California Democrats see Harris and Newsom colliding on road to the White House

A week before Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom beat back a recall election, Vice President Kamala Harris returned to California to rally voters to his side. United in victory for now, Democrats suspect Harris and Newsom will soon find themselves on a collision course.

The two California Democrats were molded by the “same political machine, same political family,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican California political operative, referring to the San Francisco-based team that helped jump-start their careers. A longtime Newsom adviser said that as the governor gains momentum from his win, “they could end up both wanting the same thing, which is the White House.”

Gil Duran, a former aide to Harris when she was California attorney general, said this could pose a challenge for the advisers who led both her 2020 presidential bid and Newsom’s successful campaign against the recall. Rumors of backroom negotiations brokered by the firm swirled when California Sen. Barbara Boxer announced her retirement in 2015. The seat ultimately went to Harris.

“The real question is if Newsom emerges from this recall with a lot of strength and tries to start building a narrative toward a presidential run of his own, you get to a crossroads where it’s Kamala and Newsom,” Duran said. “Which client do you pick?”

Whether Harris would turn to Bearstar Strategies to run her next presidential bid is an open question.The firm is the latest iteration of the powerhouse California Democratic campaign shop formerly known as SCN Strategies, and later SCRB Strategies, known for securing victories on local and statewide tickets. Hillary Clinton’s California primary victory over then-Sen. Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race is credited to the firm’s founder, who also led her campaign in Texas and North Carolina.

The team was in attendance for Harris’s San Leandro rally with Newsom, where the vice president snapped pictures with former staffers away from the press. This person said the moment was all for show.

“They are persona non grata with Kamala,” one Democratic strategist said. “They are not welcomed or allowed to communicate with the vice president in any meaningful way.”

Photos circulated from the event showing the consultants and Harris chatting and smiling, but he said this wasn’t an accurate depiction of the relationship. “That’s not the reality,” he said. “That was for Instagram.”

Last week, in Oakland, California, Harris took to the stage before some 200 supporters urging voters to reject the recall motion. President Joe Biden campaigned for Newsom the day before the election.

Much has changed since Harris launched her presidential bid 12 miles away in 2019 before 20,000 people — not least, a bruising first eight months in office.

Before teaming up with Biden, Californians said they saw Harris as risk-averse
and pointed to her stance on healthcare during the race. Her prosecutorial skills were previously her selling point, showing up in confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions and Brett Kavanaugh or on the debate stage with Biden, but she sought to distance herself from her years as a prosecutor amid a national reckoning on law enforcement and race.

Some blamed her advisers. The firm’s clients, with an eye on the national stage, took “politically cautious” stands, a San Francisco Democrat said.

“That’s a trait shared by Newsom and Kamala, and that’s a trait that their consultants push,” this person argued, stating that Newsom’s agenda-setting moves on same-sex marriage, or executions, while ground-breaking, were few.

It’s the effect of being guided by a famed opposition researcher, Bearstar Strategies founder Averill “Ace” Smith, who puts opponents on edge simply by entering the room , the San Francisco Democrat said.

“His job is to find faults in people and to punish and ruin them for it,” this person said. “He’s going to give you advice to knock off all the edges.”

One Los Angeles operative said that Harris, as a black and South Asian woman, faces a level of scrutiny and pushback that her counterpart avoids. “Because of who Gavin is, he can take more chances,” he argued.

While Harris remains the heir apparent to succeed Biden in leading a future Democratic ticket, whether that is in 2024 or beyond, sources in California politics wondered how she would advance her case for the top slot.

“It will be fascinating to see if Kamala can put together the kind of coalition and campaign and finally build an apparatus that can win,” said another California Democrat.

Her presidential run “burned really hot for a very short amount of time,” he added. “I don’t know where you go to correct that.”

By Wednesday, Newsom got what he wanted, a sweeping victory that Biden said cemented his and the governor’s mandates.

Political strategists credited Newsom’s political muscle for engineering an early coup by boxing out other prominent Democrats from the ballot.

This meant pushing aside the “panicky agitations” of concerned Democrats who wanted a viable second-option candidate, Duran said. “You had Chicken Littles saying, ‘We’ve got to have a Democrat on the ballot, just in case,’ and the Bearstar team very wisely said no.”

Chris Lehman, a political adviser to NextGen Policy, an advocacy group founded by billionaire environmental activist and former presidential primary candidate Tom Steyer, said the race was over when the candidate filing deadline passed and no credible Democrat filed to replace Newsom. “That’s when I, as a Democrat, started popping my champagne cork,” he said.

This “high risk, high reward” tactic, as a strategist called it, came into its own as Newsom’s most prominent rival began gaining steam.

With conservative radio host Larry Elder surging ahead of other recall candidates, Newsom succeeded in turning the race from a referendum on his leadership over the last 18 months into a head-to-head battle, posing the question: Did California’s deep-blue voters want a MAGA-aligned governor?

About one-quarter of signatories to the recall petition were registered Democrats, a feat that spooked party officials.

Frustrating voters was a willingness some saw in Newsom to breach his own COVID-19 rules, even as Californians struggled under strict lockdowns.

According to a pre-election poll from the Los Angeles Times and the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, 56% of voters agreed with the statement that “through his own actions, Newsom has demonstrated that the strict policies and behaviors that he wants others to follow during the pandemic don’t apply to him.”

A video shared to Instagram by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, California’s “first partner” and Newsom’s wife, seemed to capture the essence of this complaint. Wagging her finger at the camera, Jennifer Siebel Newsom instructed Californians to conserve water, to turn the tap off while brushing their teeth, and wait to run the dishwasher until full. But viewers spied a second dishwasher, undercutting the water conservation message she was pushing.

“[Newsom], in her two-dishwasher home, is telling people who are living three families to home, with homeless people out in the street, ‘Don’t use your dishwasher,’” one Sacramento Democrat said. “The theme of that was just, ‘Wow, these people, they’re so out of touch.’”

Parents grew irate on learning that Newsom’s children were back in their private school classrooms while public schools stayed shuttered.

“I think any one of [his advisers] would have thrown their body under the wheels of the governor’s SUV to keep him from going to French Laundry that night,” Duran said, pointing to the evening that effectively lit a match under the recall effort. While the outdoor, three-walled setting where Newsom was seen dining followed the letter of the state’s coronavirus rules, it flouted the spirit, for which the governor later apologized.

Newsom shifted his strategy, advocating for reopening schools and supporting businesses, a pivot that Joe Rodota, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s policy chief during his run for California governor in 2003, said made the challenge of countering the Democrat more difficult.

Newsom leaned into statewide concerns around the coronavirus and touted his vaccine mandate for health and school workers. In a campaign advertisement, the governor argued the race was “a matter of life and death ,” taking aim at Elder’s “deadly conspiracies” that he said threatened school closures.

The downside to capitalizing on Elder as a foil, one strategist said, was that Newsom’s team “never really sold Gavin.”

Californians saw the “same thing we’ve been seeing since 2016,” this person said — a referendum on MAGA politics. “If Democrats can only run against Trump, what are we for?”