Why Gavin Newsom may give red state Democrats the blues

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gavin Newsom is showing up behind political enemy lines, taking on conservatives in southern states like Alabama and Texas, where the California governor’s presence is not always welcome — even among the people he’s supposedly there to help.

Newsom just finished a spring break tour of the deep South, visiting civil rights landmarks and beleaguered Democrats and picking fights with Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. His new PAC, seeded with $10 million of his leftover campaign money, is a bet that the potential presidential aspirant — not now, his people insist — can go even further and become a serious player in helping Democrats actually win in red states and districts across the country.

But, like a California cabernet left out on a humid afternoon, the Newsom brand may not travel all that well. Montgomery is a long way from Sacramento, and Newsom’s political machine has only been tested in friendly territory, where his party enjoys a supermajority. Many Democrats will be glad to spend his money, but it’s far less clear that they’ll want his advice or his obsessive focus on the culture-war contrasts between Democratic and Republican states.

“They will do much better if they will strategically fund operations in Texas that are overtly political and engaged in actually winning races,” said Matt Angle, who directs the Lone Star Project, a Texas committee devoted to defeating Republicans.

Florida Democrats echo that view. State Party Chair Nikki Fried said she’d welcome extra resources “to highlight the failures of Ron DeSantis,” but there are limits. She also said Newsom’s favorite California-versus-Florida framing, which resonates with some West Coast liberals, would backfire in DeSantis’ backyard.

“What would not be helpful is a comparison between the two states,” Fried said. “Florida is very different from California.”

Nikki Fried speaks with the media who hold up microphones.

Florida State Party Chair Nikki Fried said she’d welcome extra resources “to highlight the failures of Ron DeSantis,” but there are limits. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Newsom has cast the effort as a moral imperative. In the launch video for the campaign, the governor — who is shown at one point marching across an iconic Sacramento bridge with hundreds of Democratic activists — decries the right’s policies on issues like abortion, guns and voting rights against a mashup of polarizing GOP figures.

In a Thursday email to supporters, he touted press coverage of the tour as evidence that “it’s working.”

It’s not an unexpected play from a governor who has long portrayed himself, and California, as a defender of democracy, enacting world-leading environmental policies and gun restrictions and expanding abortion access for people from out of state.

But this strategy bets that the message of a California governor — who made his fortune in fine wines and has deep ties to elite San Franciscans like Nancy Pelosi — can resonate elsewhere. While Newsom’s advisers comprise the dominant campaign team in California, they have little experience with the politics of conservative America.

Newsom and his people swear he’s not going to challenge President Joe Biden in 2024. But the PAC play reads like a classic bid to win friends and allies ahead of a future run.

“I think that he’s planning a campaign in the event that President Biden plans not to run for reelection,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in an interview, and “if he’s out there helping Democrats, he’s building a reserve of goodwill that would come in handy in 2028.”

Since defeating a recall effort in 2021, the governor has shifted his gaze away from California without suffering political consequences. He barely ran a reelection campaign last year and still won 60 percent of the vote.

Back home, Democrats are viewing this as a classic Newsom move. The governor is known to spend hours a day absorbing far-right media and often laments conservatives’ ability to dominate the narrative. “Somehow, Democrats are constantly on the defense,” he wrote in a recent campaign email. “… That has to end. We have to flip the ‘red state freedom’ narrative on its head.”

A cash infusion could certainly buoy Democrats fighting uphill battles in conservative states or competitive races in purple areas. Newsom kicked off the endeavor with his own leftover campaign cash and is soliciting donations, money that could go a long way for candidates in states and down-ballot races who have otherwise been starved of resources.

“Everyone needs to be doing this,” said David Pepper, a former chair of the Ohio Democratic Party. “We’ve seen the consequence when only one side is engaging in these states — it’s a disaster.”

Chris Jones speaks to reporters with a backdrop behind him that says Chris Jones For Governor.

Chris Jones said that as an Arkansas Democrat, he’s often felt overlooked by the party, but he sees Gavin Newsom’s visit as indicative of a wider trend. | Andrew DeMillo/AP Photo

Chris Jones, a Democrat who challenged Arkansas GOP Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders last year, is among the beneficiaries of Newsom’s checkbook and attention. The California governor donated $100,000 to Jones’ campaign last year and visited him this past week.

Jones said that as an Arkansas Democrat, he’s often felt overlooked by the party, but he sees Newsom’s visit as indicative of a wider trend. “We’re in a moment now where national Democrats are saying, ‘wait a minute, we have to look beyond the coasts and lean into the entire country,’” he said.

National Democrats are also backing the effort. Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison in a statement said that he’s “glad to see Governor Newsman making the case about what we’ve accomplished, what our values are, and the clear contrast with MAGA Republicans.”

Newsom has been known to use his donor list to boost Democrats and lambast his enemies, sending out fundraising emails with subject lines like “Indiana” or “DeSantis and Abbott,” referring to the Florida and Texas governors. The new campaign website promotes the importance of preserving democracy and American values, but under the “threats” section, Newsom lists DeSantis, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Newsom’s brand of political prodding, though popular among his progressive devotees, may not be the messaging red-state Democrats are looking for. It’s a problem Angle, the Texas organizer, has seen before. Democrats there need to show the “the contrast between responsible mainstream Democrats and irresponsible, extreme Republicans,” he said — not “more ‘turn Texas blue’ pep rallies.”

“The resources are needed, and there is some smart money that gets spent in Texas from outside,” Angle said. “But Texans, even Democrats, resent people coming in and acting like they’re bringing fire to cavemen.”

One adviser granted anonymity to speak about the governor’s strategy said Newsom knows that his presence is not necessarily an asset for red-state Democrats who would prefer cash to appearing with a leading progressive.

“He’s self-aware enough to know where he’s helpful and not helpful,” the adviser said.

But Newsom’s penchant for seeking the spotlight, combined with the long odds of Democrats winning in the South, have seeded doubt about the plan.

“It just strikes me as a kind of a stunt,” said James Carville, a Democratic political operative with deep experience in the South. “We’re not going to carry Oklahoma anyway, or Kentucky for that matter.”

Nathan Click, who also worked on Newsom’s gubernatorial campaigns, said it was the governor’s idea to travel outside of California to go after the GOP, noting his sizable chunk of leftover contributions. “How do you use that money for good?” he said.

For months, Newsom has called for national Democrats to go on the offensive when it comes to lightning-rod issues like gun control, abortion and LGBTQ rights. His new effort is the most concrete step in that direction. The hybrid PAC can channel money toward independent expenditure advertising, campaigns and get-out-the-vote efforts in other states.

Aside from the cash, Newsom has something red-state Democrats don’t: political security. With a Democratic supermajority in the statehouse, Newsom hasn’t been hemmed in by a need to moderate his rhetoric — and can go after Republicans without much fear of retribution.

“Personally, I wouldn’t have said the things he has said and the way he has said it,” Jones, the Arkansas candidate, said, noting that Newsom’s solid electoral footing gives him the freedom to go on the attack in ways he could not.

Randy Kelley, chair of the Alabama Democratic Party, said he welcomes Newsom’s attention. State Republicans are “still fighting the Civil War,” he said, noting the ban on critical race theory and efforts by Gov. Kay Ivey to funnel education funds toward prison construction. Republicans have controlled both chambers of the state Legislature in Alabama since 2010, and only one of its seven congressional seats is held by a Democrat. As of January, gun owners can carry concealed weapons without a permit.

Democrats there don’t know much about Newsom, Kelley said, but that doesn’t matter as much as the assistance.

“Whatever message he has, it can’t hurt Alabama,” Kelley said. “It can only help.”

( Information from politico.com was used in this report. Also if you have any problem of this article or if you need to remove this articles, please email here and we will delete this immediately. [email protected] )

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