Never let a crisis go to waste are words to live by if you are California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is cruising to re-election less than a year after beating a recall effort. Confident after being resurrected politically, Newsom is jumping into the void created by a president disinclined to take the fight to the opposition, and a Democratic Party afraid of its own shadow.
Newsom ran a cheeky ad on Fox News outlets in Florida, daring residents of the Republican-led state to “join the fight, or join us in California, where we still believe in freedom.”
A governor making a direct appeal to the voters of another state is highly unusual, and at first blush, the 30-second ad looks like Newsom is spoiling for a potential 2024 matchup against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose policies “banning books, making it harder to vote, restricting speech in classrooms, even criminalizing women and doctors,” in Newsom’s recounting, are setting the Republican agenda.
“Don’t let them take your freedom,” Newsom implores, standing outside in the California sun, casually dressed and citing the “freedom of speech, freedom to choose, freedom from hate, and the freedom to love,” all under attack in America by a radicalized Republican Party.
Democrats need to get out of their defensive crouch and take the fight to the Republicans. Who better to do it than Newsom, governor of a state that has the fifth-largest economy in the world? He has a platform, and he has been frustrated for some time over his party’s timidity in confronting the radicalization of the Republican Party, epitomized in the recent string of extreme Supreme Court rulings on abortion, guns, and climate.
Taking on the cultural issues is a good message for Newsom, and “he delivers it well,” says Jack Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont-McKenna College. “He’s doing what he wants to do, and that’s rallying the Democrats.”
Maybe there are some hurt feelings in the White House. Vice President Kamala Harris may feel preempted by her fellow Californian Newsom, a friend who has now elevated himself as a rival. President Joe Biden feels that he’s not getting proper deference within his party for what he’s accomplished. He’s right about that, but this is a fight with multiple fronts and Newsom has answered the call.
And as far as intra-party skirmishes go, there’s no downside for Newsom.
“He’ll probably score some points,” says Pitney. “It doesn’t hurt DeSantis. He probably likes it, someone from California coming into his state. And it establishes Newsom as back-up material if Biden doesn’t run and Harris falters.”
That’s not to say Newsom hasn’t shot himself in the foot, repeatedly, by coming off as an out-of-touch elitist—if not a total hypocrite—as he did in 2020 when he attended a maskless party at an ultra-exclusive restaurant for a major Democratic donor in violation of his own guidelines, or more recently, when he vacationed in Montana despite a California ban on state-funded travel to the state. If you’re going to walk into a showdown with Republicans, it’s best not to hand your adversaries a pile of ammunition.
Democrats are demoralized by the mountain of bad news that threatens to sink their chances in the midterms. They are unhappy about the lackluster stewardship of their party coming from the White House, but at the same time recognize that Biden has a lot to deal with and inspirational messaging is not his strong suit. Other people in the party will have to fill the vacuum and make the case.
Newsom took the fight to DeSantis, a preview of what Democrats must do if they’re to refocus the midterms away from Biden’s low approval rating to the threat posed by a radical Republican party gaining more power.
“Gavin’s ad is a helpful test case in how we can reframe this election,” says Simon Rosenberg, founder of New Democrat Network (NDN). “The radicalization of the Republican Party is the most important issue in this election. We can now see the world they want us to live in—guns everywhere, 10-year-olds forced to give birth, an erosion of democracy. It’s not any one thing—and Joe Biden doesn’t need to do everything in the Democratic Party.”
Recent Supreme Court rulings on abortion, guns, and climate are out-of-touch with modern life and constitutionally questionable. It would be political malpractice if the Democrats didn’t run on the freedoms Americans are losing under Republican rule. “If I were advising the Democrats,” says Pitney, “We need a Democratic Congress to check an out-of-control Supreme Court.”
Pitney worked in Republican politics in Washington before he became an academic, and he cites Republicans scoring political points by decrying the Supreme Court’s landmark Miranda decision for going too far with rights for criminal defendants. The 1966 ruling requires law enforcement to inform anyone being detained of their constitutional rights, including the right to remain silent and to have an attorney. It coincided with an increase in the crime rate, and though there was no evidence to connect the two, that didn’t stop Republicans from running against an out-of-control liberal Supreme Court as soft on crime.
“They should absolutely run on the court. They would have the high ground. People like checks and balances, and the courts are out of control,” Pitney told The Daily Beast.
Conservative commentator Bill Kristol recently tweeted: “Republicans did well running against the Supreme Court for decades, claiming (with some truth) the Court was imposing their liberal policy views on the country. Running against the extremist Alito-Thomas Court wouldn’t be crazy.”
Now’s the time to turn the tables on the GOP and run against un-elected partisans in robes that are taking away our freedoms.
Newsom has nothing to lose and everything to gain, which is a powerful perch for any politician. For Democrats worried about the lack of a bench as a generation of leaders in Washington ages out, Newsom has cracked open the door for others to join him in making an aggressive case for the cultural values their party stands for, and to convey an urgency that isn’t coming from Washington.