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Why Gavin Newsom Is Likely to Survive Recall Threat

A recall campaign against California's governor will succeed in triggering an election. But the governor enjoys deep Democratic loyalty in a state that's overwhelmingly on the party's side.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom addresses a press conference held at the launch of mass COVID-19 vaccination site at Dodger Stadium on Jan. 15, 2021. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Irfan Khan
Having served as governor of California for a little more than two years, Democrat Gavin Newsom has dealt with wildfires and floods, a budget that at one point last year fell more than $50 billion short and now is well into surplus and, of course, the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s his handling of the pandemic that presents Newsom with his greatest political challenge. Organizers have until Wednesday to submit 1.5 million voter signatures to force a recall election. It looks like they will clear that hurdle easily.

"This one appears to have the requisite signatures," Newsom himself said on Tuesday during an appearance on ABC’s "The View."

Republicans complain that Newsom has botched the health response, keeping schools and businesses closed, while the state’s unemployment system was bilked for billions of dollars in fraudulent payments. “This historic recall movement is becoming a reality because millions of Californians are ready for change,” says Kevin Faulconer, a former San Diego mayor and Republican candidate for governor. “It’s time to turn the page on the failures of Gavin Newsom’s failed administration.”

In addition to the recall, Newsom faces a lawsuit from parents angry about schools still closed to in-person learning. The issue has trapped the governor between two important constituencies.

“What makes this even more difficult for Newsom is that it’s a choice between the teachers unions, who are the bedrock of his political support, and suburban parents, who are the most dissatisfied with distance learning,” says Dan Schnur, who teaches politics at the University of Southern California and was a longtime GOP aide. “Those are two of the most critical constituencies within the Democratic Party.”

Newsom faces a challenge he can’t dismiss, but it’s clear that – in contrast to embattled Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York – he enjoys the full backing of state and national Democratic leaders. This week, figures such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker have stated their support for the governor against the recall.

California recalled a Democratic governor, Gray Davis, back in 2003, which led to the election of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. But there are two big differences between now and then.

For one thing, Republicans have yet to recruit a candidate with anything like Schwarzenegger’s star power. For another, California has become even more of a one-party Democratic state since 2003. “Since the last recall, California has gone from being deep blue to indigo,” Schnur says.

Registered Republicans make up less than 25 percent of California’s electorate. Newsom won the election in 2018 with 62 percent of the vote. His job approval rating, while down from highs he enjoyed last spring, remains above 50 percent in most recent polls.

An Emerson College poll released Monday showed that 57 percent of Californians believe the state is heading in the right direction. Thirty-eight percent said they support recalling him, against 42 percent who are opposed, with plenty still undecided.

Newsom’s strategy is to decry the recall as a “partisan power grab,” counting on the state’s overall loyalty to the Democratic Party and hatred of the GOP. That might well work for him, although any mistake he makes over the coming weeks will be enormously magnified. He’ll also face a more dire challenge threat if a big-name Democrat enters the race.

At the moment, however, this recall – like most recall attempts – appears more likely to fail than succeed.

Why Newsom’s Being Recalled

Governors of most states that allow recalls either are facing or have faced recall attempts over the past year. During the pandemic, it’s become a common way for people to express dissatisfaction, whether they’re mad because restrictions are too severe or not aggressive enough. Newsom -- the first governor to issue a stay-at-home order last year and one of the first to impose a statewide mask mandate -- has faced a half-dozen recall attempts during his short time in office. 

Recalls have traditionally been homegrown affairs. Political parties might get involved once they’re off the ground, but now they’re used as a weapon of partisan warfare. The Colorado Republican Party, for example, has itself been active in efforts to recall Democratic legislators. In 2018, state Sen. Josh Newman was recalled in California, part of a concerted effort by the GOP to deprive Democrats of a legislative supermajority. 

In 2003, the Davis recall was largely financed, at least initially, by Darrell Issa, a wealthy member of Congress. This time around, the state and national Republican parties have each made six-figure donations to the Newsom recall. On Monday, the California Democratic Party announced a contribution of $250,000 to a stop-the-recall committee. 

In California, the bar against launching a recall is low, just 12 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last regular election for governor. Although organizers need 1.5 million signatures, that’s doable in a state with 25 million eligible voters. Voter registration efforts last year provided recall organizers with a deeper potential pool, while making it more likely the signatures they collect are valid and belong to registered voters, says Renee Van Vechten, a political scientist at University of Redlands. “For normal ballot measures, there can be as many as 40 percent invalidated,” she says. “This time around, we’re looking at about 15 percent being invalidated, and that’s really small.”

So why are so many people signing? It doesn’t matter what the original impetus might be. Anyone with a grudge against the governor – over gun control or taxes, say – might sign. In Newsom’s case, it’s clearly COVID-19 that’s the main driver.

“The big factor is pandemic fatigue,” says Kim Nalder, a Sacramento State University political scientist. “Psychologically, people want to have someone to blame. Anyone who was in this position at this time would be targeted.”

It’s not just that Newsom is in charge at a difficult time. A tipping point seemed to come last November. The governor was warning people to stay home and avoid groups, but one night he joined in a birthday dinner for 12 at the French Laundry in the Napa Valley, one of the most expensive restaurants in the state. That ticked off people who were frustrated and angry and suddenly viewed Newsom as a hypocrite

Only about 50,000 people had signed the recall petition at that point.

“That was huge,” Nalder says. “It’s astounding he wasn’t sensitive enough just about the optics to avoid that.”

An Opening for the GOP

Newsom is up for re-election next year. Under normal circumstances, Republicans wouldn’t stand a chance. They are completely shut out of statewide offices in California. Thanks to the party’s top-two primary system, where the two top finishers proceed to the general election regardless of party, the GOP hasn’t had a candidate make it all the way to November in the state’s last two U.S. Senate contests.

The recall gives them an opportunity, but they lack a challenger who enters the race already widely known. “There is no Arnold Schwarzenegger out there,” says Bruce Cain, who directs Stanford University’s Center for the American West. “I’m pretty sure Kevin Faulconer has minimal name recognition outside of San Diego.”

John Cox, a businessman who lost to Newsom in 2018, still wants the job. Ric Grenell, who served as the top intelligence official in the Trump administration, has signaled a run. Between them, the three candidates represent various wings of the GOP – Faulconer more of a centrist, establishment candidate, Cox a traditional insurgent and Grenell coming out of the Trump wing.

The 2003 recall drew more than 100 candidates. This time, there may even be more. No matter who emerges as the strongest potential Republican, it’s clear Newsom will seek to tar that person as a Trumpist usurper. Newsom’s anti-recall campaign website says that the recall is being driven by “a partisan, Republican coalition of national Republicans, anti-vaxxers, Q-Anon conspiracy theorists and anti-immigrant Trump supporters.” 

Republicans are pushing back against that line of attack, saying that Newsom is insulting more than 2 million Californians by likening them all to white supremacists. 

“In terms of the dynamics of who’s signed, from what I’ve seen anecdotally, it’s very bipartisan,” says Chris Cate, a Republican member of the San Diego City Council. “It’s just anger, primarily regarding the schools and lack of communication.”

Newsom’s desire to turn his own recall into a referendum on former President Trump will become a lot easier if Trump himself decides to weigh in. Given Trump’s clear desire to assert his control over the GOP – and the fact that the recall is certain to become the most attention-grabbing political event of the year – he may be unable to resist the temptation.

In November, Trump took just 34 percent of the vote in California.

“If Trump gets involved, it’s over,” Van Vechten says. “People in this state really don’t want anything to do with Trump and it would be a repudiation of Trump.”

Avoiding Another Democrat

The last gubernatorial recall election took place in Wisconsin in 2012. In that case, the successful recall effort triggered what amounted to a do-over election. Republican Gov. Scott Walker defeated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democrat he’d defeated to win the job in 2010.

The recall process in California is slightly more complicated. Instead of setting up a straightforward special election for governor, it creates a two-step process. Voters will choose, yes or no, whether they want to recall Newsom. Separately, on the same ballot, they’ll face a slate of candidates to replace him, if he is recalled.

That presents Democrats with a dilemma. Do they line up behind Newsom in hopes of defeating the recall and making it look like a Republican power play, or do they put up a credible candidate as an alternative in case he’s recalled, depriving the GOP of a free shot at the office?

“Gray Davis and his team put immense effort into keeping other Democrats out of the race in 2003, and they failed,” says Schnur, the USC professor. “When Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante decided to run, he robbed them of their most impactful talking point. Davis could no longer argue that it was a purely partisan exercise. Even though Bustamante had no chance of winning, he very effectively undermined Davis’ chances.”

It became clear in 2003 that Davis was going to lose. Newsom does not yet look like a loser. So far, he’s had success keeping other Democrats out of the field.

Some of his possible rivals were taken out of the game thanks to President Biden’s election. Kamala Harris gave up her Senate seat to run for vice president, and Newsom appointed Secretary of State Alex Padilla to replace her. Biden appointed California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services. Democratic members of Congress from California have strongly endorsed Newsom, along with figures such as state Treasurer Fiona Ma, Controller Betty Yee and Assembly Speaker Tony Rendon. Rendon and Yee have each donated $10,000 to the anti-recall effort. 

But at least one well-known Democrat – Antonio Villaraigosa – has been pointedly non-committal. The former Assembly speaker and Los Angeles mayor was a Newsom opponent in 2018. If he were to get in, it would likely open the floodgates to other ambitious Democrats.

“Even if party discipline is enforced, there’s no reason a celebrity can’t jump in, or a Silicon Valley bazillionaire,” Nalder says.

Recognizing the threat from any appearance of weakness, Newsom has stepped up his public relations efforts. At the end of December, he announced a $2 billion package to encourage safe school reopenings. His State of the State address last week was a made-for-campaign-commercials event staged at Dodgers Stadium.

Aside from the partisan tilt of the state, Newsom has time on his side. The signature verification and certification process could drag on into May. An election wouldn’t be called until 60 to 80 days after, meaning the actual election won’t take place until well into summer.

By that time, according to current timetables, most people who want coronavirus vaccinations should have gotten them. Schools will be preparing for opening for a full year in the fall. People may no longer be in a sour mood due to the pandemic. In fact, they may be in a great mood, thanks to its perceived end.

Newsom understands it’s still an unsettled time. Any mistake he makes can and will be held against him, says Cain, the Stanford political scientist. 

But while the governor can’t dismiss the recall threat, he’ll probably survive it.

“What’s going on here is a Republican Party that cannot win statewide races unless they can divide the Democratic Party,” Cain says. “Behind the scenes, there are some Republicans who are at least going to make some money out of this deal, as they did in the recall before.”

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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