Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of California’s top deputy has announced a run for his job in 2026, becoming the first candidate in what is likely to be a highly contested race.
Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, a Democrat who has served as Newsom’s deputy since 2019, will run for governor in the 2026 election, she announced on Twitter. The 57-year-old Democrat has been a staunch Newsom ally, working with him on a raft of progressive policies as he has carved out a national profile.
Kounalakis was elected alongside Newsom, himself a former two-term lieutenant governor, in 2019. She previously served as the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary during the Obama administration as well as the president of AKT Development Corporation, California’s largest housing development firm founded by her father, who was a major financial backer for her lieutenant gubernatorial campaign, according to The Sacramento Bee.
Unlike Newsom, Kounalakis has had a decidedly lower profile in state and national politics. However, while independently elected from Newsom, she publicly supported his aggressive efforts to promote California as an “abortion sanctuary” after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, restrict access to firearms, and study whether the state should pay reparations to African Americans for slavery, according to her campaign website.
Newsom is term-limited by the California Constitution and cannot run in 2026, though he has not announced whether he would support Kounalakis’ candidacy.
Kounalakis is known to be a strong political ally of Vice President Kamala Harris, having joined her 2020 presidential campaign and advocated among donors for her selection as then-candidate Joe Biden’s running mate, according to Politico.
Kounalakis’ decision to announce her campaign over three years before the election is influenced by California’s large size and population as well as its expensive media markets. Newsom himself began his 2018 campaign for governor in 2015.
During Kounalakis’ time in office, California has seen a significant population exodus, with an 871,127 net decline, according to CalMatters, a state-based investigative group. Many analysts have attributed that drop to the state’s progressive policies, with Democrats holding supermajorities in both chambers of the state Legislature and Democratic governors having led the state since 2010.
Departing residents and businesses have cited California’s high levels of urban crime and high cost of living as primary reasons for leaving. The average price of a home in California is $843,800, the most expensive in the United States according to Redfin, a real estate brokerage firm, while the state’s violent crime rate increased by 6% in 2021, per the Public Policy Institute of California.
If elected, Kounalakis would become the first woman governor of the state. She did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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