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Why the Recall’s a Real Threat for Gavin Newsom

Republicans can’t wait to vote out California’s governor. Democrats have been less engaged, which points to potential problems for the party in next year’s midterms.

Gavin Newsom
California Gov. Gavin Newsom
(Matt Gush/Shutterstock)
A lot would still have to go wrong for Gavin Newsom to be removed from office, but so far most of the dominoes have been falling against him.

Absentee ballots started going out last week for the Sept. 14 recall election against California’s Democratic governor. Newsom was elected with 62 percent of the vote in 2018 — the largest winning margin for the office in decades — yet he has failed to fire up his Democratic base against the recall threat. Republicans, meanwhile, are salivating at the chance to dump him.

Recent polls point to a dead heat.

“For a lot of Democratic voters, the first thing they’re going to hear about the recall is getting an absentee ballot, whereas Republicans have been energized for months,” says Raphael Sonenshein, who directs a public affairs institute at California State University, Los Angeles. It’s worth pointing out that early absentee ballot returns skew roughly the same in partisan terms as last year’s presidential voting at the equivalent point (58 percent registered Democrats, 20 percent Republican and 22 percent other, through Monday).

Newsom’s positions on issues such as climate change, immigration and income inequality jibe well with the majority of Californians, yet many Democrats have failed to warm to him. Some find him too centrist, while others are put off by his semi-aristocratic manner. “Newsom should be able to beat this, but he has to figure out a way to motivate his own base, in a way that he hasn’t been able to do so far,” says Dan Schnur, a former Republican consultant (now an independent) who teaches at UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California.

Rather than seeking to inspire his most likely supporters, Newsom has sought to frighten them. His approach has been largely negative, featuring testimonials from the likes of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren that the recall represents a Republican “power grab” — a sort of sequel to the anti-Democratic assault on Congress on Jan. 6.

Newsom’s warnings have taken on more urgency and perhaps greater salience with the emergence of Republican talk radio host Larry Elder as the leading candidate to replace him. Elder has a long history of controversial statements, giving Newsom fodder for attack. “If Larry Elder didn’t exist, Gavin Newsom would have wanted to invent him,” Schnur says. “Until Elder entered the race, Newsom was left to campaign against Trump, and Trump’s no longer in office.”

Anger at incumbents is why the recall could be a key indicator looking ahead to 2022. The party that’s out of power is always angrier. In most races, that means the party out of power in the White House. Newsom is a slight favorite to survive, but watching a Democrat struggle in one of the nation’s bluest states due to GOP animosity is a bad omen for his party, which is hoping to hold on to narrow control of Congress next year.

“This is a lot like 2022 is going to look like,” says Sonenshein. “The out-party is just always in a constant state of rage and can’t wait to vote.”

Why Newsom Is Vulnerable

Newsom patiently worked his way up the political ladder, serving as San Francisco mayor and then acting as a largely ignored lieutenant governor under Jerry Brown, who was term-limited in 2018.

As governor, Newsom has had to work through a series of crises. On top of worsening wildfires, the pandemic led to widespread school closures that left the governor caught between teachers unions stressing safety and angry parents wanting their kids back in school. It also sent the state’s finances on a roller-coaster ride, turning a pre-pandemic $21 billion surplus into a $54 billion shortfall, then recovering to create a surplus that Newsom could brag this spring was $76 billion.

As is true for all current governors, COVID-19 has been Newsom’s biggest challenge. He was the first governor to issue lockdown orders and the first to implement a statewide mask mandate. Most Californians have supported this public health-minded approach, but he’s also received considerable pushback away from the liberal cities along the coast.

Last year, Donald Trump received just over a third of the state’s presidential vote (34.3 percent), but it’s worth remembering that he received more votes in California — 6 million in all — than in any other state. Recall petitioners found easy hunting in more Republican, less-populous counties. “The kind of people who show up in an election like this are people who are motivated by anger and enthusiasm,” says Bruce Cain, the Stanford University political scientist. “I don’t see a lot of enthusiasm for Gavin, and I do see a lot of anger on the other side.”

Although a progressive governor, Newsom’s seen as too business-friendly by some on the left. That may be more a matter of image than of substance. He grew up as a family friend of the billionaire Getty family, who brought him along on an African safari when he was a teen. He started a business selling and then growing wine. Just last week, news broke that Newsom sold a home in Marin County for $5.9 million.

With his affluence and leading-man looks, Newsom doesn’t exactly come off as a populist. “He’s not a person who inspires immediate sympathy, empathy or excitement, even if he does reflect many of the policy priorities of many Democrats and has been consistent in his policy initiatives,” says Renée Van Vechten, a political scientist at the University of Redlands in Southern California.

Newsom’s image problems went into overdrive last November, when he joined a group of friends for a dinner at the French Laundry, a Napa Valley restaurant that is among the most expensive in the country. Other Democratic politicians faced charges of hypocrisy around that time for engaging in travel and social activities they were warning constituents against, but it proved particularly costly for Newsom, since it resonated so strongly with his elitist image.

Within a month, the number of recall signatures jumped from 55,000 to 442,000. “He seems a bit out of touch, and Republicans have really used that to their advantage,” Van Vechten says.

Repeating the Trick Play

Only one governor has been recalled in the past century — California Democrat Gray Davis, back in 2003, who was replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. The only other governor ever recalled was Lynn Frazier of North Dakota, back in 1921.

It’s relatively easy to pull off a recall in California. Advocates need to collect signatures from voters representing only 12 percent of the total vote share during the last gubernatorial election. By contrast, Wisconsin — the last state to hold a gubernatorial recall election — requires 25 percent. In Newsom’s case, his opponents got lucky, with a judge granting them an extra four months to collect signatures due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Last month, the same judge — who was once a partner with the recall campaign’s lawyerblocked Newsom from listing himself as a Democrat on the recall ballot.)

There’s one other quirk that makes California recalls more challenging for incumbents. In Wisconsin, recalls are essentially do-over elections. In the 2012 recall, Republican Gov. Scott Walker again faced Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who had been his opponent two years earlier. In California, the recall ballot is split into two questions. First, voters will decide whether they want to remove Newsom from office. Then they vote separately to pick his replacement — in this case, from a ballot listing 46 candidates.

Unlike Davis in 2003, Newsom managed to keep any prominent Democrats from running as a replacement. That would have muddied his message to voters just to vote “no” on the recall question. But it also guarantees that, if Newsom is recalled, his replacement will be a Republican.

That’s the whole point, Cain suggests.

“This is a replay of essentially a trick play that the Republican Party pulled off in 2003,” he says. “If we left the lieutenant governor rule for a year (after a recall), Republicans never would have done it.”

Luck With His Enemies

Even as the recall effort gained momentum, it didn’t look like Republicans would be able to repeat the trick. Newsom isn’t as unpopular as Gray Davis was and lacks the weight of a clear failed policy, which Davis had with electricity deregulation.

Also, Republicans lacked another Schwarzenegger, an internationally famous movie star. The GOP lineup was made up of people already considering a run against Newsom in 2022: former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer; state Rep. Kevin Kiley; and businessman John Cox, who took 38 percent of the vote against Newsom in 2018. None of them was a political star in the state. The race did attract one celebrity, Caitlyn Jenner, but she put her campaign on pause last month to film “Celebrity Big Brother” in Australia.

Elder, the radio host, has lately emerged as the clear front-runner. In recent days, any number of controversial statements he’s made over the years have come to the fore. Elder wrote in 2000 that “women know less than men about political issues, economics and current events.” That same year, he wrote it would be “smart” for women to tolerate crude language from men and that they weren’t held back by sexual harassment. His ex-fiancee said he once brandished a gun at her. He’s called for abolishing Medicare and repealing the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Larry Elder should be here to defend his positions but he’s not, because I think many of those are absolutely indefensible,” Faulconer said at a debate last week.

Schnur, the former consultant, says there’s a chance that Elder’s past comments will end his momentum. Van Vechten says it’s probably too late in the campaign season for opinions about him to change. Instead, she suggests there will be a bandwagon effect, with GOP support consolidating behind him. “In the next few weeks, Republicans will likely coalesce around Elder, while more Democratic and No Party Preference (independent) voters will rouse themselves to oppose the replacement that has materialized,” she says.

That would certainly help Newsom. The old saying goes that you can’t beat someone with no one. The prospect of an Elder governorship allows Newsom to sound a much more clear warning for Democratic voters than the more amorphous-sounding “GOP power grab.” “It allowed the Newsom camp to put a face on the replacement ballot,” Sonenshein says.

The state’s Democratic bent is why Newsom, for all his vulnerabilities, is more likely to survive the recall than not. He may even be granted the gift of a newly prominent Elder sailing toward the GOP nomination against him next year. Newsom would be heavily favored in a regular election, when turnout would be predictably higher than during a recall. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in California by a 2-to-1 margin. “If every registered voter cast a vote, Newsom would beat the recall by a very wide margin,” Schnur says.

Van Vechten notes that universal mail voting should help Newsom, making it easier for more people to vote and possibly lifting the number of voters to higher levels than current polls are suggesting. “We don’t even have to put a stamp on it anymore,” she says.

But Newsom’s not out of the woods. He faces a potentially tricky path between now and Sept. 14. Most California schools are reopening this week. With the delta variant, there are bound to be coronavirus outbreaks, which could lead to closures. What’s more, the state is not through with a difficult fire season, which could lead to blackouts. Such events would dampen enthusiasm for a governor who’s been having a hard time generating much on his own.

“Possibly we could have an energy crisis and dissatisfaction and turmoil over masking,” Cain notes. “Is it fair to blame Gavin for either of these things? No. Does that matter in politics? No. If stuff goes wrong while you’re in office, you’re blamed for it.”
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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