SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom is taking the fight for abortion rights across state lines, buying billboard space that quickly drew the ire of his Republican counterparts — and attention to his national ambitions.
The Democratic governor, who is increasingly positioning himself as a progressive firebrand, used his reelection fund to rent billboard space in a handful of Republican-led states on Thursday to promote California as an abortion sanctuary amid increasing restrictions on the procedure in the wake of the Supreme Court's June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Newsom's campaign mentions a new California website intended to help people, including from out of state, obtain an abortion. The billboards also feature striking images of a woman in handcuffs, calling attention to both the states' newly-enacted laws and one of the most vocal Democrats opposing them.
“The idea that these Republican politicians are seeking to ‘protect life’ is a total farce,” Newsom said in a statement. “They are seeking to restrict and control their constituents and take away their freedom."
California, one of the nation’s least-restrictive states when it comes to abortion, has bolstered its efforts to protect reproductive rights this year following the Supreme Court ruling. The state Legislature recently passed more than a dozen bills expanding access and funding for abortion, and placed an initiative on the November ballot that would enshrine the right to an abortion and contraceptives in the state constitution.
Recent polling shows the ballot measure, Proposition 1, has overwhelming support among voters. Newsom is almost certainly going to win his reelection bid this fall, with the last polls showing a 27-point lead over his Republican opponent, state Sen. Brian Dahle.
The ads immediately drew accusations that Newsom is using the billboards to further his presidential ambitions, which he has denied having even while repeatedly taking steps to advance his national profile.
“It is very interesting to see Governor Newsom’s 2024 primary campaign extend to Mississippi,” said Cory Custer, deputy chief of staff for external affairs for Gov. Tate Reeves. “But we do suspect that most Mississippians will not be interested in what he is selling.”
This is not the first time this year Newsom has aimed to raise his national profile by going after red state governors. Over the Fourth of July holiday, he deployed an ad on Fox News in Florida, attacking Gov. Ron DeSantis. Later in the summer, he bought full-page ads in three Texas newspapers highlighting Gov. Greg Abbott’s lack of support for gun control measures in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting.
Adding to the knocks on Republican leaders, Newsom on Thursday also sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, calling for a formal investigation into reports that DeSantis and Abbott transported migrants from the southern border to Democratic strongholds.
Molly Weedn, spokesperson for the Yes on Prop 1 campaign, praised Newsom’s billboards, calling them further proof of California’s support for access to abortion and reproductive freedoms.
“Abortion is on the ballot this fall with Prop 1 and these billboards are one more reminder to voters about how important this issue is,” she said in a statement.
Political watchers, in general, agree that the campaigns in other states will do little to change the minds of Republican leaders, but it could rile up an electorate that has, in recent months, voiced discontent with leaders in Washington.
“I think that most of the Democratic base just really feels that the Democratic establishment is way too reserved, way too buttoned up, and a little bit boring," said Bill Wong, a longtime California Democratic consultant. "It doesn't need to be a hugely strategic move to make sense, for people to say 'Hey, I love that, so I'm going to chip into Gov. Newsom's efforts.’"
Newsom's campaign spent $100,000 to run the ads on 18 billboards across seven states on Thursday — a small chunk of the nearly $24 million he has in his reelection war chest. But much like his other out-of-state campaigns, the billboards are generating significant media coverage.
"It's a really smart, asymmetric move,” Wong said. "$2 million in California will get you like, 2 a.m. on some really random cable channel. But if you're spending $100,000 on billboards in red states, and you're getting earned media, that's probably worth the equivalent of like a $4 million or $5 million media buy."
The billboards are also, unsurprisingly, further fueling speculation about Newsom’s White House ambitions.
The California governor has repeatedly rebuffed suggestions that he’d like to run for president. In May, he told the San Francisco Chronicle he had “sub-zero interest” in a 2024 bid. Speaking with The Washington Post, Newsom said he’s paying for the billboards because he’s “privileged to be able to do it.”
“I'm doing this because I care. I'm doing it because the people that support my candidacy support this. And when many heard about this, they wanted to support additional efforts like it, to be fully transparent with you,” he told the Washington Post.
If he did want to run for president, the path forward is mired in political uncertainty. Newsom is publicly supporting President Joe Biden for a second term in 2024, and said he’d support Vice President Kamala Harris as his successor.
But there are some indications Newsom could seize on an opening. A poll conducted in August found Californians overwhelmingly do not want Biden to seek another term and see the governor as a prime contender to succeed him. Newsom has also found himself at odds with the president in recent weeks. Sources told POLITICO earlier this month the governor was privately seething over Biden’s endorsement of a labor bill that Newsom was expected to veto.