How strong a politician is Gavin Newsom, really?

How strong, politically, is Gavin Newsom?

On paper, the California governor looks invincible. After serving two terms as lieutenant governor he easily won the governor’s office in 2018, easily defeated a recall attempt in 2021 and easily won reelection in 2022. He has a fundraising record like a Wall Street bubble and he looks like he was sent from central casting to play a fast-rising politician.

But you don’t play this game on paper, as Newsom’s awkward spring break trip to four Republican-led Southern states made clear. He brought along his photogenic family and a brand-new PAC with $10 million in it to spread around and make friends in local politics. Still, not everyone appreciated the governor’s style.

“Texans, even Democrats, resent people coming in and acting like they’re bringing fire to cavemen,” said Texas progressive organizer Matt Angle, as reported by Lara Korte and Jeremy B. White in a story for Politico headlined, “Red state Democrats have some advice for Gavin Newsom.”

That echoes similar thoughts recently expressed by former Obama advisor David Axelrod. “I would dial down the moralizing about other people’s lack of courage,” he cautioned Newsom in remarks to the Los Angeles Times.

Although California Republicans have had success on the national stage — Orange County’s Richard Nixon was on the national ticket in five out of six presidential elections between 1952 and 1972, and Hollywood’s Ronald Reagan moved on from the California governor’s office to win the White House twice — California Democrats have struggled. Former Gov. Jerry Brown tried three times to win the Democratic nomination for president and couldn’t get there, and before Kamala Harris secured the one vote she needed to become the vice presidential nominee, she had so little support that she dropped out of the 2020 race two months before caucusing and primary voting even began.

Will Newsom have better results if, as seems obvious, he runs for president at the first opportunity?

A close look reveals that Newsom’s success in winning elections has been greatly assisted by factors that are unique to California.

In an interview last September with then-Senate Republican leader Scott Wilk, Fox40 News journalist Nikki Laurenzo cited a poll showing that “a majority of Californians think the state is going in the wrong direction,” then added, “but they clearly aren’t holding the governor accountable for that. Why do you think that is?”

Wilk answered by saying a “historic opportunity” to remove Newsom in the recall election was lost when conservative author and radio host Larry Elder got into the race. Wilk said it was his opinion that Elder wasn’t in it to win, but to “build his brand and to sign up more conservative radio stations so he could make more money.” The Senate Republican leader asserted that “all the entities that were involved” would agree that “up until the time Larry Elder got in, the governor was behind” in the recall election.

That gives you a pretty good idea of the insular politics in the California Republican Party. Outsiders are unwelcome, even if they lead in the polls and raise $13 million in five weeks, as Elder did. An L.A. Times columnist called Elder “the Black face of white supremacy” and a masked activist threw an egg at his head, and that was a warmer reception than he received from the Republican Party.

Although the party could have raised and spent money on an aggressive “Yes on question 1” campaign to recall Newsom, it did not. Meanwhile, the candidates seeking to replace the governor in the recall had to comply with strict limits on campaign contributions, but Newsom himself was exempt from those constraints — the target of a recall is considered a ballot measure and donations are unlimited. So the governor was able to raise more than $70 million to fight off the effort to recall him from office. It probably helped his fundraising effort that at the time he had emergency powers to close entire sectors of the economy at will, and also that he would be signing or vetoing bills after the polls closed.

In addition to the Republican Party’s unwillingness to participate and the lopsided fundraising rules, Newsom caught an unexpected break when Texas enacted an anti-abortion law. As Californians were already voting by mail in the recall election, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would not block the law from going into effect. That was alarming news to many Californians. The issue of abortion rights quickly overshadowed other issues, to Newsom’s advantage.

These conditions will not be repeated. By 2024, state laws on abortion will likely reflect nuanced public opinion in each of those states, and strident California rhetoric won’t necessarily resonate. Newsom will have the same campaign contribution limits as his rivals, and the COVID emergency won’t be around to enhance the fundraising shakedown.

Something else that won’t be repeated: In 2022, Newsom ran for re-election against a Republican who barely campaigned. That won’t happen again.

Newsom’s toughest election for governor may have been the primary in 2018, and there, too, unique California factors contributed to his eventual victory.

California’s top-two primary, in which all candidates are on one ballot regardless of party and the top two vote-getters face each other in the general election, creates opportunities for manipulation of the results. With polls showing former L.A. mayor and fellow Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa battling Republican businessman John Cox for the second spot on the ballot, Team Newsom paid for TV ads that “attacked” Cox by publicizing his positions in a way that appealed to Republican voters. Cox finished second in the primary, keeping Villaraigosa off the November ballot, and then Newsom cruised to victory.

That won’t be repeated in the presidential race. There’s no “top two” primary for president; each party controls its own primary election.

It remains to be seen whether Newsom will survive the hot glare of national politics. He’ll have to debate his rivals, battle for his party’s nomination, and defend his record in California. And for the first time, he’ll have to do it without the controlled conditions of one-party dominance.

Write and follow her on Twitter @Susan_Shelley