California, a traditionally Democratic state, will head to the polls tomorrow to vote for – or against – the recall effort to oust Governor Gavin Newsom. The recall was launched by a group of Tea Party members, headed by Orrin Heatlie, under the "Rescue California" banner.
Newsom was elected Governor of California in a landslide just three years ago, at a time when he seemed to signal a new passing of the torch in politics in Sacramento. A darling of the Democratic party known for his progressive politics, he was the mayor of San Francisco for seven years. In 2004, he notoriously legalized gay marriage in the city under President George W. Bush – losing a short-term legal battle to win a long-term political one – becoming a galvanizing figure in the progressive Democratic landscape.
As such, why has he been challenged by Republicans through a recall election?
Why is a California Tossing Aside a Popular Governor like Newsom?
Time has certainly not been on Newsom’s side. As one of the earliest and most vocal proponents of mask mandates, school closures, and social-distancing measures, the pandemic recession has made him a tempting target for voters’ frustration – even among his staunchest supporters who handed him a landslide victory in the 2018 gubernatorial race.
Hence why the Governor’s lockdown-breaking, unmasked appearance at one of California’s most expensive restaurants last autumn – at a time when he was urging his constituents to skip Thanksgiving celebrations – offered the Right the perfect opportunity to portray him as the posterchild for élite hypocrisy.
Ultimately, Newsom’s restaurant faux pas took over the news for weeks and assumed an outsized role in the campaign against him, gathering momentum for what had been, up until then, a long-shot attempt by fringe conservatives at recalling him. A month after the restaurant scandal, the signatures for the petition to replace Newsom grew from 50,000 to over half a million, turbocharging the movement, involving Republicans from other states, and propelling funding from across the country.
After all, as a political force, Governor Newsom has always been “more inevitable than loved”, a wealthy San Franciscan with good family connections which helped propel him into political stardom. Throughout his career, he has masterfully charmed all Democratic factions while offending none, leading him to avoid tackling some of California’s most entrenched, structural issues – the homelessness crisis, the worst wildfires in the state’s history, and the housing price crisis. As a polished yet risk-averse leader in single-party rule California, the result is support wider than it is deep: a liability amid a covid-19 spike, booming unemployment, and an energized, MAGA-fied faction of the Republican party retaliating against Joe Biden’s presidential victory.
Larry Elder, a notorious anti-mask, vaccine-dismissive climate change-denier has emerged as the leading candidate in the campaign against Newsom. Redubbed by some as the Rush Limbaugh of California’s conservative landscape, he’s a famous far-right radio host with the name recognition, connections, and funds available to stand the chance of winning.
How Does a Recall Work?
Behind the latest attempt by Donald Trump devotees to oust the Governor lies California’s unique recall system, which makes engineering a gubernatorial recall unusually easy, so much so that its citizens have become a de facto “fourth branch of government”.
What sounds like an ideal direct democracy scenario – designed in the early 1900s by progressives to check special interests and the corporate world – often ends up being weaponized by a small minority. In fact, as per the Californian Constitution, a small number of signatures (only 12% of the overall electorate) is required to qualify for a recall. This stands in stark contrast to other states’ recall bars, which are between 30% and 40%.
On September 14th, voters will answer two questions: Should Newsom be recalled? And who should replace him? If a majority votes “yes” on recall, whoever is voted by the largest number of people on the second question becomes Governor, even if that person doesn’t win a plurality. In other words, Newsom could win 49% of the votes for a “no” on the recall and still lose to someone like Elder, who currently polls highest than any other challenger at 28%.
Crucially, there might be more riding on the recall than Newsom’s own political fortunes. The US Senate is currently deadlocked between fifty Democrats and fifty Republicans. Reportedly, California’s 88-year-old Senator Dianne Feinstein – who has held that seat since 1992 – may retire before her term ends. If that were the case, her replacement would be named by the next Governor; raising the stakes for the Democratic party if the balance of power tipped towards the Right.
What Do the Polls Say?
In theory, with California being overwhelmingly blue – 46% of the electorate is registered Democrat, while less than a quarter is registered Republican – Newsom should be able to comfortably hold onto his seat. Recent polls show that among all Californians, he wins walking away. However, among likely voters, the margin thins: for the entire summer up until a few days ago, the race had narrowed to a near 50-50 split between those in favor of replacing him and those against the recall.
In the past days, however, the odds seem to have turned back in Newsom’s favor, with recent polls showing 58% of likely voters don’t support the recall.
Nonetheless, off-year voter turnout – during a pandemic – is less common and harder to forecast. If Democrats don’t vote out of disengagement or newly mixed feelings towards Newsom, a victory seems less likely.
Moreover, older, (often) white Republican voters are generally more likely to head to the polls than young, non-white progressive ones who make up a significant chunk of California’s Democratic base. In particular, polls suggest the Governor hasn’t successfully mobilized the Latino community, which accounts for 40% of the state’s citizens. After all, for working-class Latinos, Newsom has at times appeared sorely out-of-touch: in a Berkeley-IGS survey in July, nearly half of Latinos were likely to recall him. Newsom’s weakness with this demographic is symptomatic of a larger phenomenon all across the US: the Latino community, a once reliable and booming Democratic voting bloc, is shifting towards Conservatives, as exemplified by the increased share of Latinos who voted for Trump in 2020 compared to 2016.
Additionally, Sacramento’s single-party rule has made many complacent, furthering the possibility of voter absenteeism, which would ultimately benefit the Republican cause.
Overall, in a regular election, some Democrats’ reported ambivalence towards Newsom – for his lack of progress on climate regulations and the homelessness crisis – wouldn’t necessarily kick him out of Sacramento, but in a recall election with no plurality requirements, that may cost him his seat.
Critically, regardless of the outcome, the possibility of a recall has spotlighted that even a one-party stronghold like California can be shaken by the country’s current political polarization.
Instead of looking for a more visionary leader, Sacramento’s lawmakers will have to address how future Governors will be elected by changing an out-of-touch, promiscuously used recall process that incites unrelenting ousting attempts.
All elected officials are subject to frustrated constituents and partisan forces, but California – which has had at least one gubernatorial recall attempt since 1960 – is overdue for reform. Though 86% of likely voters are in favor of having a recall system, two-thirds agree it ought to be reformed, according to a July survey by the Public Policy Institute of California. One possible amendment to the system would be establishing a bipartisan commission to work on potential reforms, such as imposing a run-off if no challenger wins a majority (supported by 68% of the electorate), raising the recall bar to 25% (supported by 55%), and setting limits to the reasons behind a recall attempt (60%).
The stakes for California – the largest US state and the world’s fifth biggest economy – couldn’t be higher. Newsom appears to be relatively well-positioned to weather the ire of his constituents, though a victory will ultimately come down to whether Democrats can mobilize enough of the state’s vast base to counter Republican enthusiasm. In a recall election, a coordinated faction of angry voters could outmaneuver a splintered majority.