2022 midterms

What a Difference a Year Has Made for Gavin Newsom

Yep, things are looking up for the once-embattled California governor. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

There are ten competitive gubernatorial races this year, according to the Cook Political Report, with maybe two or three others that could heat up. There is nothing, however, remotely competitive about the contest to govern the largest state: California. According to a new survey from Berkeley IGS/LA Times, incumbent Democrat Gavin Newsom leads Northern California Republican state senator Brian Dahle by a 55-31 margin among likely voters. The same poll gives Newsom a job-approval ratio of 53-42. He is probably on track to win by something approaching the 62-38 margin he commanded in 2018 when soundly defeating Republican John Cox (the highest percentage of the vote for any California Democratic gubernatorial candidate). In the nonpartisan top-two primary in June that set up this contest, Newsom won 56 percent of the vote to Dahle’s 18 percent.

Newsom currently has $24 million in cash on hand for the final kick of his reelection campaign, the Los Angeles Times reports. Dahle has $300,000, which, in a state as large and expensive as California, is sofa-cushion money. Even if a Republican wave does hit American politics in November, it’s not going to so much as dampen the cuffs of Newsom’s pants.

That certainly represents a major improvement in the political climate for Newsom over the past year. Last August, he was battling a recall campaign that briefly looked as though it might eject the governor in favor of a Republican “replacement candidate” like right-wing radio gabber Larry Elder. Newsom was struggling against multiple misfortunes: widespread unhappiness with his restrictive COVID policies and their impact on schools and small businesses; a blunder by his lieutenant governor, who wound up scheduling the recall election during a Delta variant–fueled COVID resurgence; and an even greater blunder by Newsom himself in attending a donor’s indoor birthday dinner maskless in one of the world’s poshest restaurants, violating his own policies.

Also as late as last August, one statewide poll showed Newsom losing the recall fight by an 11-point margin, but that seemed to kick the campaign to fight the recall into high gear. Newsom and his surrogates (virtually every major Democrat in and beyond California) treated the recall and the mostly Republican replacement candidates as a very un-Californian MAGA assault on a famously progressive state. Aided by vast financial resources, a simple message (all voters had to do was check one box “no” and then mail the ballot in a postage-prepaid envelope), and a dawning awareness of would-be governor Elder’s extremism, Newsom won by almost exactly the same margin as in his initial election in 2018.

One of the reasons California Republicans became so excited about the recall drive is that they understood it might be a unique opportunity to win a major statewide election in California; they’ve been shut out of statewide office since 2010 and out of the governorship since 2006. With the recall’s dismal failure, the morale of Golden State Republicans collapsed. None of the prominent politicians who eagerly sought the governorship via the recall-replacement route chose to run in the ordinary election of 2022. Instead, California Republicans have focused their attention and money on down-ballot races, particularly the fight to hang on to or even expand the U.S. House gains they made in 2020.

So Newsom is able to coast and even cut a few joyous capers, like the ad he ran on Fox News in Florida during Independence Day weekend baiting his counterpart Ron DeSantis:

That gambit reignited the perennial speculation over a Newsom 2024 presidential bid, as did a recent poll finding that Newsom runs ahead of his longtime frenemy Kamala Harris among California Democrats in a hypothetical 2024 primary, should President Biden take a pass after all. But you don’t have to think Newsom is running for president to understand his wanting to kick out the jams a bit this year. He has a supermajority in the legislature and a big budget surplus that Democrats are deploying to do all sorts of popular things, from tax refunds to a large boost in education funding to measures to make California an abortion sanctuary for besieged post-Dobbs Americans. Having passed through the valley of the shadow of political death in 2021, he is one Democrat sure to be feeling his oats when the midterm elections are over.

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What a Difference a Year Has Made for Gavin Newsom