is not my aspiration,” he told one interviewer — but the history of politics is full of such promises made and broken. At 50, Newsom is poised to lead the biggest state in the union. Ambition breeds ambition, not contentment.
A presidential bid so soon after being elected governor may seem implausible, but in fact it has been done before, by the younger incarnation of Jerry Brown. (In any discussion of California politics, it is generally safe to cite Brown as an example, since his is such a long and winding career that he has done just about everything at least once.)
In 1974, Brown was elected governor at just 36 years old, the state’s youngest chief executive in more than a century. He was much less experienced than Newsom is now — Brown’s elective resume featured only a brief stint on the Los Angeles Community College Board and then a single term as California’s secretary of state — but still he jumped into the 1976 presidential race as a candidate in the Democratic primaries. He did surprisingly well, winning nearly every state in which he campaigned seriously, and eventually receiving more popular votes than any candidate save the nominee, Jimmy Carter.
Newsom likes to cite Brown’s experience as a cautionary tale, saying that Brown achieved more during his second gubernatorial tenure than his first because he was focused on California rather than Washington.
But the real lesson of Brown’s 1976 bid isn’t about political focus; it’s about timing. Brown hastily entered the 1976 race barely a year after taking the oath as governor, but he was still too slow. Even with wins in Maryland and Nevada, an amazingly strong write-in campaign in Oregon, and the victory of Brown-leaning delegates in Rhode Island and New Jersey, Brown couldn’t overcome the lead in delegates Carter had already built.
Newsom would have to start sooner than Brown did, especially because campaigns are longer now. By July 1, 2015, all the major players had declared their 2016 candidacies, including both parties’ eventual nominees. The wide-open Republican field — the best analogue to the Democratic campaign in 2020 — had 14 declared candidates.
Let’s say Newsom joined the race by July 1 of 2019, just six months after taking office as governor. It’s not as unrealistic as it seems. The new governor and the Legislature could wrap up an on-time budget along with some other policy achievements in Newsom’s first few months, and then he could launch his White House campaign by saying: “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.” I’ve seen far crazier moves from politicians.
Nor, from Newsom’s perspective, are there many downsides to running. He might win, and even if he loses, he would raise his national profile and further cement his standing with the Democratic base by waging a Trump-bashing primary campaign.
Newsom’s belief that Potomac fever weakened Brown, and could weaken him in Sacramento, hangs on thin evidence. It’s not at all clear that Brown lost support in California because of his 1976 campaign, and his greater success as governor 2.0 seems to have had less to do with a strict focus on California than with his own long evolution from youthful flake to elder sage — a journey that included working with Mother Teresa in India, studying Zen Buddhism in Japan, hosting a left-wing radio talk show and finally returning to elective politics as Oakland’s mayor and California attorney general.
Even if Newsom were to fade a bit at home as his national profile rose, the state’s overwhelming Democratic majority means he would be safe for reelection — a security blanket that Brown did not enjoy in the 1970s when California was still a two-party state. Republicans simply aren’t a threat now: They haven’t won a single statewide election in more than a decade. (Recently a Republican politico told me he expects GOP gubernatorial candidate John Cox to do well, which he defined as equaling the performance of Neel Kashkari four years ago. Kashkari lost by 20 percentage points.)
California governors once regularly eyed the White House, but in the last few presidential election cycles, foreign-born Arnold Schwarzenegger was ineligible and 1938-born Brown was too old. Regardless of what Newsom says now, don’t be surprised if he revives the tradition.
Ethan Rarick is the author of “California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown.”