Deeply divided California voters will go to the polls on Sept. 14 — earlier, if they vote by mail — to decide whether Gov. Gavin Newsom should be recalled and who should replace him.
The polls are tight. A July 24-27 poll from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies has 47 percent of those most likely to vote wanting to boot Newsom out of office, while 50 percent want to retain him. The margin of error was 2.5 percent. IGS plans one more statewide survey before election day, pollster Mark DiCamillo said recently.
Brace yourself for an onslaught of political ads between now and Sept. 14.
But what are the factors that will determine the recall election’s outcome? What helps Newsom and what doesn’t?
Let’s take a look.
What Gov. Newsom has going for him:
- An overwhelming party advantage; Newsom’s Democrats outnumber Republicans in California by 24 points. The California electorate for years has picked only Democratic statewide contenders.
- He’s good-looking and projects an image of clean-cut energy. In a state as media-driven as California — L.A. is the country’s second-largest media market — that’s not a frivolous consideration.
- An endorsement from President Joe Biden, a fellow Democrat who is popular in California.
- An enormous money advantage. The Associated Press reported the main committee opposing the recall has banked $46 million through the end of July, fueled by large donations from public labor unions, tech companies and the entertainment industry. The AP says that after expenses, the committee had about $26 million on hand at the end of July. The recall Newsom campaign had some $8.7 million in cash as of July 31. Brace yourself for an onslaught of political ads between now and Sept. 14. Meanwhile, the Democratic Governors’ Association has raised $17 million on Newsom’s behalf, spent a $1 million already and is likely to spend much more.
- Trump! Trump! Trump! He picked up only 34 percent of the California vote last November. The former president’s low approval rating among Californians coupled with the GOP’s low registration, works in Newsom’s favor. The anti-recall strategists have cleverly made use of that by urging voters to stop “the Republican Recall.”
What Gavin has going against him
- That disastrous Nov. 6, 2020, dinner at the expensive French Laundry restaurant in the Wine Country, held while the state was on a partial lockdown and gatherings such as the one at the restaurants were forbidden. And the dinner was for the birthday of a lobbyist.
- Voters are tired of lockdowns, masks, outbreaks of new variants, wildfires, homeless encampments and housing shortages. None of it may be Newsom’s fault, but the resulting malaise is not politically advantageous for him.
- The back-and-forth on whether schools should reopen or not and remote learning.
- The state’s economy is not in the dumps, but the economic news is replete with stories of stores closing, restaurants on the edge, worker shortages and employment difficulties.
- A perception – which Newsom and his supporters deny, not surprisngly — that he’s been dilatory, switching policies capriciously.
- A ho-hum attitude among Democrats. Newsom’s allies worry that Democrats may be so overconfident and lethargic that their turnout fails to match that of fired-up Republicans. “Nearly all Democrats said, ‘Oh no, he (Newsom) is going to defeat it. It was something like 80 percent, all one-sided. Whereas Republicans said, ‘No, he is likely to be recalled’ by a two-to-one margin. There was a lot of complacency built into those numbers,” DiCamillo said on an Aug. 2 Capitol Weekly Podcast.
- The Employment Development Department on Newsom’s watch has become ensnarled in scandal involving fraudulent payments and delayed legitimate payments, carrying a price tag of at least $2 billion.
Recalling a governor is not new territory in California. Democrat Gray Davis was recalled in 2003 and movie action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, took over. Along with Schwarzenegger, there were more than 130 other candidates hoping to replace Davis.
The political neophyte Elder, however, has made missteps, including a rocky relationship with reporters covering his campaign.
A late-emerging figure in the recall election is L.A. radio talk-show personality Larry Elder, who in IGS’ earlier survey was the leading contender to replace Newsom, capturing 18 percent of the likely voters favoring Newsom’s ouster, but with 40 percent undecided.
The political neophyte Elder, however, has made missteps, including a rocky relationship with reporters covering his campaign, his initially incorrect filing of required financial disclosure statements, and his his failure to appear with other recall candidates at a debate sponsored by the Sacramento Press Club.
“One of the first rules of politics is to show up,” noted L.A. Times columnist George Skelton
Elder also banned the Sacramento Bee from covering his events, an odd move presumably intended to please his conservative supporters who dislike journalists, but which immediately drew negative coverage from other major news outlets.T
The ballot is split into two parts. Part One simply asks if Newsom should be recalled. Part Two offers an array of 46 candidates who would succeed him if he is recalled.
Elder’s principal campaign position, similar to those of other challengers, is to get rid of the state’s rules requiring masks and vaccinations.
Meanwhile, political junkies with an eye on the potential national implications of California’s recall fight have been enjoying some fanciful “What Ifs.”
What if Newsom is indeed recalled and a Republican is selected from among the 46 candidates seeking to replace him, and 88-year-old Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein decides to step down? The new Republican governor picks a Republican to replace her, costing the Democrats control of the Senate. Cooler heads point out that Feinstein knows this and is therefore not likely to step down if California acquires a Republican governor. (Feinstein herself was the target of a recall move when she was serving as mayor of San Francisco in 1983. She won with almost 82 percent of the vote.)
The ballot is split into two parts. Part One simply asks if Newsom should be recalled. Part Two offers an array of 46 candidates who would succeed him if he is recalled. Among the 46, there are nine Democrats, 24 Republicans, two Green Party candidates, one Libertarian and 10 Independents. And, California being California, the list includes a former male Olympic track star who is now a woman.
“By conducting the recall election in this way, Mr. Newsom can receive far more votes than any other candidate but still be removed from office.” — Erwin Chereminsky and Aaron Edlin
One of the most bizarre moments of the entire campaign thus far: Candidate John Cox, a Republican who was trounced by Newsom in the last race for governor, was served with a court order during the Press Club debate requiring him to pay nearly $100,000 in fees to an advertising firm that did work for him in the earlier gubernatorial run.
“He’s been ducking and dodging courts and not showing up. He thinks he’s above the law,” Aman Choudhryserver, the private investigator who served the paperwork, told the Bee. Cox has denied the alegations.
Some students of the law point out that in the event of a successful recall, the candidate among the 46 hopefuls who wins a plurality becomes the next governor. They point out that such a plurality might be a long way from a majority of California voters, who would presumably be saddled with a governor put in office with a minority of voters.
That imbalance has prompted legal scholar, Erwin Chereminsky, dean of the UC Berkeley Law School, and his associate Aaron Edlin, to question the recall election’s constitutionality. Two voters agree with the law professors: They filed a federal lawsuit in the Central District seeking to block the recall election, calling it unconstitutional.
“By conducting the recall election in this way, Mr. Newsom can receive far more votes than any other candidate but still be removed from office,” Chereminsky and Edlin wrote. “This is not just nonsensical and undemocratic. It is unconstitutional.”
The recall election has been set for Sept. 14, although ballots are already being mailed to voters across the state. Thus far, however, none have been sent back in.
It may be “inconsequential, infinitesimal, itsy-bitsy, (and) not-gonna-make-a-difference, but ZERO PERCENT of recall ballots have been returned,” tweeted elections expert Paul Mitchell. “And your brain says ‘this doesn’t mean anything,'”