Gavin Newsom’s decisive victory in the recall election was a big accomplishment for the governor. It also all but ensures that he will be re-elected in 2022. So all things considered, it has been a pretty good few days for Newsom.
The question now is: What’s next?
Newsom has been an extremely successful politician enjoying a quarter century career that took him from being the youngest member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the mid 1990s to becoming governor of California. Along the way he has never lost an election. That is pretty impressive by any measure, but the road ahead is more complicated.
If Newsom is re-elected in 2022, as most expect he will be, he will not be eligible to run for another term as governor. The next logical thing would be to run for president, but that road is blocked.
If a Californian is the Democratic nominee for president in either 2024 or 2028, it will be Kamala Harris. For Newsom to take on his longtime political ally, who also happens to be the vice president of the United States, it would be an extremely risky strategy and more likely a big mistake. Even if, for some reason Harris doesn’t run, it is not obvious Newsom, as a white man leading an increasingly diverse party, would have an easy road to the presidency.
Nonetheless, Newsom, because of his political acumen, record and connections, will be in a formidable position. He could become a cabinet secretary or an ambassador to an important European country. Newsom could do well in a European capital like Paris or Vienna. Based on my conversations with diplomats and journalists there a few years ago, Newsom would certainly be an improvement over the last San Franciscan to be ambassador to Austria.
Alternately, Newsom could remain in California and enjoy a long semi-retirement as a fundraiser and eminence not so grise for the Democratic Party, while perhaps teaching, sitting on a few corporate boards and maybe even dabbling in the business sector again.
All of these would be respectable ways for Newsom to spend his years after serving as governor, but there is one more intriguing possibility. It is a longshot, but worth considering, one that involves a bit of political hardball.
A lot of things would have to fall into place, but there is a scenario that would allow Newsom to remain a very high level elected official while consolidating his influence over the Democratic Party in the state. Newsom is already in a strong position as Attorney General Rob Bonta, Secretary of State Shirley Weber and California’s junior U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla are his appointees. That is a good base of support and power, but it doesn’t yet get Newsom anywhere.
If the cards fall Newsom’s way, after he gets re-elected in 2022, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who will turn 90 in 2023, either leaves the Senate or decides not to seek reelection. The actuarial reality is that Feinstein may not finish her term. If something happens to her, Newsom will be able to pick her replacement. This is one reason Democrats were so focused on defeating the recall. On the other hand, if Feinstein’s health holds up, but she chooses not to run for re-election, the seat will be open.
As things stand now, Newsom will be under pressure to appoint a Black woman to the Senate if there is a vacancy, as he was before choosing Padilla earlier this year. There are several strong candidates who he could appoint, including Karen Bass, London Breed and Weber. If Newsom appoints or supports a Black woman for the race for an open seat, there will be one more powerful politician who owes him, but he will still be out of the politics game.
Another option would be for Newsom to appoint himself to the Senate if that seat becomes vacant at the right time or simply announce his candidacy for the vacant seat. People would likely accuse him of being extremely self-serving, but he is a politician and the opportunity might be too good to pass up.
A governor appointing himself to the Senate is rare, but not unprecedented and has happened in several other states. Similarly, sitting governors have run for the Senate in California, albeit without much luck. This last happened in 1982, when Gov. Jerry Brown ran for the Senate and lost to Pete Wilson, who in turn later became governor.
If he appointed himself to fill a vacancy, Newsom would have to run for the seat in 2024, but as somebody who by then would have run and won statewide four times, defeated a recall and enjoyed the support from all the well placed statewide elected leaders he had appointed, he could win that race.
Eleni Kounalakis, the current lieutenant governor, would either have become governor after Newsom appointed himself or would be poised to become governor if Newsom got elected to the Senate seat. In either case, she would have a strong reason to support his effort. If all Newsom’s other appointees backed him, he would probably not have much trouble winning a six-year Senate term in 2024, regardless of whether it was an open seat or one to which he had just appointed himself.
One of the problems with this scenario is that Newsom would have failed to appoint a Black woman to the Senate, but he can ameliorate some of that concern by helping Bass become the first Black mayor of Los Angeles. A strong and early endorsement of Bass would help make that happen. Similarly, here in San Francisco, Newsom could support Breed, should she decide to run for Nancy Pelosi’s House seat if the speaker chooses not to seek re-election in 2022 or 2024. That would be tough, as Newsom’s relationships in his hometown are deep and complex. Yet support for Breed and Bass, as well as for Harris — along with his appointment of Weber — would be more than enough to demonstrate his support for Black women in politics.
Once he secured a full term in the Senate, Newsom would become the most powerful Californian Democrat since Phil Burton at the height of his career, or maybe ever. Newsom may choose diplomatic service or a very comfortable and long semi-retirement, but given that he has been in politics for decades, it may not be easy to simply walk away.
Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.