Column: Can Gavin Newsom kinda but not really run for president and still do his job as California governor?

California Gov. Gavin Newsom addresses the Legislature in Sacramento.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom launched a political action committee with the hallmarks of a presidential campaign. Still, there’s reason to doubt he’s making a full-on run for the White House, after ruling out such a bid.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

He ran TV ads taunting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and raised billboards in seven states telling women that California would defend their access to abortion.

He lashed out at fellow Democrats for being insufficiently incandescent in their rage over the Supreme Court’s impending reversal of Roe vs. Wade. “Where the hell is my party?” Gavin Newsom demanded.

Then, just last week, California’s gallivanting governor announced the formation of a nationally focused political action committee, accompanied by all the trappings of a budding White House bid:


A fundraising blitz.

A launch video ablaze with ripped-from-the-headlines imagery, urgent narration by Newsom and a lineup of political villains — Donald Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, DeSantis — whom Democrats love to loathe.

Finally, a campaign-style swing, with wife and kids in tow, to meet with Black leaders across the South, the first of a promised series of road trips to places, Newsom declared, “where freedom is most under attack.”

All of which seem very much like the actions of someone vying for the presidency, not even three months after Newsom, a mere 55, was inaugurated for his second and final term in Sacramento.

There are still plenty of reasons to doubt that Newsom is waging a flat-out White House bid, not least the fact the incumbent Democrat is evidently preparing his own 2024 campaign launch, with the oft-stated and unqualified support of California’s governor.

That said, California voters — the ones paying Newsom’s salary with an expectation he would be serving them in the state capital — may wonder, with good cause, what exactly he’s up to.

With $10 million in campaign funds, Gov. Gavin Newsom opened a new federal political action committee dubbed the “Campaign for Democracy” to boost Democrats in the 2024 election.

March 30, 2023

California governors almost invariably see presidential timber when they regard themselves in a mirror. Few can resist the Beltway’s beckoning, the blather of political pundits or the blandishment of campaign operatives urging them to run.


Jerry Brown twice sought the presidency while serving as governor. His fellow Democrat, Gray Davis, was neutered by a voter recall before he had the chance. Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger might have liked to, had he been born a U.S. citizen.

In his 1994 reelection campaign, Gov. Pete Wilson flatly ruled out a run for the White House, then turned around the next year and ran anyway, a broken promise that helped sink the Republican’s bid.

Newsom has been equally emphatic in professing “subzero” interest in being president. When asked directly in the one and only gubernatorial debate last fall, Newsom unequivocally pledged he would serve a full four-year term if reelected in November.

That was smart.

President Biden has given no indication in public or private that he plans to replace Kamala Harris. Still, there is speculation because that’s the nature of the vice presidency.

Feb. 5, 2023

Whatever his personal desire, Newsom presumably understands it would be suicidal to take on President Biden in a Democratic primary and only somewhat less fraught to challenge Vice President Kamala Harris, the early front-runner for the nomination if the president were to stand aside.

Harris would almost surely face a formidable challenge from Democratic rivals, but starts with considerable advantages, not least her position in the White House and a significant base among Black and female voters, the party’s muscle and backbone.

Newsom might gladly step in were Harris to stumble during the primary season, but that’s highly speculative and conditioned on a number of events occurring between now and then.


What’s clear is the governor’s ambitions can’t be contained by his current occupation. It was the same as San Francisco mayor, when Newsom elbowed his way onto the national stage by issuing same-sex marriage licenses before they won legal sanction.

Yes, Newsom seems to recognize, it may seem as though he’s got his eyes on the White House. In fact, he told the Washington Post, he hesitated to create his new political action committee — seeded with $10 million in leftover money from his reelection campaign — because of how it might be misconstrued.

But, Newsom said, the mass shooting last week at a private Christian school in Nashville banished any doubt it was the right thing to do. (And just like that the slick launch video, legal formation of a federal political action committee and multi-state travel itinerary suddenly came together.)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom launched an offensive in his war with Big Oil. The battle didn’t go as planned.

March 28, 2023

It’s not as though constituents are clamoring for a Newsom presidency.

In a poll released last month by Quinnipiac University, seven in 10 California voters said they don’t want Newsom to run for president in 2024, a view shared by 54% of Democrats.

That’s not surprising. Voters, not unreasonably, want politicians to do the job they were elected to do.

No matter.

The announcement of his new campaign committee garnered the national attention Newsom craves, and the governor’s travels will surely elevate his profile further, bulk up his political treasury and forge a countrywide network of connections.


There are other enticements.

“National reporters are going to ask him about Donald Trump and Kevin McCarthy and marriage equality. He’s not going to have to deal with pesky questions about legislation or controversial policy matters,” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist-turned-independent who teaches political communications at USC and UC Berkeley.

“Any day he’s talking about abortion rights or DeSantis instead of housing and homelessness,” Schnur dryly noted, “is a good day for him.”

How Newsom chooses to spend his spare time, nights and weekends is, of course, his own business.

But if he wants to run for president in, say, 2028 or beyond, Newsom might do better to focus more on the many not-insignificant problems facing him in California, as opposed to waging a kinda-sorta-but-not-really campaign for the White House. Charity, the saying goes, begins at home.

So does most political success.