Two days after launching his re-election campaign, Governor Gavin Newsom replaced his initial upbeat message on California with a dire warning that his most prominent Republican opponent “stands with Donald Trump” and “wants to roll back the right to abortion”.
It’s a pivot to a familiar strategy for the Democratic governor.
Newsom released the new 30-second ad on Wednesday, a day after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a leaked draft opinion that, if signed by five justices, would nullify existing federal legal protections. for women wishing to have an abortion. The news quickly catapulted reproductive rights to the top of the list of key issues in midterm elections across the country and Newsom’s re-election campaign for a second and final four-year term.
It also puts the state and its Democratic leader back in the national spotlight, building on the same political blueprint he used to successfully fend off recall — a carefully crafted, issues-driven campaign for Californians who feel their beliefs are under attack from ultra-conservative forces.
The ad singles out Newsom’s chief GOP opponent, State Sen. Brian Dahle (R-Bieber), in a bid to quickly label him an anti-abortion extremist in a state that strongly favors abortion rights . It’s a strategy that could effectively end the race before it even begins.
“It was more than a leaked Supreme Court memo,” said Republican campaign consultant Matt Rexroad. “It was a political opportunity and the governor is going for it.”
A repeal of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision would shift power to states over abortion policy. As other states move to limit access and legal protections for abortion services, Newsom and leaders of the California Legislative Assembly immediately unveiled a state constitutional amendment plan during the November ballot asking voters to ensure continued access to abortion services.
This could provide major political benefits to Democratic candidates in California and cause problems for Republicans, said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California.
The nonpartisan San Francisco think tank has been asking likely voters for their thoughts on the overturned Roe v. Wade decision since 2005 and “that’s what we would call a settled question,” he said. “General opinion has been consistently and overwhelmingly against the idea of upsetting Roe against Wade.”
More than three-quarters of likely California voters said in an April PPIC poll that they oppose ending federal abortion protections, including 90% of Democrats, 76% of unaffiliated independents and 51% of republicans. Opposition was also high among several demographic groups that typically vote in large numbers in midterm elections, such as older and affluent voters.
“That could definitely be an issue that could very well boost turnout in this election,” Baldassare said, noting that it could also encourage young people with strong opinions on the subject to vote. “It’s the kind of issue candidates can and will use to frame an election, which they can do in California with great confidence.”
Newsom’s push to highlight abortion could raise the issue to a level of prominence not seen in a California governor’s race since 1998, when Democrat Gray Davis made it a key part of his successful campaign. against his staunch anti-abortion opponent, Republican Dan Lungren.
In a recent interview, Dahle said he opposes abortion but understands it will remain legal in California due to the Democratic majority in the Legislature. He said he supports state policies advocating contraception and sex education.
“Newsom will probably try to portray me as crazy, but I’m not crazy in this area,” Dahle said last week when asked for his views on abortion.
With more than $25 million in campaign money compared to less than $500,000 reported by Dahle last month, Newsom’s re-election is unlikely to hinge on his ability to capitalize on a contentious issue troubling California voters. But the governor has a history of backing progressive causes and eye-catching initiatives that put him at the forefront of national political debates.
The renewed fight for abortion rights gives Newsom a chance to return to the same political game plan that has worked for him in the past – moving the campaign away from issues where he has appeared vulnerable, such as homelessness and crime. , to focus instead on what is perceived as a conservative threat.
“This will be a major issue in his campaign for re-election,” said Sean Clegg, Newsom’s senior political strategist. “This is the question that in many ways defines the stakes for the country and the choices between these two parties. He will lead the fight, not only for his re-election, but also for the protection of abortion and reproductive rights.
Newsom was elected in 2018 campaigning for progressive causes such as universal health care and portraying himself as the antithesis of then-President Trump during turbulent political times in the country.
He framed September’s recall election as a dangerous attempt by right-wing conservatives to remove him from office during some of the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The emergence of conservative radio host Larry Elder as the main replacement candidate has allowed Newsom and his team to turn to political offense, raising fears that a GOP governor could reverse the cautious approach. of California vis-à-vis COVID-19.
Comparing California’s public health program to what was happening in more politically conservative states, the governor focused on vaccines and what he claimed were the deadly consequences of the election. of Elder.
This strategy gave Newsom something to contend with instead of being judged primarily on his own record.
“His playbook is, you know, ‘I’ve won multiple times running this game on third down and I’m going to run it again and that’s just a different problem,'” Rexroad said.
Jodi Hicks, executive director of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, said her organization and state leaders have been working for months on ways to counter any efforts to end federal protections for women seeking abortions. She said that while politics does not drive their work, protecting women’s right to choose is a “winning message” that will boost voter turnout.
“It’s important when California says loud and clear to people across the country that we’re here for you and we’re that beacon of hope,” Hicks said.
But others aren’t quite so certain that reproductive rights will remain a top priority for state voters in the months ahead.
Tim Rosales, a Republican campaign consultant, said it’s important to remember that the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to take action. While a ballot measure to change the California Constitution will keep the issue “front and center for longer,” there is no real threat that anything will change for the people of the Golden State if the Upper Court removes federal protections against abortion.
“We are still light years away from November and we don’t yet know what the political impact will be,” he said.
Rosales, who worked as campaign manager for Newsom’s GOP opponent John Cox during the 2018 gubernatorial campaign, had no doubt the governor and his team would benefit from the controversy. “They are very politically savvy and they understand how to use something like this and take advantage of these situations,” he said.
But reproductive rights could affect more than Newsom’s re-election as governor. Presenting California as a “paradise” for women from other states who seek abortion services raises the governor’s profile as a future presidential candidate, said Mike Madrid, a Republican political strategist.
“It’s going to get a lot of attention, a lot of attention,” Madrid said. “He will be extremely popular among grassroots Democratic voters, especially women.”
At a press conference in Los Angeles on Wednesday that began minutes after the new campaign ad was released, an excited Newsom warned ‘don’t think for a second that’s where they stop’ .
“They are taking away rights that have been asserted over and over again and are well established,” he said. “They take them away. Wake up, America. Wake up with who you elect.
Newsom also chastised his political party, calling on National Democrats not to launch a more disciplined counteroffensive against the far right. He said California should serve as a shining light and pledged to fight for people across state lines.
“I hope people hold these elected officials accountable and I hope they consider the positions of those they support or oppose in this election,” Newsom said.
Times writer Phil Willon contributed to this report.
Los Angeles Times