Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom made a surprise visit to Sarasota’s New College, the center of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ battle to reform Florida’s higher education system. Newsom did not mince words as he decried his counterpart’s “bullying” and lack of “moral authority.” The New College stunt again demonstrates that the California governor may have ambitions beyond his state’s borders, despite his statements to the contrary.
Gavin Newsom may be just the culture warrior governor Democrats need to challenge DeSantis. That gives the California governor a chance of complicating the 2024 race.
Despite diametrically opposing DeSantis, Newsom still borrows from his Florida counterpart’s playbook of nationalizing state politics into culture war issues. DeSantis has proved himself a masterclass in garnering presidential media publicity. His education reform measures against Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) indoctrination garnered national attention, with even President Joe Biden taking time to criticize the Florida governor.
Meanwhile, DeSantis’ geopolitical commentary on the war in Ukraine and the threat from China have dominated the headlines. Agree with his positions or not, DeSantis knows how to rile up the media to get them talking about him, giving him even more free publicity to launch a potential 2024 bid.
Newsom knows DeSantis’ power over the national dialogue and is thus maneuvering himself as the Democrats’ answer to the Florida governor.
Democratic strategist Steve Maviglio succinctly broke down the paradigm Newsom is creating, stating, “He’s a real foil to him, as DeSantis is. And between the two of them, the governor has two big players on the national scene to attack.”
Last March, Newsom launched his foray into national politics with the “Campaign for Democracy” project, a $10 million PAC designed to challenge conservative policies in GOP-dominated states.
As part of his offensive against “authoritarian leaders,” Newsom toured the Deep South and Republican strongholds such as Arkansas, Alabama, and notably Florida for his photo op with the New College students. The future pitstops on the governor’s itinerary include Indiana, South Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, and Texas.
The governor’s out-of-state politicking is an effort to “coalesce the Democratic Party in a united front,” according to GOP political consultant Mike Madrid. Newsom is trying to make himself the face of the new progressive Democratic Party in much the same way as DeSantis has become the symbol of a new American conservatism. Newsom is busy making California a liberal bastion that is LGBT-friendly, pro-gun control, and pro-abortion while hammering his Republican counterparts like Greg Abbott of Texas and Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas.
It seems that Newsom is building his national profile while seeking the perfect time to announce his candidacy. As Republican State Sen. Roger Niello explained, “It’s a question of whether it’s ’24 or ’28. If you’re running nationwide, obviously you’re going to appear nationwide.”
As for the type of campaign Newsom is expecting to wage, it’s riddled with DeSantis-esque incendiary rhetoric and culture warrior ethos. In creating his PAC, Newsom declared, “The problem in our country right now: authoritarian leaders who are so hell-bent on gaining power and keeping it by whatever means necessary that they’re directly attacking our freedoms in state after state. We’re going to these states and investing in people and organizing where they’re fighting back.”
He went on to describe Republicans as people who “ban books, criminalize doctors, fire teachers, intimidate librarians, kidnap migrants, target trans kids, stoke racism, condone antisemitism.” This attack-dog personality is peak DeSantis, who made Florida the place where “woke goes to die” and accused Democrats of being infected with a “woke mind virus.”
A DeSantis versus Newsom showdown would be exciting and entertaining to watch. However, it remains unclear whether or not Newsom has the political savvy and clout to battle against conservatives in key states. Democratic political consultant James Carville, for one, was not impressed with Newsom’s project and said that it “strikes [him] as a kind of a stunt.” He concluded, “We’re not going to carry Oklahoma anyway, or Kentucky for that matter.”
Effective or not, Newsom is making himself the anti-Ron DeSantis. With Biden increasingly unpopular and former President Donald Trump facing mounting legal troubles, 2024 has a chance of being a battle of the governors.