How ‘disaster politics’ could help make — or break — Newsom’s future

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As the leader of an increasingly disaster-prone state, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) is no stranger to managing extreme weather events — but the way he navigates forthcoming storms could play a key role in his future political ambitions.

Newsom has already weathered a deluge of climate emergencies since he became governor in 2019, including historic drought, destructive wildfires and the unprecedented tropical storm that tore through parts of Southern California last weekend. With climate change increasing the odds — and severity — of such extreme weather events, he’s likely to face many more before his time in office is over.

This onslaught of natural disasters could offer Newsom, who is widely believed to harbor presidential ambitions, a chance to prove his mettle as a leader, experts say — if he can handle them correctly.

“The weather events or the natural disasters are not created by the politicians, but they are certainly an opportunity for those politicians to showcase their abilities to lead and help people who are in need,” economist John Gasper, a “disaster politics” expert, told The Hill.

“That’s true for governors, mayors, all the way up to the president,” said Gasper, an associate teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

When leaders mishandle disasters, however, they can become a “political liability,” said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at the University of California, Berkeley Law’s Center for Law. He recalled former President George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for which Bush received widespread approbation.

So far, Newsom, who has positioned himself — and California — as national leaders on climate, appears to have navigated the emergencies well in the eyes of his constituents.

A May survey showed that 69 percent of adults had at least some confidence in state and local government readiness to respond to disasters, while 11 percent had a great deal and 58 percent had some.

A majority of Californians surveyed by the same organization in June voiced approval for Newsom’s handling of environmental issues — with 58 percent of adults responding as such in a Public Policy Institute of California poll that included 1,724 people.

Of the total respondents, about 82 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of independents approved, in comparison to only 17 percent of Republicans.

Even during the deadly wildfire events that have scorched California in recent years, the governor “did not seem to be blamed by the public for that at all,” said Elkind.

Elkind noted that when politicians or officials face blame for such emergencies, they do so in the aftermath of a storm if there weren’t sufficient resources on the ground. He pointed to some of the criticism of officials in Maui after the recent fires on the island, who have been faulted for what critics deem a failure to sufficiently alert people to the danger.

As Tropical Storm Hilary made landfall last Sunday, Newsom launched his public-facing emergency efforts by meeting with communities in Southern California and expanding a state of emergency declaration he had issued the day before.

Among his emergency orders were provisions aimed at ensuring that care facilities would be able to continue treating patients and residents. The governor’s office also detailed the efforts of the state Flood Operations Center to distribute 300,000 sandbags to affected counties, while also highlighting the participation of the California National Guard and Cal Fire personnel.

While surveying the ongoing preparations across the region, Newsom reported speaking with President Biden and emergency personnel who were responding to Hilary and the unrelated earthquake that struck the area Saturday.

As far as this storm is concerned, Republican-turned-independent political strategist Daniel Schnur told The Hill that “unless there is an unforeseen breakdown in state government response, it’s difficult to see this having much of an impact on Newsom politically.”

“But he and his team will have to keep a close eye on the recovery process to make sure the affected communities have what they need,” added Schnur, who teaches political communications at several California universities.

For Newsom to incur political damage for disaster response, Elkind said one of two scenarios would have to occur: a failure to take steps in advance or neglecting populations that need help in the aftermath.

In a more purple state where Republicans controlled the legislature, political opponents might launch hearings related to a given response, Elkind conjectured. But he also noted “it’s been so long since California had a split government and there really was true oversight.”

“Typically, governors in the state get a pass,” he said. “That dynamic helps inoculate Newsom and allows him to create a sort of a frame looking at these disasters as this is the fault of utilities, this is the fault of climate change — and not so much blaming government.”

Gasper stressed, however, that whenever a natural disaster does occur and “people are negatively affected, one of the first places they look is to a political leader.”

“That makes these events end up being kind of opportunities for political leaders to showcase their leadership abilities,” he said.

Officials keen on displaying those abilities will be seen “rolling up their sleeves” and demonstrating they are trying to help members of the community, according to Gasper.

“Sometimes it’s a photo op, but more often than not, it’s actual aid,” he said.

And when there are hints of an eventual national campaign — as may be the case for Newsom — these moves could be perceived as “signals for a broader constituency rather than just California,” according to Gasper.

This is not necessarily a new phenomenon, as Gasper and a colleague in 2010 argued that “governors act as opportunists,” by leveraging their states’ electoral importance when requesting federal disaster aid.

Acknowledging that this behavior is not universal, they found that only governors who are up for reelection act as opportunists — and that reelection incentives remain dominant even when the governors’ partisan loyalties do not align with those of the White House.

Looking back at the paper now, Gasper said that one response he received at the time was that even if a governor is term-limited, his or her future career prospects may still be plentiful.

“Newsom presents kind of an interesting counter example because most of us probably agree he has some other political ambitions beyond just being a governor of California,” he added.

Elkind said the scrutiny on Newsom’s disaster response might increase if he does move to a more national stage “because he is perceived of as a potential threat to Republicans nationally.”

Already, he said, “Republicans are trying to find flaws in California and associate those with Newsom to try to weaken him politically” — with the caveat that homeless and housing issues may supersede weather events in this regard.

Elkind said he believes it would be difficult “to blame Newsom for a disaster when all these red states are going through their own climate induced extreme weather events.”

Even Newsom’s archrival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), wrote a message of support on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, before Tropical Storm Hilary made landfall in California.

“In Florida, we know how challenging storms can be and have significant experience responding in their wake,” DeSantis wrote. “We stand ready to help the people of California in any way we can.”

One issue that could influence electoral politics in the future is extreme weather-related mass power outages, according to Elkind. During a heat wave last September, he continued, conservative politicians — backed by fossil fuel interests — slammed what they viewed as California’s over-reliance on renewable energy.

“The way Republicans try to deflect blame and apportion it to renewable energy specifically, I think that kind of opened up that debate in a more partisan way,” Elkind said. “If there are blackouts in California, and blackouts related to extreme heat — which is climate-induced to some extent — that could be a political liability for him,” he added.

Elkind hypothesized that Newsom recognizes this potential political liability, which may have influenced his decisions to keep contentious power plants online longer than originally planned.

“In California, of course we have a history of booting governors out when there are blackouts,” Elkind said, citing former Gov. Gray Davis’s (D) removal from office in a 2003 recall.

Despite Newsom’s goals of accelerating California’s transition to 100 percent renewables by 2045, state officials earlier this month decided to approve an administration-backed plan to extend the shelf life of three natural gas facilities through 2026.

The governor also recently voiced his support for prolonging operations of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant — a contentious and aging nuclear power facility along the Pacific coast.

Gasper said he believes politicians are not necessarily rewarded by voters for taking preventative measures.

“They reward them more for response after an event rather than mitigative measures before any potential event,” he said.

This can complicate strategic planning for politicians, as strong policy would indicate the value of implementing mitigation efforts, according to Gasper.

“But from a short-term, electoral incentive point of view, you want to respond to what voters want today, which might mean spending the money elsewhere,” he said.

“And then when a disaster hits,” Gasper added, “go ask for federal money and try to be as responsive as possible.”

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