Gavin Newsom and Kamala Harris have a lot in common. Both are in their fifties (she’s 57; he’s 54). Both cut their political teeth in San Francisco (he as mayor, before moving on to governor of California; she as the city’s district attorney, before moving on to senator and then vice president). Both are carved out of the same political timber—moderate-leaning liberals who often clash with the left wing of their party—and travel in the same political circles, cultivating the same donors and hiring some of the same consultants.
And both, of course, really want to be president of the United States.
If the fates line up just so, one of them may actually have a shot at the Oval Office. But in order to get there, these two old friends and longtime allies will have beat each other’s brains out in the 2024 presidential primaries. And if that clash actually ends up happening, one thing’s for sure—it will not be pretty. As one seasoned political operative gloomily predicts of a Newsom-Harris face-off, “It would be the end of everything.”
Of course, at the moment, the Democrat with the best chance of securing the 2024 nomination is Joe Biden. The last time a first-term commander in chief was seriously challenged for the nomination of his party was in 1980 when the late Ted Kennedy launched a primary campaign against Jimmy Carter. On the other hand, Biden, already the oldest serving president, will be 81 in 2024, and that isn’t even the most troubling number about his future candidacy. The numeral that has a lot of Democrats sweating right now is the one pertaining to Biden’s approval rating. In recent weeks, the president’s approval rating has climbed to 39 percent, up from the 36 percent low he hit in July. That put him within striking distance of his twice-impeached, potentially soon-to-be-indicted predecessor; former President Donald Trump sank to a 33 percent approval rating during his term.
In an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll out on September 15, Biden’s approval rating jumped from a low of 36 percent in July to 45 percent. Two months prior, almost half of those polled disapproved of the president’s job performance, while another 30 percent said in July that it’s simply because he’s too old for the job. Despite the improved outlook for Democrats in the upcoming midterms and some recent legislative victories, including the Inflation Reduction Act, it seems a majority of Democrats would prefer someone other than Biden would run.
Names bandied about include Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and Illinois Governor JB Pritzker. But another recent poll, this one conducted by the NewsNation/Decision Desk HQ, put Harris as the No. 1 choice of Democratic voters, at 16 percent, with Newsom trailing at No. 2, with 9 percent. This early in the process, that makes sense; as veep, Harris is teed up by tradition and position to be the nominee, and her current office gives her more national limelight than even the governor of the largest, richest state in the union. Still, Harris’s approval numbers among the general public aren’t much better than her boss’s (39 percent), which should leave Newsom plenty of room for an offensive, should he decide to go on one.
Would he? Or would he merely hold Harris’s coat while she ran? The two have come close to dueling before, at least briefly, back in 2015, when both Newsom and Harris were eyeing the senate seat left vacant by Barbara Boxer’s retirement. But Newsom ended up deferring to Harris that time, setting his sights instead on the governor’s mansion. “Gavin and Kamala have done a good job of looking out for each other as well as for themselves,” notes Nathan Ballard, a longtime consultant for Newsom as well as a former colleague of Harris dating back to her time at San Francisco’s city attorney’s office. “It’s a solid political friendship—not without some bumps in the road—but one that has definitely worked.”
And yet, if Harris does run and ends up faltering in early primaries, there’s every reason to believe Newsom would jump in to challenge her, evaporating whatever goodwill the two have accumulated over the years. Indeed, there are signs Newsom is already contemplating a run for the Oval; in recent months, he’s been taking shots at Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who just happen to be the two front-runners in the 2024 race for the Republican nomination, assuming Trump decides not to run or finds it impossible to do so from inside a federal penitentiary. Newsom’s been making national news as well, with bold initiatives like California’s commitment to ban all new sales of gas-powered cars by 2035.
It’s a solid political friendship—not without bumps.
As potential political rivals, Harris and Newsom each have their strengths. She’s a former attorney, while Newsom was a successful businessman before going into politics. Harris made her name as a tough-as-nails prosecutor who put her ruthless cross-examination skills on display in several nationally televised hearings, while Newsom, to overcome his dyslexia, spends hours poring over policy proposals and white papers to memorize every last detail of a budgetary line item.
“He’s better suited to be governor and she’s better suited to be senator,” says a Democratic consultant who knows both well. “She’s better at orchestrating and executing set pieces—a moment at a debate, a hearing with Jeff Sessions or Brett Kavanaugh. He’s more into trying to show off his deft knowledge of the budget in a two-hour press conference. He’s more of a political junkie. It’s not strange to walk in on him watching old Clinton speeches. She’s actually much more of a normal person. You’d rather cook and eat a meal with her.”
Both, though, also have their share of political vulnerabilities. While Harris’s history as a prosecutor might be a plus in a general election, it puts her at odds with the more progressive edge of her party—you know, the wing that two years ago was chanting about defunding the police. As vice president, she hasn’t entirely distinguished herself, generating scores of headlines about how dysfunctional her office has been, with top aides coming and going. And her handling of immigration reform—the issue Biden put her in charge of—hasn’t exactly been a roaring success.
“It’s not strange to walk in on him watching old Clinton speeches. She’s actually much more of a normal person.”
As for Newsom, well, he was mayor of San Francisco. That fact alone will keep Fox News commentators foaming at the mouth for countless news cycles. But there’s also California’s intractable homelessness crisis, its rising crime rates, its population drain, not to mention its overheated real estate market and crazy gas prices driving up the already ludicrous cost of living in the Golden State. There were his missteps during the pandemic as well, when he was caught flouting his own mask mandate during a lobbyist’s birthday party at the French Laundry in Yountville, one of the most expensive restaurants in the nation. Also, did we mention he was mayor of San Francisco?
For all their pluses and minuses, though, both Newsom and Harris have one other thing in common that would make a matchup between them in 2024 especially brutal: They are both ruthlessly skillful political combatants. Newsom has proven he can take a punch, shaking off that French Laundry scandal as well as last year’s recall election with approval ratings remaining higher than both Biden’s and Harris’s (ranging from 48 percent to 64 percent over the last year). And Harris has proven she’s capable of coolly shivving anybody who gets in her way, including the guy who ultimately picked her as his vice president. (“That little girl was me.”)
If they end up running against each other in 2024, it may not be the “end of everything,” but it will definitely be interesting.
This story is featured in the September 2022 issue of Los Angeles