California hasn’t elected a Republican to any statewide position since before the advent of the iPhone. As Gov. Gavin Newsom tries to beat back a recall, Democrats are confronting the possibility that may change.
Newsom allies are ramping up ads and social-media posts that frame the Sept. 14 election as a power grab by Donald Trump supporters. President Joe Biden stepped in last week to urge his Twitter followers to vote against the recall. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator and progressive leader, is appearing in local TV commercials voicing her support.
The heightened urgency reflects a fact that had once seemed improbable: A Newsom win isn’t a foregone conclusion. Polls show that Republicans are much more galvanized to vote than Democrats, who assume the first-term governor will prevail in a state that Trump lost by almost 30 percentage points in 2020.
What was once a referendum on Newsom’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is now spiraling into an acrimonious debate over the future of the most populous U.S. state, with each side portraying dire consequences as the region grapples with a virus resurgence, severe drought and blazing wildfires. A GOP governor would mark a sharp reversal for California, which championed itself as a foil to the Trump administration and has led the nation with progressive policies.
More broadly, it would send a message to Democrats that complacency poses a risk in the 2022 congressional races and to their agenda in Washington. The Democrats can’t lose a single Senate seat or more than three in the House if they want to maintain control of the legislative branch.
“The symbolism of it would certainly be profound,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll conducted by the University of California at Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. “That could be an anti-status quo vote if it succeeded, for sure, which is not a good omen for the Biden administration.”
While a majority of the electorate surveyed reject the recall, the margin is much closer when it comes to those likely to vote, shrinking to just 3 percentage points from 15 for letting Newsom finish the last year of his term, according to the latest Berkeley poll. Most mail-in ballots go out this week.
Voters will face two questions: Should Newsom be removed, and if so, who should replace him? A simple majority of yes votes on the first question will result in his ouster. Whoever wins the most votes on the second question — even if less than 50% — would become the next governor. Newsom, 53, can’t by law appear as a candidate for that.
There’s no prominent Democrat among the slate of 46 replacement candidates, and the state Democratic Party, while urging no to the recall question, is recommending a blank response on who should succeed Newsom if he is removed. As a result, Republicans would comprise more of those votes cast. And given the recent rankings of contenders, if a majority of voters decides to expel the former San Francisco mayor, the next governor of California will likely be from the GOP.
That’s happened before — in 2006, when Arnold Schwarzenegger won to keep the seat he gained three years prior in the state’s first gubernatorial recall. Voters rejected the deeply unpopular Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and tapped the international movie star, some of whose policies, such as on the environment, appear left of the modern Republican Party. Since 2006, the share of registered Republicans of the electorate has steadily shrunk, while that of Democrats is at its highest.
Pollsters and political consultants say that for Newsom, who has higher favorability ratings than Davis did, the race is his to lose, and the governor has assembled powerful allies. Along with Warren, influential Democrats such as Stacey Abrams are stumping for him. Newsom said Friday that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, a longtime friend from their days in San Francisco, are expected to campaign for him in coming weeks.
While some prominent tech executives such as Chamath Palihapitiya and David Sacks are backing his removal, he’s won support from the likes of Netflix Inc.’s Reed Hastings and director Steven Spielberg. Twilio Inc. co-founder Jeff Lawson spoke out last week in a 13-part Twitter thread against the recall.
The campaign to remove Newsom started before the outbreak, but grew in momentum as people chafed under his attempts to control it. Now that the state has fully reopened, his detractors are focusing on crime, homelessness and unaffordable housing and costs of living.
Leading in the polls to replace Newsom is Larry Elder, a conservative radio talk-show host from Los Angeles. Trailing him are fellow Republicans such as reality television star Caitlyn Jenner; former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer; and businessman John Cox, who lost to Newsom in the 2018 election.
The state Republican Party declined to endorse a candidate, despite a push by some for it, amid concerns that a move aimed at boosting the party’s chances would depress turnout from voters if their favorites were snubbed.
“That will guarantee more of a fractured vote in general,” said Kim Nalder, a political-science professor and director of the Project for an Informed Electorate at California State University, Sacramento. “Aside from maybe Caitlyn Jenner, I think it will be pretty random how some folks vote.”
The recall also is occurring at a time outside of the usual election cycle. While Newsom opponents have held rallies throughout the state, Democrats and those unaffiliated with any political party, who together make up about 70% of registered voters, aren’t motivated, polls show.
Newsom’s supporters are trying to overcome that, highlighting Elder’s opinions, such as opposing minimum wage, and his support for Donald Trump as anathema to most Californians. In addition, local Democratic politicians accompanying Newsom at official events are praising him and comparing him to Republican governors in Texas and Florida who are fighting masking against COVID-19.
Nathan Click, a spokesperson for the official anti-recall campaign, said supporters are texting 500,000 voters a night about topics such as the logistics of how to cast ballots, as well as underscoring the consequences of a Newsom loss.
“As we head into the midterms, do you want the biggest state in the country to flip from a solidly Democratic governor to a mini-Trump, basically?” Click said.