Ballots were already being cast in California’s gubernatorial recall election when Gavin Newsom, visiting a pop-up clinic in Oakland, once again implored his constituents to get the Covid-19 vaccine. The week before, the governor had visited the site of the devastating Caldor fire, which had threatened the resort town of South Lake Tahoe and destroyed nearly 1,000 structures.
These ongoing calamities – a once-in-a-generation health crisis and unprecedented challenges posed drought and extreme weather – were, largely, what gave rise to the recall effort. Having won his seat by a historic margin in 2018, Newsom has found himself in a peculiar position. Still broadly popular in the state, he’s fending off challenges from Republicans and rightwingers who are more out of touch with most residents than the governor at his worst. Extraordinary crises have given rise to an extraordinary recall – one that could trigger extraordinary political upheaval in one of America’s bluest states.
The recall ballot asks Californians two questions. First, should the governor be recalled? And, if so, who should replace him? If more than 50% vote yes on the first question, the candidate with a plurality in question two becomes governor. Right now, Newsom’s leading challenger is the rabble-rousing rightwing radio host Larry Elder. Other Republicans, including the former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, the assemblyman Kevin Kiley, the businessman John Cox and the Olympian turned reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner have failed to gain traction, and no prominent Democrats are running.
As the 14 September deadline to return ballots creeps closer, Newsom is characterizing voters’ decision between him and his Republican challengers as a “choice about life and death”.
“We’re experiencing extreme weather the likes of which we’ve never experienced in our lifetime,” Newsom said at a rally on Wednesday. “Look what’s going on across this country, look at states that don’t believe in science,” he added, contrasting himself against Elder, who has said that climate science is “crock” and vowed to roll back statewide vaccination and mask mandates. His closing argument in the recall is that maybe he’s made some mistakes – but the alternative is way worse.
“Newsom was one of the better governors in the country during the outbreak of the Covid pandemic,” said James Lance Taylor, a political scientist at the University of San Francisco. “And as the dust clears, on almost all scores, California did relatively well in enacting these pandemic measures and restrictions.”
There were, undoubtedly, major missteps. Parents grew frustrated when public schools remained closed in California for longer than they did in other states. The state’s unemployment department struggled with enormous backlogs, and hundreds of thousands of jobless residents’ claims were delayed, even as the agency paid out an estimated $31bn in fraudulent claims. Newsom faced harsh criticisms over the state’s initially slow vaccine rollout and its ineffectual sign-up site.
The governor’s personal choices didn’t help either. There was his ill-timed visit to the Michelin-starred French Laundry restaurant amid a Covid-19 surge last autumn, and his admission that he was sending his own children to classes at a private school while most public schools remained closed.
The governor has at times struggled to connect with constituents. Although his approval rating peaked early in the pandemic and remains high, he doesn’t necessarily feel relatable, said Mindy Romero, the founder of the Center for Inclusive Democracy, a nonpartisan research organization. The governor often comes off as someone who has a good command of the crisis, which voters like, Romero said, “but they also need someone who feels accessible, who seems like they understand the pain they’re going through and the fear they have.”
Overall, Newsom – a well-connected member of the state’s political elite, to whom House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was an aunt by marriage – “comes off as a bit too slick,” said Tim Otto, 71, a bookstore owner in Stockton California. Otto voted against the recall, not because he’s necessarily a big fan of Newsom’s but because he believed the governor did a decent job in leading the state through the pandemic. “He didn’t let us turn into a Florida or a Texas,” Otto said – states whose governors have blocked or fought mask and vaccine requirements.
“He has his ‘rules for thee not for me’ attitude,” said Esther Taylor, 26, a grocery store employee who lives in California’s central valley. She wasn’t sure how she would vote in the recall – but she knew she was frustrated with the governor, above all because he seemed to have forsaken communities, like hers, which fell outside the large, coastal metropolitan hubs that filled his campaign coffers and aided his political rise.
Allies rally to support Newsom
A Republican win would bring a dramatic ideological shift to the governor’s mansion in Sacramento, particularly if a divisive candidate like Elder prevails.
But a Republican governor would have “a kind of muted ability,” Romero said. Elder, or any other Republican who might win the election, could use emergency powers to enact sweeping policy changes, appoint judges, and fill vacant statewide offices – including that of 88-year-old Senator Dianne Feinstein if she retires before her term ends. But a Democratic supermajority in the assembly and state senate could override the governor’s veto power and block many significant political appointees.
Ultimately, however, the national reverberations of a Democratic defeat in California would be more significant than most policy changes a Republican governor could enact in one year, she said. “Republicans nationally would be able to say, ‘Look, we kicked out a Democratic governor in a blue state,’” Romero said – and deflating Democratic momentum ahead of the midterms.
So in recent weeks, Democrats in California and Washington DC have escalated efforts to save Newsom’s political life. On Wednesday, Harris returned to her hometown county in the Bay Area, “to stand and speak in support of my friend, my longtime friend,” she told voters. Joe Biden is expected in the state on Monday, for a rally in support of Newsom. Former President Obama appeared in a campaign ad in support of Newsom, as did Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Amid signs that Newsom was failing to inspire young, progressive voters to get to the polls, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called on her young, progressive Instagram followers in California to find their recall ballot, vote no, and “stick that sucker back in your mailbox”.
This last effort is a recognition, Romero said, that “anything beyond a blowout win for Newsom, to some degree is a failure for Democrats.” Although polls appeared dangerously close over the past few weeks, more recent surveys and early voting results indicate that Newsom and his allies should be able to breathe easy. Nearly a third of the electorate had voted as of Thursday morning, according to Political Data, Inc, with more than twice as many Democrats than Republicans having returned their ballots thus far. Recent polls have found Newsom with a double-digit lead in the race.
Still, it seems the governor will be spending the last few days of his campaign emphasizing the stakes of the election. “You have the opportunity to determine the fate and future of the state. And I would argue, impact the fate and future of the United States of America,” Newsom said in his appeal to voters this week.