Gavin Newsom Is Running for President—Just Don’t Ask Him About It

Cityside Column: TV ads and speeches make the governor’s ambitions apparent, but right now it’s all about plausible deniability

If you have spent time in California in recent months, you already know that Gov. Gavin Newsom thinks his future lies outside the state, most likely in a big white house on the East Coast. Lately, his hints have been fewer bread crumbs dropped and more a series of San Francisco sourdough loaf slaps to the head. There’s no mistaking his ambitions.

Newsom’s plays—all planned, no matter how off-the-cuff they appear—are dream stuff for news directors and Twitter. There was the May press conference when the governor, frustrated by what he saw as a lack of backbone from the Democratics, harrumphed, “Where the hell’s my party?” There were his declarations, after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v Wade, that California will be a safe haven for any woman from another state seeking an abortion. The momentum continued Wednesday while he was in Washington, D.C., where he touted California school advances and talked up the state’s gun safety efforts.

Then there was his most audacious swing: The ad he ran this month in Florida. Looking and sounding Cali cool with a white shirt and no tie, he smacks at GOP policies: “Freedom is under attack in your state,” Newsom quips, then adding, “I urge all of you living in Florida to join the fight or join us in California.”

The signs are obvious, providing you don’t do the silliest thing possible and ask the governor about his future career plans.

Those who inquire if he’s running for president in 2024 get the kind of rejection that Shaquille O’Neal dispensed in his prime—not just a no, but a get-the-heck-outta-here no. When asked in May, Newsom declared that he had “sub-zero interest” in running. When FOX 11 anchor Elex Michaelson raised the topic in Washington on Wednesday, Newsom responded, “What’s the language to express ‘absolutely no’? It’s just fodder. It’s made up.”

Give the governor acting points—he looked and sounded incredulous.

This is just the start. In the coming weeks and months, Newsom will be bombarded with the question about 14 times a day. Sometimes this will be a direct, “Are you running for president?” On other occasions journalists will ask around the question, trying something like, “You’ll soon start your second and final term as governor. What else do you want to do in your political career?”

The fun will come in watching Newsom deflect like Captain America uses his shield to stop projectiles. He’ll never cop to it. Instead, he’ll offer myriad forms of an answer that play up what a great job he now has and what a great state California is.

There are two primary reasons for this tack. Though it is easy to forget, Newsom actually is up for re-election, and on Nov. 8 he has to stomp out a token challenge from state Sen. Brian Dahle; also, Biden is a first-term president, and despite incessant chatter, he has said nothing about passing on a second term. If you have the kind of high-ceiling future that Newsom enjoys you don’t blow your political capital by challenging a sitting president.

Actually, Newsom may never have it better than he does right now. He crushed the September 2021 recall so handily that it essentially flattened Republican opposition in the regularly scheduled election. He also has a level of freedom, as there is a mammoth difference between being a declared candidate and a presumptive candidate. Officially enter and you must endure the gulag of raising money and hobnobbing with an endless line of low-level pols in Iowa, New Hampshire and the other early voting states.

If you’re not formally in the game, the microscope is less intense. And you can trot out lines and try stances to see what resonates—essentially, you maintain plausible deniability.

Angelenos have seen this play out firsthand. While some may scoff now (and did then), there was a lengthy period, ahead of 2020, when Mayor Eric Garcetti conducted a soft run for president. In the space of a year, he visited more than 15 states, including multiple stops in Iowa. He denied that he was running, even as national media outlets identified him as a potential candidate alongside Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg. Amusingly, the first time Garcetti publicly acknowledged the potential was when he called reporters to City Hall in early 2019 to announce that he would not run for president.

It’s all upside for Newsom right now, and there’s even a chunk of Golden State strategy. In taking out the ad in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis is a probable Republican candidate for president, Newsom steps in front of Vice President Kamala Harris. Heck, her gig means she can’t even make the plausible deniability moves Newsom is making.

But the question remains: Will Newsom actually run for president? If Biden says no to a second term, why not? He’ll be able to raise mountains of cash and his stances on everything from abortion to the environment could resonate with Democrats. All the attention-grabbing he’s been engaging in has helped raise his national profile. Plus, after he wins the fall gubernatorial election, his term extends through 2026. That means he could run for president, lose or drop out early and still have a darn good job for a few more years.

There will be plenty of things to criticize and if Newsom runs, the French Laundry dinner and California’s cataclysmic homelessness crisis will be at the top of the hit list. He’ll also face a field of top-shelf Democratic aspirants; candidates could include those who ran in 2020, as well as Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Plus, Newsom will have to contend with a national perception, as much of Middle America thinks Californians are kooky.

That’s all for another day. Right now, Newsom has the time and opportunity to talk like a candidate, drop ads and troll the opposition in red states, and revel in the attention. But if you see him don’t be foolish enough to ask about where it’s all going.

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