LOS ANGELES – The governorship of California is just one piece of what is at stake in this week’s historic recall election of Gavin Newsom. An upset in the race to remove the liberal leader – in a state that boasts 5 million more Democrats than Republicans – would carry implications that would explode well beyond the nation’s most-populous state.
Though polls give Newsom an edge, experts say a loss could embolden Republicans across the nation who oppose vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions, undermine California’s reputation as a progressive trendsetter and jeopardize Democrats’ control of the U.S. Senate.
Only twice in U.S. history has a governor been ousted from office in a recall election: once in North Dakota in 1921 and the other in 2003 in California after Gray Davis was removed from office and replaced by movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The 18-month effort to oust Newsom has endured twists and turns, going from a long-shot attempt to remove a national leader who was floated as a possible presidential contender to becoming a serious problem for Democrats. Fears of his removal forced an array of big-name liberals, including most notably President Joe Biden – who will join Newsom for a rally on Monday – to journey across the country and implore residents to back Newsom.
Why California’s recall election matters nationally
California is a trendsetter. Almost as if “when California sneezes, the rest of the country catches a cold,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and a former Los Angeles County supervisor and city councilman.
California ousting a Democrat would be a “political earthquake” that could shake the rest of the nation as well, he added.
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Republicans in the race have made the case that this election could turn a new page for the state, which deals with chronic wildfires and droughts, along with a lack of affordable housing that has helped fuel a worsening homelessness crisis.
“California is in crisis right now. And not only with natural disasters, but by man-made disasters made by politicians like Gavin Newsom,” said Randy Economy, one of the original organizers of the recall effort.
He acknowledged that while the state is heavily Democratic, “all politics is local,” and voters in some of the largest Democratic hubs, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, were among those most affected by Newsom’s policies during the pandemic.
“It doesn’t make much sense to have people vote their party lines, when they’re so impacted every day by the failed policies of Gavin Newsom,” Economy said. “This is about the people. This is the people’s recall.”
Some observers say those COVID-19 restrictions are also a key concern as the ultra-contagious delta variant is sickening Americans in staggering numbers.
The election could be a referendum on a political leader who stressed he tried to follow the science during a pandemic: “If it turns out it costs you your job, that’s a pretty big deal,” said Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of University of California San Francisco Department of Medicine.
Ousting Newsom could send the message to politicians across the nation that strict measures and mandates could be a “political death penalty,” Wachter added.
It also would send a forecasting message to Democrats ahead of the 2022 election, when they will be battling once again to keep control of both chambers of Congress.
“They think if they win in California, they can do it everywhere,” Vice President Kamala Harris told voters in the Bay Area on Wednesday during a campaign stop for Newsom, encouraging people to vote and “send a message” that this won’t happen.
Harris said the election results would reverberate across the country and could threaten women’s reproductive rights, immigration, the right to vote and workers’ rights – though anyone who replaces Newsom would be faced with a Democratic supermajority in the state’s Legislature, which makes it nearly impossible to pass sweeping conservative policies.
Likely the biggest influence of the election is also perhaps the most theoretical: control of the U.S. Senate.
The recall election will determine the governor of California only for a little over a year, because the recall determines only who finishes Newsom’s term, which is set to expire after the fall 2022 election.
Right now, the U.S. Senate is evenly split, with Harris as the deciding vote. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 88, is less than halfway through her six-year term.
How did we get here if California is so liberal?
The recall effort started in February 2020 before COVID-19 really altered life as we knew it across the world. Originally, organizers justified removing Newsom from office based on his position on a number of political issues, including taxes and immigration.
But as the fallout from the pandemic was felt, the effort shifted.
Newsom started off being praised for being ahead of the rest of the country in issuing the first stay-at-home order and managing to keep infections low at the beginning of the pandemic when other states were seeing an explosion of cases.
As the pandemic wore on, fatigue grew and dynamics in the state shifted dramatically.
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A judge allowed organizers more time to get signatures that could force a recall election by four months, from November to March. During that time, the effort gained popularity as California became the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, despite Newsom employing some of the strictest mandates. Those rules kept schools closed longer than most places, restricted outdoor dining and closed beaches.
At the same time, the governor was drawing headlines for public flubs, including his attendance at a dinner party at The French Laundry – one of the world’s most exclusive restaurants – at a time when he was discouraging Californians from traveling to see family during the holidays.
In the spring, organizers turned in more than the 1.5 million signatures needed to force an election.
The political climate around that time appeared to be shifting in Newsom’s favor. He announced the state would reopen its economy, COVID-19 cases had dropped significantly, and vaccination was doing well.
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But as the state reopened, many saw changes: Thousands of businesses across the state were shuttered, including an estimated one-third of the state’s restaurants. Homelessness had taken over city streets, parks and beaches.
Then the delta variant took hold in the U.S. California, like other states, once again issued mask mandates indoors regardless of vaccination status. Amid it all, wildfires destroyed multiple communities, and one came dangerously close to the iconic Lake Tahoe area.
The shifting dynamics meant trouble for Newsom, even in a state where registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 2 to 1.
Who is running to replace Newsom?
Forty-six candidates will appear on the ballot, including Larry Elder, a Black conservative radio host who has consistently been leading polls.
Elder’s lead in the polls led to added scrutiny of his past, including a host of remarks he made on his radio show and in columns over the years about women and race. Among them: “Blacks exaggerate the significance of racism” and “women know less than men about political issues.”
He has been vocal that he opposes any state-imposed minimum wage and said companies should be able to ask women if and when they plan to get pregnant.
He, like other candidates, has toured the state. In an appearance Wednesday in Venice, Elder was met with protesters, including one person in a gorilla mask who threw what appeared to be an egg at him. Members of his security team also were assaulted, he said.
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Other prominent Republican candidates running include Caitlyn Jenner, a former Olympic gold medalist who starred on the reality series “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”; former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer; California State Assemblyman Kevin Kiley; and John Cox, a businessman who was easily defeated by Newsom in the 2018 gubernatorial election.
All of the leading GOP candidates have said they oppose mandates on COVID-19 vaccines and masks, and many have vowed to reverse Newsom’s orders. Several of the leading candidates have floated a ban on such mandates, including when it comes to schools and children.
The only leading Democratic candidate who has emerged in the race is Kevin Paffrath, a real estate broker and YouTube personality. He has marketed himself as centrist Democrat and a backup for liberal voters should Newsom fail to secure at least 50% of the vote.
How does the election work?
A recall election in California is unlike other elections. The ballot will ask voters two questions: Do they want to recall Newsom, yes or no? And if more than 50% of voters agree, then who should replace him?
The election says whomever gets the most votes wins – even without a majority. So it’s possible someone could be elected while winning less than half the votes.
In fact, with 46 candidates, it’s possible a winner could emerge with as little as 20% of the vote should Newsom be recalled – a fraction of what a candidate would need in a typical statewide election.
But a pair of polls released last week indicate Newsom has a strong chance of surviving the recall. The polls offered a shift from polls just weeks before that showed Newsom could be in trouble.
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In August, some polls showed Newsom could lose the race, and one showed his loss could be as large as 11 points – a remarkable result that shocked some in the state’s political circles.
The latest polls suggest the race may not be a nail-biter: 57.8% of respondents said they would vote to keep Newsom in office, while 41% said they would support the recall, according to a Suffolk University poll released Wednesday.
Roughly 27.3% of California voters already had returned their ballot by Sept. 6, according to the California secretary of state’s office.
The Suffolk poll came a day after another poll found similarly promising results for the Democratic governor. That poll, by the Hoover Institution and Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West in partnership with YouGov, found that 57% of voters opposed the recall, while 43% said they would vote to oust Newsom.
The findings arrive soon after several other polls offered good signs for Newsom. Polling averages from the data and politics website FiveThirtyEight show a 10.5-point margin for Newsom, with 53.3% opposed to the recall and 42.7% in favor. In early August, the same averages showed Newsom with a razor-thin margin of 0.2 points.
Contributing: Tom Coulter, Palm Springs Desert Sun