Could Gavin Newsom run for president in 2024? Lots of GOP insiders are all but convinced

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Gov. Gavin Newsom for president in ’24? A lot of influential conservatives are convinced that it’s going to happen.

The chatter goes something like this: President Joe Biden, age 80 and with persistently low poll numbers, will step down after next year’s primaries and let party convention delegates pick a replacement.

“It’s a pretty widespread feeling among conservatives,” said Carter Wrenn, a veteran North Carolina Republican strategist.

That will leave the California Democrat as a serious threat to win the White House. And it means that the GOP will do whatever it can to put Newsom in a negative light before most of America learns more about him.

But the conservative fascination with Newsom goes beyond the expectation that Biden’s exit will elevate him onto the ticket — or that his California liberalism may make him easy to beat. Newsom’s aggressive style energizes the conservative mediasphere. They like a fighter.

‘Warming up’

Newsom has repeatedly denied any interest in a run next year, and Biden is actively running for a second term. But conservatives suspect things will change.

Fox News Channel commentator Sean Hannity suggested as much earlier this summer in an interview with Newsom. “I don’t think Joe Biden is mentally or physically capable of being the president of the United States,” he said, adding:

“I suspect if I took your phone and I took a look at it … I would bet on a daily basis that there are people urging you to run for president and primary him.”

Newsom replied that his phone routinely lights up with people praising Biden’s accomplishments, including Republicans who appreciate bipartisan achievements.

“Everybody has their chatter and everybody’s out there rooting for America. ... I’m rooting for our president and I have great confidence in his leadership,” Newsom said.

But the conservative beat has gone on.

Fox commentator Jesse Watters cited the Hannity-Newsom discussion on homelessness (“We own this,” Newsom acknowledged) and saw it as practice for a 2024 presidential bid.

“He is definitely warming up,” Watters said.

This week, conservative radio and podcast commentator Hugh Hewitt offered a scenario for a 2024 bid: “President Biden wins the South Carolina primary, and then he and the First Lady announce, ‘You know what? We’re too old for this job, and we’re just not going to run anymore.’”

Add to all this the notion that the Democrats’ heir apparent to Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, is not seen by Republicans as a strong candidate, and therefore someone Democrats may not want heading their ticket.

“Kamala Harris has been an utter failure as vice president, from stumbling word salads to her incompetence as the border czar. She has a worse rating than Joe Biden,” said California Republican Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson.

So, she said, “It’s no surprise that Gavin Newsom is waiting in the wings in hopes to be next in line as the Democratic Presidential nominee.”

Biden hasn’t hinted that he’s even thinking of getting out. Newsom has been an active Biden supporter.

He does appear to be positioning himself for national office some day. He has the sort of campaign finance tools that presidential contenders often use, appeared for two lengthy interviews on Hannity’s program and has agreed to debate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis..

Defining Gavin Newsom

Republicans are playing a classic political game: Define your opponent before the public learns who they really are.

Newsom is barely known outside of California.

On YouGov’s index measuring politicians’ fame and popularity, Newsom is 21st among Democrats in popularity, just behind Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who ran for the presidential nomination in 2020, and former Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who unsuccessfully ran for president, senator and governor over the past five years.

“If you ask activists in New Hampshire an open-ended question, ‘Who would you like to see run for president?’ he would probably be among the top five or six,” said Dante Scala, political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. The state traditionally holds the nation’s first presidential primary.

While Newsom has been aggressively courting Democrats in more conservative areas, with visits to Southern states, conservatives have considerable resources to tell their listeners and viewers about the governor.

Newsom’s willingness to take the fight directly to conservatives is one of the reasons they are so eager to battle him now.

“As a Republican I was impressed he showed up on Fox and he engaged and took ownership of some of these issues. Most Democrats won’t even admit there’s a problem,” Watters said on Fox News’ popular program “The Five,” as others on the show agreed.

There’s another big reason they’re focusing on Newsom. They need to define him quickly before his charm or combative style make him soar among not only Democrats but swing voters. That’s why “The Five” panelist Greg Gutfeld said Newsom “may just be the dumbest person in politics” as he criticized the governor’s views on undocumented immigrants.

Conservatives see Newsom as vulnerable on two fronts: His record and style, and how he represents, even symbolizes, a state that people love to bash.

‘He would be easy to beat’

“Conservatives want to build him up because they figure that he would be easy to beat in a general election. On that point they are not wrong,” said John Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and former Republican National Committee staffer.

There are plenty of Newsom-bashers. Rep. Keven Kiley, R-Rocklin, who led the unsuccessful 2021 effort to recall Newsom, is a freshman congressman who cites crime, homelessness and other problems that he says have become worse since Newsom became governor in 2019.

“Gavin Newsom’s insistence that such conditions are a ‘model’ for the country is rightly met with derision from Republicans and Democrats alike. They don’t want to see these problems afflict their own states,” Kiley said.

What conservatives know they need to counter is Newsom’s charisma and to some extent his willingness to be pragmatic.

“I think he’s a strong candidate. He’s very charismatic, he’s likable,” said Sal Russo, a Sacramento-based Republican consultant.

While noting “I disagree with a lot of things he does,” Russo noted that Newsom was regarded as a business-friendly mayor of San Francisco.

“He’s been able to kind of evolve into the candidate of the day pretty easily. He’s got a lot of political skills,” Russo said.

The problem with California

WalletHub’s quality of life index, which measures several factors, last month found California ranked second among all the states. New York was first.

But to many outside the state, California is emblematic of much that’s gone wrong with America.

“In the old days we said San Francisco Democrats” as a code phrase to say someone was too liberal, Russo recalled.

“Now we say California Democrats. That’s a burden to overcome.”

Any perceived problems, the thinking goes, are because of the Democratic stranglehold on California’s policymaking.

The last Republican to win the governorship was Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006. A GOP candidate last won a U.S. Senate seat in 1988, also the last year the GOP’s presidential candidate won in California.

Critics cite homelessness, crime, an economy still struggling to catch up to the rest of the country, and a penchant for liberal policies as key reasons it should be easy to tar Newsom.

“Under Gavin Newsom’s rule, Californians are worse off than ever before, from a never-ending homeless crisis, fentanyl epidemic, brazen smash and grabs, failing schools and unaffordable housing,” said Patterson.

There are plenty of numbers to tell that story. The state has been losing population. About 30% of America’s homeless people live in California. State and local taxes are among the nation’s steepest. Gasoline prices in California have been the nation’s most expensive in recent months or close to that.

What it all means, said Pitney, is that “the attack ads practically write themselves.”