By Shawn Hubler and Jill Cowan, The New York Times
President Joe Biden sent an urgent message last week to the most populous state in the nation: Keep Gov. Gavin Newsom “on the job.” On the airwaves, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the prominent progressive from Massachusetts, has been repeatedly warning that “Trump Republicans” are “coming to grab power in California.”
Text messages — a half-million a day — are spreading the word on cellphones. Canvassers are making their case at suburban front doors. As some 22 million ballots land in the mailboxes of active registered voters this week in anticipation of the Sept. 14 recall election, Newsom — a Democrat elected in a 2018 landslide — has been pulling out all the stops just to hold on to his post.
The vote is expected to come down to whether Democrats can mobilize enough of the state’s enormous base to counteract Republican enthusiasm for Newsom’s ouster. Recent polls of likely voters show a dead heat, despite math that suggests the governor should ultimately prevail.
Less than a quarter of the electorate is Republican. Newsom has raised more campaign cash than all four dozen or so of his challengers put together. And the governor’s most serious rival is talk radio host Larry Elder, who has called global warming “a crock,” says the minimum wage should be “zero-point-zero-zero,” and gave Stephen Miller, the hard-line Trump administration immigration adviser, his first big public platform.
But the coronavirus pandemic has not been particularly governor-friendly. Polls this month show that approval for Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is sagging as the state writhes under spiking deaths and hospitalizations.
And Newsom’s supporters are encountering a striking degree of ambivalence and distraction.
“I think he has done as well in the job as any governor could have, given the last year of the pandemic, but I’m not a fan,” Anamaria Young, 53, said recently in El Dorado Hills, east of Sacramento. Removing the governor more than a year before the end of his first term feels undemocratic, Young, a Democrat, said, but she also dislikes his lack of progress on homelessness and his deference to teachers unions.
“When my ballot comes,” she said, “I really don’t know how — or if — I am going to vote.”
Initiated by Republicans who took issue with Newsom on the death penalty and immigration, the once long-shot effort to recall the governor gained improbable traction as the coronavirus persisted. First, pandemic-related shutdowns prompted a judge to extend the measure’s signature-gathering deadline, and then word leaked that the governor had dined unmasked with lobbyists at an exclusive restaurant after imploring Californians to cover their faces and stay home.
If a majority of voters decide to recall Newsom, the new governor will be whoever among his 46 challengers gets the most votes, even if no rival gets a majority.
Critics of the state’s recall rules have long worried that 49% of the electorate could vote to keep an incumbent, only for a tiny plurality of voters to choose a replacement. On Friday, a lawsuit was filed in federal court challenging the recall’s constitutionality, based on that argument. Newsom has been urging Democrats to vote no on the recall and not even bother to answer the second question, which asks who should replace him. Among likely voters, recent polls show support for Elder, the current front-runner, at around 20%.
“No intellectually honest analysis” would predict the governor’s defeat, said Paul Mitchell, vice president of the bipartisan data firm Political Data Inc. in Sacramento. But state lawmakers in February extended pandemic-related accommodations to voters through the year, dealing a wild card.
The rules allow voting by mail at a scale comparable only to the 2020 presidential election — which is seemingly a Democratic advantage, although off-year participation is harder to forecast. Only one other attempt to recall a California governor has come to a vote, and 18 years have passed since the state replaced Gray Davis with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mitchell noted.
“The swing voters in this campaign are not the usual ones choosing which party to vote for,” said Nathan Click, a former spokesperson for the governor who is now campaigning to defend him. “They’re Democrats who are choosing whether to vote.”
Elder, 69, a Black “small-l libertarian” lawyer who rose to national stature from Los Angeles, where he has been a talk radio fixture for decades, said he was not “some wild-eyed radical,” and that he entered the race at the behest of “normal people” such as his barber and dry cleaner as well as like-minded friends such as Dennis Prager, his right-wing broadcast mentor. His priorities — public school choice, high housing costs and rising crime — transcend party labels, he said.
He said his opposition to abortion was irrelevant in a state that supports abortion rights as much as California, and his view that a minimum wage deters job creation is mainstream economics. Remarks such as the one he made in 2008 on “Larry King Live” discounting global warming were merely to criticize “alarmism,” he said, acknowledging that climate change is happening but adding, falsely, that “nobody really knows to what degree” it is caused by humans.
He said he has voted for every Republican presidential candidate since the 1970s, not just Donald Trump.
“Why bring up Stephen Miller? Why bring up abortion? Why bring up minimum wage?” Elder said. “Because Gavin Newsom cannot defend his record.”
Polls indicate that majorities of Californians approve of Newsom’s policies, but when surveys are narrowed to the most likely voters, his margin thins.
A statewide poll in mid-July by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, found that likely voters were almost evenly split over whether to oust the governor, with 47% saying they would vote to recall him and 50% saying they would retain him, an edge that just barely exceeded the poll’s margin of error. Subsequent polls have affirmed those results.
So Newsom has spent big to turn out his party’s 46% share of the voters. His recall defense campaign received some $46 million in contributions through July, far more than Elder ($4.5 million); Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego ($2.1 million); John Cox, the businessman campaigning with a bear ($9.4 million, mostly self-funded); the reality television figure and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner ($750,000); or any other candidate.
The mere reminder that ballots are heading for mailboxes should turn many tuned-out Democrats into likely voters, Click said, and teams of supporters have been texting some 500,000 Democrats daily. Rep. Barbara Lee, co-founder and the co-chair of the group Women Against the Recall, said the national Democratic Party is looking to such grassroots efforts as a potential model for future campaigns.
But Sonja Diaz, director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at the University of California, Los Angeles, said Democrats seemed to be playing catch-up as the delta variant preoccupied voters.
“People have been procrastinating,” she said, comparing the governor’s team to overconfident students failing to study for a final. “Delta has made it clear you’re not prepared for the exam.”
Northeast of Los Angeles, in Palmdale, canvassers for an immigrant advocacy group pitched the governor to voters last week.
Ashley Reyes, 27, a registered Democrat who was watching her toddler and his cousins play in her gated driveway, said she did not realize the recall had qualified for the ballot. Her parents and in-laws were immigrants, she said, adding that she would vote to keep the governor.
Peering into 101-degree heat through his metal screen door, Edgar Robleto, 62, a Republican, replied “I want him gone” when the canvassers mentioned Newsom. The state GOP, which represents 24 candidates, voted last weekend against endorsing one contender, lest any Republican opt not to vote.
Experts predict a slugfest. “Negative partisanship is the biggest driver of political decision-making right now,” said Mike Madrid, a longtime Republican adviser.
David Townsend, a Democratic consultant, agreed: “This is going to be totally tribal.”
“This is not going to be about Newsom,” he said. “It’s going to be about whether Democrats want Trump to have a governor in California.”
Copyright 2021 The New York Times Company