On Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom leaned over the hood of an electric car and signed an executive order to phase out new gas-powered vehicles in California by 2035 and halt new fracking projects by 2024.
It was exactly the kind of “big, hairy, audacious” move that Newsom has made his calling card: one guaranteed to generate media buzz, stake out an ideological claim and force a national conversation.
Longtime political observers noted the déjà vu: In 2004, Newsom, then mayor of San Francisco, cast both caution and the law to the wind and ordered the county clerk to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The majority of both American voters and the U.S. Supreme Court have since agreed that Newsom was on the right side of history. But at the time, many blamed him for mashing a hot button issue — to the possible detriment of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s failed bid to oust President George W. Bush later that year.
Many Democratic strategists applauded Newsom’s latest big move on Thursday. But the presidential election is now less than two months away, a prominent Californian is also on the ticket in vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris, President Donald Trump is repeatedly citing California as a cautionary tale of out-of-control nanny statism, and the first presidential debate is Tuesday (Sept.29) in Ohio, a state whose economy is partially dependent on vehicle manufacturing. That has all left some questioning the political wisdom of Newsom’s timing.
Reading the news Thursday, Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant and a co-founder of the viral-tweeting fiercely anti-Trump political action committee, the Lincoln Project, had a familiar, sinking feeling: Not this again.
“Gavin jumped out on gay marriage and killed (Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry) in the Midestern states,” he said.
Now former Vice President Joe Biden is hoping to woo back the white working-class rust belt voters who helped tip the 2016 election to Trump. Polls and political experts suggest that the November contest could hinge on car-building and gas-drilling states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio. Trump has already falsely claimed that Biden wants to ban fracking, in an effort to undermine the Democrat’s efforts with Keystone State voters.
“It is not a good message for Joe Biden, who is trying to get traction in Pennsylvania on energy issues, and in rust belt states like Ohio,” said Madrid. “We can debate whether this hurts Joe Biden, but it certainly doesn’t help.”
But some Democratic political consultants note that there are clear differences between same-sex marriage in 2003 and aggressive climate change regulations in 2020.
Once marriages started going forward at San Francisco’s City Hall, Republican political operatives put anti-marriage equality measures on state ballots across the country in an effort to gin up turnout by social conservatives. That move is credited by some — though disputed by others — for giving George W. Bush a second term.
A California gas-powered car ban that may not go into effect for 15 years — if it ever does — is not as likely to carry the same visceral punch, said Bill Carrick, a longtime political consultant for Democrats including Feinstein. “It’s not like you’re going to have to turn in your gas-driven vehicle tomorrow morning.”
But the attacks have already started.
The governor’s order is “yet another example of how extreme the left has become,” White House spokesperson Judd Deere told Axios.
Duane Dichiara, a Republican consultant for candidates June Yang Cutter and Melanie Burkholder who are both hoping to unseat moderate Democratic Assembly members in San Diego County, viewed Newsom’s announcement as a kind of gift to his clients. For their Democratic opponents, he said, banning gas-powered cars is “not the conversation they want to be having right now.”
On Twitter, the California Republican Party was less subtle about the potential implications for the presidential race: “Trying to torpedo Biden/Harris?”
Looks like @GavinNewsom is trying to torpedo @JoeBiden @KamalaHarris. Why announce banning sales of gas-powered cars in California less than a week before the 1st presidential debate in one of the largest vehicle production state in the country – OHIO? pic.twitter.com/BZGepgEISQ
— CAGOP (@CAGOP) September 23, 2020
But Andrew Feldman, a frequent consultant for organized labor and progressive get-out-the-vote efforts, said most Americans already see California as out ahead of the rest of both the Democratic Party and the country on environmental issues and are not likely to conflate Newsom with Biden.
“This seems to be on par for the state in its push to be a leader on this effort,” he said.
“I don’t think most people in Pennsylvania know who Newsom is,” added Ed Mitchell, a longtime political consultant from the state. And although fracking is a key industry in the state’s Republican Northern Tier and southwest, it’s a big diverse place. “People are buying hybrid cars and electric cars out here too.”
“It’s kind of a bank shot to try to say ‘vote against Biden because Newsom did this in California,’” said Bob Shrum, a former Democratic political operative now at the University of Southern California.
Not that the president isn’t likely to try.
Alongside the false claim about Biden on fracking, the president and his surrogates have said, incorrectly, that the former vice president plans to defund the nation’s police departments and abolish the suburbs, and made the unfounded assertion that he is taking performance enhancing drugs.
“They just lack credibility,” said Carrick. Will Trump accuse Biden of wanting to confiscate your car? “The truth is they would say that anyway.”
In the meantime, Newsom took the opportunity yesterday afternoon to send out an email trumpeting the decision — and to ask for contributions to his 2022 re-election campaign.
* Via the Post It, CalMatters political reporter Ben Christopher shares frequent updates from the (socially distanced) 2020 campaign trail.
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.