OAKLAND — California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who spent his first year in office being a thorn in President Donald Trump’s side, is now a breakout star in the president’s reelection campaign.
That puts Newsom, a Democrat in the bluest of blue states, in a tough spot. As governor of a state hit hard and early by the coronavirus, he wants to curry favor to get medical and other supplies for his state. But he’s also a governor who has spent the past year elevating his national profile and appears on a list of possible 2024 Democratic presidential contenders.
Newsom and his supporters say there are only upsides for the new bromance. But in a hyperpartisan political environment, Newsom is also raising eyebrows for the extent to which he now refuses to say anything critical of the president’s handling of the crisis.
“A month ago, Gavin Newsom was the king of anti-Trump — he was the leading foil for Trump — and now they’re bros,“ said veteran California political analyst David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University.
That might seem like a strange place for a Democrat to end up, McCuan said, but with that relationship also comes “the opportunity for him to be in the national conversation — which is not where he was two months ago.“
With the 2020 election just six months away — and Newsom, a former Kamala Harris backer, on Thursday still sidestepping a formal endorsement of Joe Biden — the old adage that “politics makes strange bedfellows” doesn’t begin to capture the recent Trump reelection campaign ad from the Republican National Committee.
The spot, highlighting the president’s response in the Covid-19 crises, opens with Trump intoning, “I don’t care who it is — I’ll work with anybody if I feel I can help the American people, and the American worker.” Cue the closeup on Newsom, who delivers glowing testimony from his gubernatorial podium: “He sent everything that I could have hoped for.”
Mandi Merritt, a spokesperson for the RNC, said Newsom’s appearance in their spot demonstrates how “President Trump’s unprecedented leadership has earned bipartisan praise, and for good reason.”
With the Covid-19 outbreak, Newsom’s past contentious relationship with Trump as head of the “State of Resistance“ — a drama played out between the two in sharp soundbites on late night and cable TV, in major addresses and in countless Trump campaign rallies — has suddenly melted into a mutual admiration society.
Some Democratic governors have continued confronting Trump during the crisis. After Trump urged activists Friday on Twitter to “LIBERATE” Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia from stay-at-home orders, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the tweets were “unhinged rantings” and that “the president is fomenting domestic rebellion.” Newsom, who entered a three-state West Coast pact with Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on a coordinated reopening approach, did not address the president’s statements.
Other Democratic governors in states struggling to keep up with the spread of the virus, some far worse off than California, have also gone out of their way to avoid insulting the president — and even offer praise. But none have gone as far as Newsom — nor gotten the same reaction from the president.
Trump, in recent weeks, has lavished praise almost daily on the photogenic younger governor, pointing to him as the epitome of good governance, and even describing him last week as a “friend of mine for a long time.”
Newsom, meanwhile, has stubbornly refused to take the bait and dump on Trump when asked to comment on the president’s more outlandish pronouncements, like his recent assertion that he has “total authority“ to decide when states will start to open back up.
“I’m not going there,’’ Newsom told reporters at a press conference this week. “We just want to get stuff done in the state of California — for 40 million Americans in California, specifically.“
The old Newsom might have blasted Trump for sending California 170 ventilators from the national stockpile that didn’t work. But Newsom last month said he wasn’t “pointing fingers” and focused instead on how Bloom Energy in Sunnyvale was working overtime to refurbish the machines.
Even as his talking points about Trump gave the president a campaign layup, that high-road approach has won praise from longtime Democratic activists who see Newsom’s approach as being beneficial both to the state and to the governor’s political career.
“I think of the two, we have one real leader who knows how to do the right thing for the people he represents,’’ said Amy Everitt, a seasoned campaign veteran who formerly headed NARAL Pro-Choice California and now leads the nonprofit Golden State Opportunity. “I’m grateful to have a real leader running California right now — because the politics of the potty don’t help anybody.”
Newsom’s unlikely BFF status with Trump has helped him secure significant federal resources to tackle the public health crisis, some longtime politics watchers say.
Newsom, as a Democrat who leads a state with theworld’s fifth-largest economy, has procured from the Republican White House a range of critical tools, including the Navy hospital ship Mercy now docked off Los Angeles, more ventilators and personal protective equipment for hospitals. And, at the same time, he’s getting consistent praise from the president for managing to keeping infection and mortality ratessurprisingly low compared with pandemic-battered states like New York, New Jersey and Louisiana.
Those results — preceded by one of the nation‘s first orders to shut down nonessential businesses — have boosted the California governor’s poll numbers, pushing his popularity to astronomical highs. Newsom was ranked No. 1 among the nation’s governors in job approval, with an 83 percent approval rating, according to FiveThirtyEight, more than double his support level from pre-pandemic days.
Trump’s repeated mentions of the governor are also likely having an effect on Newsom’s name recognition, introducing him to millions of voters in the Rust Belt, the South and on the Eastern Seaboard, where he was an unknown. Suddenly, he’s a hot item on “The Ellen Degeneres Show,” “The View,” late night talk shows and cable news — as well as on Instagram sessions with celebrities like The Rock. He’s used the exposure as an opportunity to talk up his state’s progress and push his message: stay the course.
“Gavin Newsom’s best strategy for remaining on the national stage is the reelection of Donald Trump,“ McCuan said.
“He is the only one who could — realpolitik — open up a new front against Donald Trump. And that front is as a friend, not a foe,“ he adds. “It’s like Nixon going to China.”
Still, some Democrats are shaking their heads at the surreal turn of events — and a few people are grumbling that Newsom’s praise could help the president stay in the White House.
Gil Duran, who was a press secretary for former Gov. Jerry Brown, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, wondered in a column in the Sacramento Bee if Newsom’s praise “will help re-elect” Trump.
“The governor’s desire to sidestep partisan politics during the COVID-19 crisis is admirable. Lives are at stake,” Duran, the paper’s opinion editor, wrote in the column. “But is his effusive praise for Trump playing right into the Republican’s 2020 re-election strategy?”
On the other hand, plenty of political observers, from both sides of the political spectrum, say there may be little to no negative political consequences for the governor. Certainly he’s not helping Trump win the state, even if the praise “will cause some progressive grumbling,” said Jack Pitney, once the acting director of research with the Republican National Committee.
“Biden will carry California — no matter what Newsom says,” said Pitney, now a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.
Some say even if a handful of Democrats resent Newsom for praising the Republican president in an election year, the governor may not care. He’s never been one for worrying about upsetting other elements of his party.
“Gavin is still blamed by John Kerry for his loss“ in the 2004 presidential election, veteran strategist Mike Madrid said, referring to the then-San Francisco mayor‘s decision to open up City Hall for same-sex marriages.
“He’s not new to this and probably doesn’t much care,’’ said Madrid, an adviser to the Lincoln Project, a group of moderate “Never Trump” Republicans. “Outside California, there may be an ideological base that might hold it against him, [but] these are a small group of ungettable voters that aren’t opinion leaders anyway.”