For weeks, an anti-recall campaign ad has given Gov. Gavin Newsom credit for delivering free prekindergarten “for every California child regardless of income,” touting the effort as one way he’s bringing the state “roaring back” from the pandemic.
The governor and state Legislature have agreed to expand free education to 4 year olds, but not all children would become eligible until the fall of 2025.
The ad is just one example of how the governor and his campaign have capitalized on the voter-friendly measures in California’s flush $262.6-billion budget, continuing his habit in office of promoting plans long before the details are finalized at the state Capitol.
With an election on the horizon, the approach raises a type of political chicken-and-egg question that has dogged Newsom throughout his career and fed his critics: Did the policy or the campaign come first?
“His method of governing is joined intimately with electioneering,” said David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University who has followed Newsom’s political career. “Running for office is always at the forefront of how he runs the office.”
That characteristic, political consultants say, is what has made him a successful politician.
The governor’s use of the bully pulpit also demonstrates the powerful advantage incumbents wield over their opponents in positive economic times.
Instead of telling voters what he plans to do to improve their lives if elected, Newsom hit the road months ago to trumpet his work in the governor’s office. Newsom’s defense against the recall has been to tell voters everything he’s trying to do for them right now.
“It’s precisely what I would be advising the governor to do,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant. “There’s core constituencies that you need to placate in order to move forward with your objective, which is to get reelected.”
Newsom’s role as an elected official and his campaign against the recall have become interchangeable this year, in large part because the governor has relied on his high-profile public post to get the attention of voters.
The governor christened his budget proposal the “California Comeback” plan and, since at least early March, has repeatedly declared that the state will come “roaring back” from the COVID-19 pandemic at events organized by his office. The messaging is also the hallmark of his campaign against the recall.
Shots of Newsom in a T-shirt and jeans picking up trash appear in a political campaign ad titled “Roaring Back” and in a video the governor’s office released with his revised budget in May. The videos highlight the same budget proposals — stimulus payments, small-business assistance, housing for homeless people and universal prekindergarten.
California’s healthy budget has given Newsom an easier path than the one former Gov. Gray Davis faced. Before his recall election, Davis had publicly pegged the state’s deficit at at least $35 billion, and his approval rating among likely voters was just 21% in a poll released a few months before he was recalled.
Instead of slashing funding to key constituencies, Newsom’s biggest challenge has been deciding how to spread around a record surplus, which he originally estimated to be twice Davis’ financial shortfall. In a Public Policy Institute of California poll in May, Newsom had a 54% approval rating among likely voters.
Incumbents always get too much credit when things are good and too much blame when things are bad, said Dan Schnur, a former spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson who now teaches political science at UC Berkeley and USC. But even in tough economic times, Schnur said, incumbents still carry the advantage of being able to frame the discussion during the campaign.
“The only thing better than being an incumbent is being an incumbent with a really big budget surplus,” Schnur said.
Beyond the ads and fundraising emails, Newsom hasn’t done much official, public campaigning against the recall. After very few in-person news conferences in 2020, the governor reemerged in February with a series of events touting his work on vaccines but still didn’t address the recall for several weeks.
Although the governor now more openly discusses what he refers to as a “partisan” effort to oust him pushed by former President Trump’s acolytes, his events have been run through his public office with a strict focus on his budget and work at the state Capitol.
The governor’s purposeful lack of attention on the recall has helped deprive his opponents of airtime as he gave away millions of tax dollars’ worth of cash prizes in California’s vaccine lottery, announced the reopening of the state and dominated headlines with his plans to allocate the state budget and windfall.
Newsom has kept a relatively low profile over the last month as his staff members continue to work out final details of a looming budget agreement with the Legislature.
But an invitation to join President Biden in a conversation with governors from other Western states about wildfires brought national publicity for Newsom, who took a dig at Trump and implored people to “believe your own damn eyes” on climate change.
The governor toured the state on Wednesday to announce $1.1 billion in his budget for “Clean California,” which he described as a program to increase funding for litter abatement at news conferences organized by his public office in Richmond, Fresno and Los Angeles.
“Californians want to see their governor doing the job,” said Nathan Click, a spokesman for Newsom’s political campaign against the recall. “Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s what people expect.”
As he tells people he’s on the job, the governor has also gotten ahead of his team’s work in Sacramento.
Newsom promoted his ongoing efforts around Project Homekey, a program in which the state secures empty hotels to house homeless people, and a plan to spend $12 billion in new funding to address homelessness at a news conference last month. The governor and the Legislature have still not provided details in a bill describing exactly how all of that budget allocation would be spent.
While Newsom’s campaign has been heralding a prekindergarten expansion in ads for nearly a month, a budget bill detailing the changes has not come up for a vote yet at the Capitol. The Legislature and Newsom have still not reached a final budget agreement, in part because of all of the new programs the governor proposed in May.
Despite Newsom‘s tendency to announce policies before he’s dotted his I’s and crossed his Ts and to overhype his achievements, Schnur said it might not make a difference.
Voters read headlines and often don’t pay attention to details, and there are no other viable candidates running to replace Newsom, he said
“Which is why he’s running against Trump,” Schnur said.
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