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The California Recall: Newsom’s Position Has Improved Down the Stretch

A Commentary By Carla Marinucci


— The pandemic fueled the recall campaign against Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA), but its continued salience has arguably helped him at the end of the campaign.

— The emergence of conservative commentator Larry Elder as Newsom’s top Republican challenger has given Newsom a useful foil, to the consternation of some recall backers.

— Even if Newsom wins the recall, it will have come at a hefty price tag both for Democrats and for taxpayers.

Inside the California recall

SACRAMENTO — For California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, months of nerve-wracking drama over his fate in a historic recall election are coming down to a simple reality: COVID-19 got him into it — and COVID will get him out of it.

Already, 22 million California voters have received their ballots in the all-mail election to be decided Sept. 14. Despite polls that just weeks back had Democrats in a panic over what appeared to be a dead heat over Newsom’s ousting, the most recent surveys show that the California governor is now in the driver’s seat — and he could even cruise to a landslide victory.

Early returns also suggest another reason the California governor can relax: Democrats, who hold a 22-point voter registration edge, are turning in ballots by a more than 2-1 margin over Republicans.

The quirky recall process in California asks state voters to weigh in on two questions: first, should Gov. Gavin Newsom be recalled — and second, who should replace him? If a majority of the voters cast a “yes” on the first question, then Newsom will be removed from office. They will choose from 45 replacement candidates, and the candidate who gets the most votes — not necessarily a majority — will become governor until Jan. 2, 2023, when Newsom’s term is officially up. Another regularly scheduled election is set for November 2022.

Newsom has taken no chances, raising a $70 million warchest to fight the recall — more than all his challengers combined. But in this unwieldy landscape, one dominant factor has emerged in recent weeks: The California governor now enjoys strong support for his handling of the surging Delta variant as his state wrestles with a fourth wave of the coronavirus. The recent Public Policy Institute of California poll shows voters by a robust 19-point lead reject the recall. A majority (53%) approves of his job performance, and three quarters of state voters — including strong majorities across all regions — say the state government under Newsom’s direction is doing an excellent or good job distributing COVID vaccines.

“There is no more consequential decision to the health and safety of the people of the state of California than voting no on this Republican-backed recall,” Newsom said recently at a vaccine event in Oakland’s heavily Latino Fruitvale neighborhood. Noting that all of the major GOP candidates challenging him in the recall have vowed to roll back the state’s tough mask and vaccine mandates, Newsom has raised the specter of skyrocketing virus and ICU cases and low vaccine rates in GOP-led states like Texas and Florida. His approach, he argues, is “radically different” from the GOP vision of governance in a pandemic.

In a frenzy of events around the state, Newsom has gotten last-minute campaign help from Democrats like Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who came out to California at the beginning of September to rev up base voters. Vice President Kamala Harris, who won three statewide elections in California before being elected vice president last year, campaigned with him in the San Francisco Bay Area on Wednesday, and President Joe Biden is scheduled to campaign for Newsom before Election Day, too.

The California governor has also been delivered a gift in the closing weeks of the campaign with the emergence of Republican Larry Elder, the bombastic conservative talk show host. If California Democrats weren’t paying attention — or were complacent — about the recall election just eight weeks ago, many have been shocked into fury and action with Elder’s own statements and stories about his personal life, including accusations from a former fiancee that he pulled a loaded gun on her during a domestic argument.

Elder’s 30 years of past musing on radio about women, Donald Trump, and issues like gun control, racism, and sexism have served as a perfect foil for Newsom to make the case that turning over the state to a Republican governor would not only deliver the state to “Trumpier” forces, but also undo progress on COVID as well as climate change and a variety of social issues.

Among the political shock jock’s recent utterings has been his vow last week to replace 88-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) with a Republican if a vacancy arose — and to set off an “earthquake” in the control of the U.S. Senate. The remark on conservative Mark Levin’s radio show went viral and has been used as fuel for Democratic fundraising, while handing Newsom another talking point. “If [Senator Feinstein] decides to step down, that is an appointee of the next governor of California,” the governor said. “The national implications are overwhelming.”

But Newsom has also aimed to take advantage of the GOP gender gap weaknesses by seizing on the recent controversial Texas legislation on abortion, which the U.S Supreme Court decided not to block, at least for the time being. Newsom warned voters on Twitter of national implications in that move, noting that Elder has promised anti-abortion activists an agenda to limit abortions if elected governor. Vice President Harris mentioned the Texas law during her rally for Newsom on Wednesday as well.

The entry of Elder, who has a rabid fan base and has snagged multiple big endorsements in California, has also riled some in his own party by doing what Newsom alone couldn’t do — reducing other leading challengers to mere footnotes. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a moderate once viewed as the GOP’s most promising statewide candidate in a blue-dominated California, has sunk to 5% in the PPIC poll, with Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, businessman John Cox — the candidate who lost to Newsom in 2018 — and former reality star Caitlyn Jenner all at 3% or under.

Elder’s entry has been “counterproductive” to the recall movement that was driven by an activist grassroots, says recall founder Orrin Heatlie, a retired Yolo County law enforcement official. “I rejected his candidacy from the get-go, because he’s so far outspoken on the extreme,” he said.

Still, since last November, the recall driven by Heatlie and thousands of his activist volunteers has represented a major headache and an expensive distraction for Newsom and Democrats.

The rise of the recall — and the unexpected success of the longshot effort to the ballot — has been a sharp comedown for a Democratic governor who was swept into office in a 2018 landslide, the largest for a non-incumbent since the 1930s.

In the hyper-partisan era fueled by then-President Donald Trump, Newsom’s election was met almost immediately by calls for recall from GOP conservatives angered about undocumented immigration, high housing costs, homelessness, the uptick in crime, water policies, and a myriad of other issues.

Democrats complained that Republicans repeatedly attempted a recall because it is virtually their only path to statewide office in the solidly blue state. And while Republicans did make gains in the state’s U.S. House delegation in the last presidential election, Democrats still hold a supermajority in both houses of the legislature and all statewide offices — and given their registration advantage, they are likely to do so for some time.

It was in the sixth recall effort on Newsom that Heatlie hit paydirt when his drive coincided with the rise of COVID — fueled by anger as California businesses closed and 6 million public school kids were out of the classrooms.

Newsom himself fired up the calls for his recall with a now-infamous maskless dinner with lobbyists at the tony French Laundry restaurant during the height of the pandemic, a jaw-dropping move that only appeared to confirm criticism that he was an out-of-touch elitist.

The governor’s French Laundry folly coincided almost exactly with a judge’s decision to allow Heatlie and his backers to extend his signature drive for an additional 120 days due to COVID; the ruling went unchallenged by Newsom’s team and served to rescue a recall movement at that point virtually out of gas and which eventually collected 2.1 million signatures to get their drive on the ballot.

Increasingly, it appears that the Delta variant and its growing dangers to children and the unvaccinated will be the deciding factor that helps Newsom escape the wrath of California's voters. Polls suggest the big drama come Sept. 14 may simply be the size of his victory over the recall — and how it will affect the 2022 regular election and the willingness of Republicans to challenge him.

Almost certainly, the results will immediately spark calls for reform of a process that has cost California months of political distraction and $300 million in taxpayer funds. There have been only four gubernatorial recalls in US history — two of them in California in less than two decades, including the 2003 events that ousted Democrat Gray Davis and brought movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to power.

Longtime politics watchers warn there still could be surprises — that Republican voters, for years a more reliable and energized electorate than Democrats in California, are increasingly distrustful of the vote by mail system and may wait until the final day to cast ballots. And, early returns show that younger voters and Latinos are still underperforming, which could be a vulnerability for Newsom.

Democrats insist the voter registration math is on their side.

But Newsom’s campaign message in the final days has also stressed math — specifically related to the Delta variant: the number of jabs in the arms of Californians, and keeping ICU and positivity rates low. The California recall, Newsom said ominously last week, is now “a matter of life and death.”

In the end, that math — and the fear factor surrounding COVID — may well decide the race, and the political future of Gavin Newsom.

Carla Marinucci, senior writer for POLITICO’s California Playbook, has consistently been named one of California’s leading political writers. Prior to launching the POLITICO California Playbook in 2015, Marinucci was senior political writer for the Hearst flagship San Francisco Chronicle, and before that political editor for the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner.

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