Gavin Newsom is fed up with Republicans for attacking abortion rights and blocking gun regulations — and with his own Democratic Party for failing to boldly and courageously take on the conservative right and push a progressive agenda.
And while California’s first-term governor positions himself as the pit bull of the national Democratic Party, no other issue defines his political rise like health care.
“Where the hell is my party?” Newsom was outraged in May after it became clear the US Supreme Court was poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. “Why aren’t we getting up harder?” He later took out a television ad accusing Florida Republican leaders of “criminalization of women and doctors.”
Over the past year, Newsom has launched multiple attacks against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential presidential candidate, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, both Republicans, over their stances on guns and abortion. He’s gone on national television and social media to name California an abortion sanctuary state that welcomes women from all over the country — and it’s boasting of an initiative for the November elections that would preserve the right to abortion in the state constitution. And he’s calling gun violence a public health crisis, saying Democrats should more aggressively challenge Republicans to pass comprehensive gun safety laws.
“It’s time to put them on the defensive — we’re sick and tired of being on the defensive,” Newsom said in late July as he signed a law allowing Californians to sue gun manufacturers for negligence, a modeled after a Texas. law that allows private citizens to sue abortion providers or those who assist women seeking an abortion.
Newsom, a former mayor of San Francisco, is also on the airwaves to tout his health care achievements. He’s singing around health care expansion coverage for millions of previously uninsured Californians — a holy grail issue for Democrats agitating for universal health care — and California’s effort to lower drug prices by entering the generic drug market. He also argues that, under his watch, California has led the nation in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, pointing to its decision to impose the country’s first statewide stay-at-home order in March 2020.
Political strategists and national health care experts say health care is a winning issue for the Democratic Party as it prepares for a midterm election battle in November — and as Democrats search for a strategy to keep the White House in 2024. And they say Newsom could be a strong contender.
“You can’t look at Gavin Newsom and say he wouldn’t be a very attractive option,” said Chris Jennings, a Washington, D.C.-based health policy veteran who worked under Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. “He seems to relish debate at a time when people are looking for a fighter, and he’s well-positioned, having scored some progressive health care victories. But it hasn’t been at the expense of intimidating moderates.”
Newsom, who last year handily defeated a Republican-driven recall effort and is expected to be up for re-election in deep blue California in November, denies he is laying the groundwork for a presidential bid and says he supports President Joe Biden without a doubt.
But as he takes to the airwaves and social media to brag about his bona fide health care, he appears to be exploring a national campaign and making a difference to his record in California. For example, although he says California offers “universal access to health care coverage,” many Californians remain uninsured, can’t afford coverage, or can’t get treatment even if they have health insurance.
“His accomplishments are often embellished and claims of success are often made before the hard work is done,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist in California. “And there are a lot of things for people like Ron DeSantis to point out about California that are complete failures, like the homelessness crisis.”
Polls show slipping support for Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, also a Californian, and a recent national CNN poll found that 75% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters want someone other than Biden to run in 2024. A recent poll June’s U.S. adults suggested Newsom could prevail in a general election matchup against DeSantis or former President Donald Trump.
“I think we as Democrats are going against the right wing, but Gavin Newsom has some edge in his criticism, and I like it. I think she’s tough, I think she’s strong, I think she’s fearless,” said former – the US senator. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who retired from office in 2017 but is working to elect Democrats to national office.
“Health care is important to him, and he figures out a way to do things,” she said. “When the time is right, I would be proud to support him.”
Newsom campaign spokesman Nathan Click said Newsom believes Biden should run and will not challenge him, but argues he can raise key Democratic issues such as abortion rights.
“He’s leading by example and taking the fight to the Republicans, making them own up to how they’re taking away people’s rights and freedoms,” Click told KHN. “He understands that there is agency on this issue and how the Democratic Party will be rebuilt.”
An Abbott spokesman criticized Newsom for ignoring problems on his home turf, such as the homelessness epidemic and the high cost of living. The DeSantis campaign did not respond to requests for comment, but has leveled similar attacks against Newsom.
“Governor Newsom needs to focus on all the jobs and businesses that are leaving California and coming to Texas,” Abbott press secretary Renae Eze said.
Newsom campaigned on single-payer health care during his first run for governor, promising to “lead the effort” to create a taxpayer-funded system that puts the government in charge of providing care.
But in office, he has distanced himself from that promise, instead pushing a message of universal health care that keeps the current system intact but expands coverage.
“California is the FIRST and ONLY state in the nation to offer universal access to health care coverage,” Newsom said in campaign emails in late July. “We have the strongest gun safety laws in the country. We’re making our insulin in California.”
But California isn’t making its own insulin yet. And though Newsom has said California offers universal access to health care, coverage remains too expensive for many low- and middle-income residents, and Medi-Cal — California’s Medicaid program — is riddled with problems that make care out of reach. opportunities for many people.
“We as Democrats have to be honest enough to admit that coverage does not automatically mean adequate or timely care,” said Democratic strategist Garry South, a longtime Newsom ally. “The fact is that under Medi-Cal they are often not getting good care that is timely and appropriate to meet their health care needs.”
Since becoming governor in 2019, Newsom has expanded Medi-Cal to hundreds of thousands of people living in the state without legal authorization. This year, he approved an additional extension to open the program, through 2024, to all Californians who have eligible incomes, regardless of immigration status.
Newsom is also allocating billions to bring social services and behavioral health care to Medi-Cal’s most vulnerable and expensive patients, including homeless people and people with drug addictions. And after a Republican-controlled Congress repealed the Affordable Care Act’s penalty for uninsured people in 2017, Newsom approved an insurance requirement for Californians and state-based subsidies to help lower- and middle-class residents buy coverage.
Despite these major expansions, about 2.3 million Californians under 65 will remain uninsured, according to an April analysis by University of California researchers.
Richard Figueroa, a longtime health policy expert who now serves as Newsom’s deputy cabinet secretary, argues that the administration has taken nation-leading steps to expand health insurance, but acknowledged that California will never be in able to extend coverage to all.
“We’re always going to have some uninsured, given the kind of patchwork system we have. There’s no requirement that people sign up, even if it’s affordable and even if it’s free,” Figueroa told KHN. “We’re filling a big gap in the access piece of the puzzle.”
Newsom’s expansion of health care coverage to all immigrants, regardless of status, could open him up to criticism if he makes a bid for national office.
“It’s going to be a question of whether saying ‘I was able to achieve these things in liberal California’ will translate to the rest of the country,” Jennings said. “When it comes to subsidizing immigrants, most national politicians have come to the conclusion that you can’t take that position and win at the national level.”
Celinda Lake, a political strategist who helped lead polls for Biden’s 2020 campaign and conducts polls for the Democratic National Committee, said Newsom can avoid political attacks if he can argue that he is providing better care while saving taxpayers money.
“Democrats are fired up and voters don’t understand why more can’t be done in Washington,” Lake said. “Whoever is in the Democratic primary, you’re going to have to be for universal health care. And if Gov. Newsom runs in 2024 or 2028, he can show what he’s done in California to show that it can work.”
This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an independent editorial service of the California Health Care Foundation.
This article was reprinted from khn.org with permission of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an independent news editorial service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.