California Recall Election: Newsom Primed To Hang On

Gavin Newsom Joe Biden
California Governor Gavin Newsom greets US President Joe Biden (R) at Sacramento Mather Airport September 13, 2021, in Mather, California. - US President Joe Biden kicked off a visit to scorched western states Monday to hammer home his case on climate change and big public investments, as well as to campaign in California's recall election. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

With the California Recall Election in the final stretch, incumbent Governor Gavin Newsom looks like he will beat the recall. Following credible polling a few weeks ago that showed voters were split on whether or not to recall Newsom, a September push has helped Newsom expand his lead. A Trafalgar poll (a pro-GOP polling service) conducted in late August showed Newsom with an eight-point lead, 52%-44%. This after the renewed efforts of some of the most popular Democrats in the country, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, to campaign for the governor.

Newsom also received help from President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who helped campaign in the final days. Throughout the month of August, it seemed that there was a real chance that Newsom would be recalled and replaced. Conservative radio talkshow host Larry Elder has consistently led the pack of viable candidates to replace the embattled governor. Elder is a very conservative African-American man that is seemingly too right of center for left-leaning California. He is, however, still overwhelmingly the favorite to be the next Governor should the recall be successful.

Why is California Attempting to Recall Newsom?

The state of California, thanks to a 1911 law, has always had the ability to recall unpopular elected officials. There has only been one successful recall during the last 100 plus years in California (only two nationwide). That would be the recall of unpopular Democratic Governor Gray Davis in 2003. He was replaced by movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican. Schwarzenegger also represents the last time a Republican won a statewide race in California (his reelection bid in 2006).

The current recall campaign has hung its hat on anti-Newsom sentiment stemming from the governor’s hypocritical visit to the French Laundry Restaurant, an upscale three Michelin star establishment located in California’s Napa Valley. Also at the top of pro recall voters’ minds is Newsom’s handling of the COVID-19 Pandemic in California. The governor has had some of the most restrictive measures in the country regarding masking, vaccines, and gatherings. Also not helping Newsom is several out-of-control wildfires as well as the rising homelessness crisis in the state. All of these issues, including some Newsom has tried to address, have been at the forefront of the recall campaign.

Governor Newsom has repeatedly branded the recall election as a “Republican Recall” and a “Republican Power Grab.” Newsom actually won a court case in early August that allowed him to brand the recall as such. It is important to note that Republicans mostly support the recall, but other affiliated voters do too. The race includes 46 candidates on the ballot, 24 Republicans, eight Democrats, and 14 candidates that identify as either Independents or no party preference. Every voter in California has received a ballot for the recall. It includes two questions involving the recall. First, should Newsom be recalled? Then, who among the 46 candidates should replace him?

At the center of the pro recall side is the aforementioned candidate Larry Elder. He has maintained a lead in nearly every poll since his entrance into the race in July. Also fighting for a chance to replace Newsom is former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a moderate Republican who was elected in California’s second-largest city. Businessman John Cox, who lost to Newsom in 2018, is also in the race. Rocklin Assemblyman Kevin Kiley and celebrity and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner round out the Republican field of notable candidates.

On the Democratic side, only one candidate has gained any real traction. That would be YouTuber Kevin Paffrath. The real estate mogul with over one million Youtube subscribers has consistently led the field of Democrats to replace Newsom. Paffrath has argued that any Republican who replaces Newsom would be a lame-duck governor. This is because they would be unable to pass any legislation with a supermajority of Democratic control in the legislature. He maintains that as a Democrat, he could pass helpful resolutions for the people of California. For the record, Newsom and other Democrats opposing the recall have encouraged voters to vote no on the recall and simply leave the second question about who should replace him blank.

Unlike in 2003, when Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat, ran as a recall candidate in the event Governor Davis was recalled, no well-known Democrat chose to run this time around. Newsom was in favor of this strategy because, at the outset of the recall, he thought he would beat it. Now, even though Newsom has a wider lead, there is still a possibility that the recall could be successful. And his efforts to keep big-name Democrats off the ballot could backfire and actually help a Republican candidate like Elder win with only a tiny fraction of the vote.

What are the Consequences of a Successful Recall?

In the unlikely event that the recall is successful, many consequences could come to light. First and foremost is the viability of future Republican candidates for Governor and other statewide offices. If the recall is successful, an emboldened California Republican Party will see the opportunity to put forth serious and well-funded candidates for statewide office. This would include but is certainly not limited to the race for governor and the race for Senate in 2022. Even if Newsom narrowly beats the recall, it will show that it is at least in the realm of possibility that California elects a Republican. It would also likely mean that Newsom’s 2022 campaign (should he run) and appointed Senator Alex Padilla’s reelection campaign would require many more resources than precisely thought. It is something that California Democrats hope to completely avoid if Newsom is able to beat the recall comfortably.

The nightmare scenario for Democrats, however, is if Newsom was recalled and replaced with a Republican Governor, and 88-year-old Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein is forced to retire. This would give the new Republican Governor (likely Elder) the ability to replace Feinstein with a Republican and thus erase the Democrat’s razor-thin majority in the U.S. Senate. Currently, the Senate is split 50-50, with Vice President Harris casting the tie-breaking vote, giving Democrats the majority. Elder recently committed to replacing Feinstein with a GOP Senator if he became Governor. He said on the Mark Levin Show, “They’re afraid I’m going to replace her with a Republican, which I most certainly would do, and that would be an earthquake in Washington, D.C.”. This fear from Democrats, both in Washington and California, has likely helped to energize the voters Newsom needs.

Another outcome of a successful recall would be its effects on the political environment heading into the 2022 midterm elections. Currently, Republicans are the favorite to win back the House of Representatives, while the Senate and individual Governor’s races remain tossups. If a Republican wins in one of the bluest states in America, it would have the effect of energizing Republicans to come out and vote in areas that are traditionally Democratic. Nearly every state and every race would be a target for Republicans.

It would be like Ryan Fazio’s recent win in Connecticut’s 36th district for State Senate. President Joe Biden carried the district by over 25 points in 2020. But Fazio was able to reclaim the district by just under three points in August. Although turnout was low, it still marked the first seat to switch parties since Joe Biden became President. It gave Republicans a small boost in the near term. An upset victory in California would do the same, just tenfold. It’s something that Democrats nationally are desperately trying to avoid, so long as Newsom stays in office.

What is the Most Likely Outcome of the Recall?

Gavin Newsom still has the upper hand as September 14 approaches. Multiple polls give Newsom between a five and fifteen-point edge. One poll by Change Research showed that 57% of voters wanted to keep Newsom while only 42% wanted him gone. It should be noted that Newsom, per California’s recall law, is not actually running against anyone. Instead, voters must decide whether or not to keep him and who, if anyone, should replace him. If Newsom gains 51% or more of the vote on the first question, the second question becomes irrelevant.

Despite this, it is surprising that just one month ago a poll showed Newsom underwater by about eleven points. Now he seems to be about eleven points above water. Democrats and Newsom can probably attribute this to aggressive campaigning by Democrats nationally as well as Newsom’s campaign war chest, which includes more than $75 million. This is more than double what all of the pro recall candidates have combined.

In order for Larry Elder or any other candidate to win the recall, there will need to be a huge influx of Republican and pro recall ballots submitted in person on election day (and in late-arriving absentees). It is common knowledge that many Republicans wait until the last moment to vote or mail their ballot because of fears regarding mail-in ballots. But even if there is a large pot of untapped votes, it is still unlikely to exceed anti-recall votes.

According to the Sacramento Bee, 54% of all ballots returned were from Democrats. Only 24% of returned ballots came from Republicans, while 22% were from nonaffiliated voters. This reflects that many Democrats are voting early and in the numbers Newsom needs to stay in office. There have been rumblings that areas such as Orange County have not seen the kind of turnout to unseat Newsom. This should come as a great concern to California Republicans and pro recall activists.

The likely scenario regarding California’s recall election is a comfortable but not overwhelming victory for Gavin Newsom. Polls indicate it could be by fifteen points or more, but I will peg it at about eight. Low voter turnout, in general, will keep many Democrats at home that would otherwise vote in large numbers for Newsom. Keep in mind that this is an off-year election that includes no other candidates or questions on the ballot. This means that if voters do not have interest in the recall, they will likely have little reason to vote.

This is really the only reason any Republican has a chance statewide in California to begin with. Newsom was elected in 2018, beating the aforementioned John Cox with more than 62% of the vote. It was the largest margin of victory for any Democrat in California ever. And Newsom is still personally popular in the state, with an approval rating hovering around 57%. This is why the only real path to victory for any of the recall candidates is generally low voter turnout. But as mentioned, that is not occurring, so Newsom looks fairly likely to beat the recall at this point.

Golden State Recall Roundup

Governor Gavin Newsom is in the driver’s seat to beat the recall effort against him and remain as governor for at least the next year. But this recall is not going unnoticed by Republicans nationally. If Newsom only squeaks by in his campaign, it will be a sign that perhaps California is ready to elect a statewide Republican for the first time since Arnold Schwarzenegger. Democrats do not want California to become any sort of battleground state that they must invest heavily in. Just as Republicans would not want to see Texas become a true battleground state they have to pour money into.

Democrats have played a risky hand by not allowing any big-name Liberals to appear on the recall ballot. If Newsom beats the recall, all is well. But if he does not, questions will arise about the political strategy of California Democrats overall. Also, questions about the stability of the Democratic Party nationwide will arise as the 2022 Midterm Elections quickly approach. September 14 will answer many of these questions, and if polling proves to be accurate, Gavin Newsom should look forward to another year as governor.

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