The Democrats Waiting in the Wings as Calls for Biden to Step Aside Grow Louder

‘Newsom is obviously the most high-profile person right now,’ a Democratic strategist tells the Sun.

AP/Godofredo A. Vásquez
Governor Newsom at Antioch, California, on August 11, 2022. AP/Godofredo A. Vásquez

The New York Times/Siena poll showing President Biden losing to President Trump in five of six battleground states is prompting calls from prominent Democrats for Mr. Biden to step aside and let a new generation of Democratic leaders join the race. So which leading contenders are setting themselves up to step in should Mr. Biden bow out?

The clearest heir apparent is California’s governor Gavin Newsom. He just finished a presidential-like trip to China to talk climate change with President Xi Jinping. While 71 percent of Americans in battleground states think Mr. Biden is “too old to be an effective president,” Mr. Newsom got his photo op shaking hands with the leader of arguably America’s biggest adversary. His office also released beauty shots of the governor climbing the Great Wall of China — a sharp contrast to Mr. Biden’s stumbles.

Other possible contenders are the Illinois governor, JB Pritzker, and Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer. A moderate congressman from Minnesota and multi-millionaire gelato tycoon, Dean Phillips officially joined the Democratic primary race last week and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. dropped out of the Democratic primary to run as an independent, but few consider them viable contenders despite Mr. Kennedy’s respectable showing in some recent polls.

And, of course, there is self-help author Marianne Williamson, who is garnering single digits in the Real Clear Politics polling average.

Additional names floated are Senator Klobuchar and Congressman Ro Khanna, who has campaigned as a Biden surrogate in early voting states. He recently debated Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy in New Hampshire. There also remains a back bench from the 2020 Democratic primary.

“Newsom is obviously the most high-profile person right now, and he’s the only one who’s had the guts to position himself without going up against the president,” Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf tells the Sun. He adds that Ms. Whitmer and Mr. Pritzker are the other strong contenders, but that Mr. Phillips “should save his money” and drop out.

Mr. Newsom insists he’s not running for president and says he firmly stands behind President Biden. Yet he has recently pivoted to the center on several issues, is campaigning nationally, and is essentially running what amounts to a shadow campaign.

Mr. Newsom’s pivot to the center includes vetoing a bill that would have required judges to consider whether a parent affirms a child’s gender identity in resolving custody disputes. He also vetoed a safe injection site bill and sent the California National Guard to help San Francisco tackle its fentanyl trafficking problem.

He filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in September, asking the Nine to review the case of Grants Pass v. Johnson that is hamstringing western cities from clearing homeless encampments. He likely realizes images of tent encampments won’t help him sell himself as a competent executive.

The pivots haven’t done him any favors among California voters, though. A late-October poll from the University of California at Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found that half of California voters disapprove of his work as governor, an all-time low.

Mr. Newsom is also scheduled to debate Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis on Fox News at the end of the month — the epitome of a “non-campaign” campaign event.

“There are two additional Democrats running for president right now,” Senator Fetterman said, taking a swipe at Mr. Newsom in Iowa over the weekend. “One is a congressman from Minnesota. The other is the governor of California. They’re both running for president, but only one has the guts to announce it.”

Adding to speculation that Governors Newsom and Pritzker are eyeing a run for the White House is a report Monday from Axios that both men donated the maximum $1000 contribution to the Charleston mayoral campaign of Clay Middleton, a former aide to Congressman Jim Clyburn.

Why are two governors from across the country donating money to a South Carolina mayoral race? The Democratic National Committee moved the party’s first primary to South Carolina, and Mr. Clyburn almost single-handedly resuscitated Mr. Biden’s failing 2020 campaign.

“That’s a big sign. South Carolina is first now. It’s an indication of whether you can get African American votes, which are critical to any Democratic victory,” Mr. Sheinkopf says. “That’s a clear signal that they’re saying, ‘We want the job if he aint there, and we’re prepared to do whatever we have to.’”

Mr. Pritzker is a darling to progressives and a billionaire in a solidly blue state. “Pritzker has what Newsom has to get, which is Pritzker has money. He can write checks,” Mr. Sheinkopf says. “He also comes from the Midwest, which makes him much more desirable in many ways.”

Mr. Pritzker’s office did not return the Sun’s request for comment. 

Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is the other potential candidate floated as a serious contender were Mr. Biden to step aside. Ms. Whitmer became an abortion rights leader following the Dobbs decision by spearheading a referendum to enshrine abortion rights in her state. In 2022, she led her party to win a trifecta — control of both chambers of the house and governorship — for the first time in 40 years.

Michigan is also a key battleground state. In the Times/Siena poll, Mr. Trump beats Mr. Biden 48 to 43 percent in the state. If a generic Democrat other than Mr. Biden were competing against Mr. Trump, the Democrat would win in Michigan 48 to 41 percent. In all the battleground states, a non-Biden Democrat would win against Mr. Trump by eight points.

After the poll was released Sunday, David Axelrod posted to X, “It’s very late to change horses … The greatest concern is that [Biden’s] biggest liability is the one thing he can’t change. Among all the unpredictables there is one thing that is for sure: the age arrow only points in one direction.”

“If he continues to run, he will be the nominee of the Democratic Party. What he needs to decide is whether that is wise; whether it’s in HIS best interest or the country’s?” Mr. Axelrod posted.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius and “Never Trump” Republican-turned-Biden-supporter, Bill Kristol, have also joined the calls for Mr. Biden to step aside.

“It’s time. President Biden has served our country well. I’m confident he’ll do so for the next year. But it’s time for an act of personal sacrifice and public spirit,” Mr. Kristol posted to X. “It’s time to pass the torch to the next generation. It’s time for Biden to announce he won’t run in 2024.”


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