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Most California Democrats have made a presidential pick. Gov. Gavin Newsom hasn’t

Gov. Gavin Newsom
Gavin Newsom initially endorsed Sen. Kamala Harris, but has yet to settle on a second choice.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

With the closely watched California presidential primary just days away, Gov. Gavin Newsom remains cagey about which of the remaining Democratic contenders will earn his vote.

Extremely popular among California Democrats, Newsom could put a leading contender over the top. Or he could shake up the status quo and place his bet on one of the candidates in desperate need of a jump-start.

Either option could be appealing. But by wading into a race that’s become a bruising free-for-all among Democrats, Newsom risks alienating entire factions of his deeply divided party.

“The presidential primary is contentious, bordering on hostile,” said Sacramento-based Democratic political consultant Bill Wong. “You don’t usually want to break up a school fight. You’re usually the one who gets punched.”

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If Newsom endorsed a moderate, such as former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg or Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, he almost certainly would infuriate California’s many supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Wong said.

Endorse Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, two favorites of the party’s liberal wing, and Newsom could face criticism for tipping the scales in favor of a candidate who, some Democrats fear, might not fare well against President Trump in November.

Newsom’s first pick in the race, longtime political ally Sen. Kamala Harris of California, bowed out in December. Wong suspects that since Newsom already endorsed a candidate, he should be insulated from any criticism that he stayed on the sidelines in what may be the most consequential presidential election in generations.

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“I think he’s got a lot of pretty potent issues that he can focus on as governor, and can let that define who he is instead of who he endorsed,” Wong said.

Newsom has been asked repeatedly in recent weeks if he plans to endorse one of the remaining candidates and has avoided the question each time.

He was asked point-blank who he planned to vote for during an interview that aired Sunday on Fox 11 in Los Angeles.

“This may be surprising to you, you may not believe it: I don’t know yet,” Newsom said. “I had my candidate in Kamala Harris, and I have not made up my mind. That’s why I have not publicly come out in support of anybody. I’m watching as bewildered, it seems at times, as everyone else [after] these debates, wondering what the heck is going on.”

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After attending a National Governor’s Assn. meeting in Washington earlier this month, Newsom expressed concern about a “deep anxiety” among governors about the primary election. Careful to note that he didn’t share that point of view, the governor said there were concerns of a party “civil war” breaking out due in part to Sanders’ ascension in the Democratic field and the free-spending candidacy of billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Newsom made the comments during an appearance on ABC’s daytime show “The View.”

Other California politicians and politicos have not been shy about supporting one of the remaining presidential contenders.

Biden is backed by a number of top Democratic leaders in California: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Secretary of State Alex Padilla. Sanders has been endorsed by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont), Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin and San Francisco Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin. Warren is backed by U.S. Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine), Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) and former Secretary of Labor and Berkeley professor Robert Reich. Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis backs Buttigieg, Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Whittier) supports Klobuchar and Bloomberg has been endorsed by San Francisco Mayor London Breed, state Treasurer Fiona Ma and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

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If Newsom did throw his weight behind one of the remaining candidates, it could have a significant impact on the March 3 California primary and breathe life into candidates who have lagged behind Sanders in early contests.

“He’s well liked among Democrats,” Democratic pollster Ruth Bernstein said of Newsom. “It may not carry weight with those that are really committed to their candidate, obviously, but for those that are having a hard time deciding, it may be a factor that could make a difference.”

According to a statewide poll released last week by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, 75% of likely Democratic voters give Newsom a favorable job approval rating. That same poll showed Sanders is by far the top choice among the state’s likely Democratic voters. Sanders was backed by 32%, compared to 14% for Biden, 13% for Warren, 12% for Bloomberg, and 12% for Buttigieg.

Newsom does not appear have a strong political bond with any of the remaining Democrats in the race, despite his role as the leader of the nation’s largest state, which is home base to the Democratic political resistance against the Trump administration, said Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO.

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“Primaries always are trickier for endorsements for elected officials,” Baldassare said. “Very often in primaries, for that reason, electeds say, ‘I’m going to stay out of it. I’m going to let voters decide.’”

Newsom’s wife, documentary filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, has often praised Warren. After the primary debate in Los Angeles in December, she posted pictures of her and the governor meeting with Warren, saying she has been a “huge admirer.”

For Halloween, the Newsoms and their children dressed up as Democratic presidential candidates: Newsom as Biden, Jennifer Siebel Newsom as Warren and their four children as Harris, Sanders, Klobuchar and Buttigieg. “Make Halloween Great Again!” the governor quipped in an Instagram post.

Baldassare said that while Newsom may align with candidates on certain issues, that alone doesn’t indicate who he may favor.

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Newsom, Sanders and Warren all support universal healthcare, but the California governor appears to favor a more incremental approach than “Medicare for all,” which Sanders advocates, Baldassare said.

“While Newsom and Bernie Sanders may agree on health coverage for all, they may differ in how they will approach that,” Baldassare said.

Both Newsom and Bloomberg have been vocal advocates for combating climate change and enacting stronger gun control measures.

But Bloomberg donated millions of dollars to a charter school organization that opposed Newsom’s 2018 campaign for governor. The organization ran ads portraying Newsom as a dilettante and criticizing his work ethic when he served as mayor of San Francisco.

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Bloomberg, who in 2014 vowed to spend $50 million in support of stronger gun control laws nationwide, did not contribute to a gun control initiative spearheaded by Newsom in 2016. Proposition 63, which was approved by California voters, mandated background checks for ammunition purchases, outlawed high-capacity magazines and levied fines for failing to report lost or stolen guns.

That same election cycle, Bloomberg made more than $20 million in political donations to other causes and groups in California.


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