The threat to Roe vs. Wade enables Gov. Gavin Newsom to pivot to a familiar campaign strategy: focusing on what’s perceived as a conservative threat.
Two days after kicking off his reelection campaign, Gov. Gavin Newsom replaced his opening upbeat message about California with a dire warning that his highest-profile Republican opponent “stands with Donald Trump” and “wants to roll back abortion rights.”
It’s a pivot to a familiar strategy for the Democratic governor.
Newsom released the new 30-second ad Wednesday, one day after the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed a draft opinion was leaked that, if signed by five justices, would rescind existing federal legal protections for women seeking abortions. The news quickly catapulted reproductive rights to the top of the list of key issues in midterm elections around the country and Newsom’s reelection campaign for a second and final four-year term in office.
It also places the state and its Democratic leader back in the national spotlight, relying on the same political blueprint he used to successfully beat back the recall — a carefully crafted campaign focused on the stakes for Californians who feel their beliefs are under attack by ultra-conservative forces.
The ad singles out Newsom’s main GOP opponent, state Sen. Brian Dahle (R-Bieber), in an attempt to quickly brand him as an antiabortion 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 memo from the Supreme Court,” said Matt Rexroad, a Republican campaign consultant. “It was a political opportunity and the governor’s going for it.”
A repeal of the landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling would shift power to the states on abortion policy. While other states are moving to limit access and legal protections for abortion services, Newsom and leaders of the California Legislature immediately unveiled a plan for a state constitutional amendment on the November ballot asking voters to ensure continued access to abortion services.
Doing so could offer major political upsides for 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 their opinions on overturning the Roe vs. Wade ruling since 2005 and “it’s what we would call a settled issue,” he said. “Overall opinion has been consistently and overwhelmingly against the idea of overturning Roe vs. 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 also ran high among several demographic groups that typically vote in large numbers in midterm elections, such as older and affluent voters.
“It could certainly be an issue that could very well drive turnout in this election,” Baldassare said, noting that it may also encourage younger people with strong views on the topic to vote. “It’s the kind of issue that candidates can and will use to frame an election, which they can 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 component of his successful campaign against his staunch antiabortion opponent, Republican Dan Lungren.
In a recent interview, Dahle said he opposes abortion but understands that it will remain legal in California because of the Democratic majority in the Legislature. He said he supports state policies advocating contraception and sex education.
“Newsom is probably going to try to paint me as some crazy, but I’m not crazy in that area,” Dahle said last week when asked about his views on abortion.
With more than $25 million in campaign cash compared with the less than $500,000 Dahle reported last month, Newsom’s reelection probably won’t hinge on his ability to capitalize on a controversial issue that roils California voters. But the governor has a history of backing progressive causes and attention-grabbing initiatives that place him at the forefront of national political debates.
The renewed fight over abortion rights gives Newsom a chance to return to the same political game plan that has worked for him in the past — shifting the campaign away from topics where he’s appeared vulnerable, such as homelessness and crime, to instead focus on what’s perceived as a conservative threat.
“It’s going to be a major issue of his campaign for reelection,” said Sean Clegg, Newsom’s senior political strategist. “It is the issue that is in many ways defining the stakes for the country and the choices between these two parties. He’s going to lead the fight, not just in his reelection, but in protecting abortion and reproductive rights.”
Newsom won office in 2018 campaigning on progressive causes such as universal healthcare and casting himself as the antithesis of then-President Trump at a turbulent political time in the country.
He framed the September 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 talk radio host Larry Elder as the leading replacement candidate allowed Newsom and his team to pivot to playing political offense, raising fears that a GOP governor would reverse California’s cautious approach to COVID-19.
Comparing California’s public health agenda to what was happening in more politically conservative states, the governor focused on vaccines and what he argued would be the deadly consequences of electing Elder.
That strategy gave Newsom something to run against instead of being judged primarily on his own record.
“His playbook is, you know, ‘I’ve won repeatedly off running this play on third down and I’m gonna run it again and it’s just a different issue,”’ Rexroad said.
Jodi Hicks, the chief executive of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, said her organization and state leaders had been working for months on ways to counter any effort to end federal protections for women seeking abortions. She said that although politics isn’t motivating their work, protecting a woman’s right to choose is a “winning message” that will drive voter turnout.
“It matters when California is loudly telling people around the country that we’re here for you and we are that beacon of hope,” Hicks said.
But others aren’t quite as certain that reproductive rights will remain top of mind to state voters in the coming months.
Tim Rosales, a Republican campaign consultant, said it’s important to remember that the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet taken action. While a ballot measure to amend the California Constitution will keep the issue “on the front burner longer,” there’s no real threat that anything will change for people in the Golden State if the high court removes federal abortion protections.
“We still are light years away from November and what the political impact is of this we just don’t know yet,” he said.
Rosales, who worked as a campaign manager for Newsom’s GOP opponent John Cox in the 2018 gubernatorial campaign, didn’t doubt that the governor and his team would capitalize on the controversy. “They’re very shrewd politically 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 reelection as governor. Casting California as a “haven” 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.
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“That’s going to get a lot of eyeballs, a lot of attention,” Madrid said. “It will be wildly popular amongst base Democratic, especially women, voters.”
At a news conference in Los Angeles on Wednesday that began minutes after he released the new campaign ad, a fired-up Newsom warned “not to think for a second that this is where they stop.”
“They’re taking away rights that have been affirmed over and over again and well established,” he said. “They are taking them away. Wake up, America. Wake up to who you’re electing.”
Newsom also chastised his political party, calling out national Democrats for not launching a more disciplined counteroffensive against the far right. He said California should serve as a bright light and pledged to fight for people beyond the state’s borders.
“I hope people hold these elected officials to account and I hope they consider the positions of those they are supporting or opposing in this election,” Newsom said.
Times staff writer Phil Willon contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.