Why California Can Get a GOP Governor
Gavin Newsom is in trouble, but he has the resources to survive.
Photo: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Earlier this month California sent out to all 22 million registered voters with a deadline of 14. Their target is Governor Gavin Newsom, who was elected 62:38 in 2018. Although California is a deeply democratic state these days (the Donkey Party enjoys a super majority in both houses of law and an almost two-to-one voter registration advantage), Newsom is in real danger of being recalled. If he loses his vote, he will be removed from office immediately and replaced – possibly by a Republican.
How could that happen? It’s complicated. Here’s a guide to Newsom’s predicament.
Recall petitions are circulating against every California governor at any time. However, in the limited time available (160 days) they usually do not reach the required number to secure a voting slip (12 percent of the last votes cast for the respective office, in this case 1,495,709 petitions examined). The Republicans, who launched a recall against Newsom for his generally progressive views, were very fortunate in two ways. Initially, a state judge gave them a four-month extension to the qualification period (through March 17, 2021) because of the signature-gathering difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which was somewhat ironic since Newsom’s support for COVID-19 prevention measures were soon to be adopted central component of the recall campaign.
But what really got the campaign going was a slip that the governor made on the 6th of the country’s most exclusive restaurants, the French Laundry, in the Napa wine region. Republicans aside, small business owners and public school parents already resenting Newsom’s home stay orders and personal tuition restrictions exploded with anger at his apparent hypocrisy, and the petition campaign achieved its goals with relative ease.
A third badly timed incident arguably came on July 1, when Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, a Newsom ally, used her discretion to set the date of the recall election on the 14th and rising vaccinations and booming government revenues would allay the threat of the recall. The Delta variant, of course, brought the pandemic crisis back almost immediately in California, as elsewhere, and while Newsom has endeavored to leave itself to local governments in setting prevention guidelines, the era of the hot Vaxx summer of good feelings has passed.
What made the recall workable is that the Republican minority in California will likely hit well over their weight. For one, Newsom is almost a parody of everything Trump-era Republicans hate. He is a wealthy San Francisco cultural progressive (who despised Sodom-by-the-Bay in the imagination of cultural conservatives everywhere) with close ties to Silicon Valley (another object of conservative anger lately), whose self-esteem exudes arrogance to his critics and who always looks like he’s just come from a fashion shoot. Second, the Golden State Republicans know they’ve been beaten: They haven’t won a nationwide race since 2006. And their last big break was another recall election in 2003 when they managed to sack Gray Davis in favor of their own Arnold Schwarzenegger. Could history repeat itself? Maybe if every Republican turned out to be. At the time, it was viewed as the best, and perhaps only, opportunity the GOP could ever have to elect the governor of California.
The feeling that this could happen was heightened by Team Newsom’s decision to discourage Democratic leaders from joining the vast field of candidates running to succeed the governor if he is actually removed. In the way California’s much-criticized system works, the recall election involves just two ballots: one that asks if voters want to recall (i.e., remove) the incumbent, and a second that elects a replacement (by a simple majority) if the majority with “yes” votes ”to the first question. For example, a small minority of voters could vote for a Newsom successor if things go right – irony for a state that now needs majorities of votes to win regular parliamentary elections under a top 2 primary system (all candidates from all parties kicking at). in a “jungle area code” with the two first place winners in a general election).
The great fear in Newsom’s camp all along has been that, thanks to a combination of complacency and confusion, the vast democratic majority of the state will not bother to vote on a recall contest. And polls that differentiate between registered and likely voters show a wide gap between Republican and Democratic interest in the election.
You obviously won’t hear this from activists who support Newsom, but another problem is the lack of intense support from the governor, which drives people to the polls in relatively small elections like this one. Even Californians who approve of his job performance (steady, if not large, majorities) don’t seem to like him very much.
As a result, Recall opponents have increasingly launched negative attacks on the Republican sponsors of the effort. Newsom’s lush advertising budget includes a string of messages (some from national Democratic figures like Senator Elizabeth Warren) labeling the recall as a continuation of the Trump re-election campaign and even the January 6 uprising. The assumption is that Democrats who do not do everything possible to save their governor may be awakened by the chance to displease the hated 45th President and his MAGA bravos.
There is no question that the 2003 recall is following today’s opponents of the recall. There is a strong belief (perhaps better described as a mythology) that Davis lost because his lieutenant governor Cruz Bustamante entered the reserve race and got voters to support the recall without raising enough support to beat Schwarzenegger. So Team Newsom didn’t just stop credible Democrats from replacing him; They have also tried to discourage Democratic voters from answering the second question about their preference among substitute candidates. As Politico recently noted, this “one-and-one” message can confuse or even anger the very voters Newsom needs:
“It’s kind of counter-intuitive to forego the right to vote,” said Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Political and Media Studies in the state of Sacramento. “Everyone is puzzled as to what to do.”
What the “don’t pay attention to the substitute-behind-the-curtain” directive to the Democrats is a new round of anti-recall ads targeting substitute front runner Larry Elder (a veteran libertarian conservative) talk show host with a rich history of provocative on-air commentary and some personal baggage) as “right of Trump”. If Elder is so angry, shouldn’t Democrats vote for someone else out of the field of 45 other candidates, some of whom identify as Democrats? It is unclear.
California electoral authorities made an early decision to proactively send postal ballot papers to all registered voters, just as they did for the 2020 general election pandemic. They can be returned in the enclosed prepaid envelopes (if postmarked by September 14th and received by September). 21, they will count) or on September 14th at polling centers (and in some counties in a mailbox). And you have to wonder if Donald Trump’s demonization of postal voting during and after the 2020 presidential election could still prevent Republicans from voting this way, even if there is an option to cast the ballots in person.
The sparse poll in the recall elections (and polling in special elections is always difficult) has shown that competition is intensifying as to whether or not to remove Newsom. Elder also has a growing lead in the backup race, despite at least one poll ranking YouTube financial advisor and self-proclaimed Democrat Kevin Paffrath. Team Newsom likely has mixed feelings about future polls, fearing both a confirmation of the Newsom dismissal trend and less alarming numbers that could send Democrats relax back into complacency and indifference.
The anti-recall effort has the resources to dominate paid advertising all along the way (along with Vice President Kamala Harris’ personal campaign, and perhaps later President Joe Biden), but it has to agree on a consistent message and that Combat growth word of mouth among Republicans that this is the moment everyone has been waiting for. Another variable concerns the internal dynamics of the surrogate breed. With no general election pending (again, if Newsom is removed, the replacement winner becomes governor immediately), Elder’s Republican rivals have no reason to hold back from brutally attacking him from one corner while the Democrats attack him from the other. If late polls show a rival (most likely former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer or 2018 candidate John Cox) is catching up with the talk show host, it could have a hard-to-predict impact on voter turnout or even Paffrath into governorship catapult should Newsom fall.
In the event a Republican becomes governor of the largest state in the country – a state that contributed 5 million votes to Joe Biden’s national majority with 7 million votes last year – loud cries of triumph will break out across MAGA country and “Democrats-in “Disarray” narratives will even surpass their current level in media circles, mixing a Newsom disaster with the Cuomo disaster and the Kabul disaster. If Gavin Newsom had avoided the French laundry business last November, the risk of such a catastrophe for his governorship and his party might have been avoided altogether.
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