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How California’s Gavin Newsom could lose his job to a Republican in a recall

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How does a relatively popular Democratic governor in one of the bluest states in the country find himself at serious risk of losing his job to a Trump-supporting Republican?

© Nic Coury/AP California Gov. Gavin Newsom, front right, is at risk of being removed from his job in his first term in office.

The answer in the case of California’s Gavin Newsom is a mix of excitement among conservatives, apathy from everyone else, a confusing process and tensions heightened by the pandemic. Californians will vote by Sept. 14 on whether to kick Newsom out of office three years into his first term. If they do, the candidate currently most likely to replace him is an anti-mask-mandate conservative radio host who cuts against the state’s liberal slant.

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Here’s what you need to know to follow the California gubernatorial recall election.

Why is Gavin Newsom up for recall in California?

Grass-roots conservatives launched a recall against Newsom last year, just before the pandemic hit the United States hard. Their grievances were numerous and ballooned further over Newsom’s coronavirus restrictions.

The recall mostly circulated in conservative circles. Then, as he was publicly harping on public safety measures last fall, Newsom was caught having dinner at the famously swanky French Laundry restaurant without a mask, and the effort took off. “It feeds into everything Californians already thought about him,” said Loyola University law professor Jessica Levinson, of why that was such a big moment for the recall. “That he’s an elitist, he’s out of touch, he’s hypocritical.”

Even then, recall backers were still were struggling to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot — until a judge gave organizers four more months to collect signatures because of the pandemic restrictions.

“We had the perfect storm that came together,” said Randy Economy, the original spokesman for the recall.

Now, Newsom is facing a serious challenge. It comes just a year before he planned to run for reelection.

What is the deal with California and recalls?

Recalls are baked into California’s political culture. Every governor who has served over the past 60 years has faced a recall effort. But only once before has it succeeded; in 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor.

The mechanism for recalling a politician in California was set up in the 1910s by progressives intent on keeping a check on power. They made qualifying for the ballot easy. Organizers only have to get signatures of 12 percent of voters from the most recent election; many other states require 25 percent, historian Kathryn Olmsted writes in the New York Times.

In 2003, Gov. Gray Davis (D) faced a recall after rolling blackouts in the state made him unpopular, and Republicans put up a celebrity — Schwarzenegger — and millions of dollars behind the effort to elect him. In the recall, 55 percent of voters said they wanted to recall Davis, and Schwarzenegger won the seat with 48 percent of the vote over more than 100 other candidates to replace Davis.

When and how will the Newsom recall ballot work?

A recall ballot has been mailed out to every registered California voter, and in-person voting will be held Sept. 14.

The recall ballot has two questions. Voters must answer:

  1. Do you want to recall Governor Newsom?
  2. If the governor is recalled, who do you want to replace him?

© Rich Pedroncelli/AP Voter pamphlets and prepaid ballot return envelopes are stacked on a table at the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters office. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

If a majority votes no on the first question, then he stays governor. If a majority votes yes, they want to recall Newsom. Whoever gets the most votes on the second question wins and becomes governor.

There are 46 candidates running to replace Newsom, most of them Republicans. (We’ll discuss the candidates later.) So the person who wins almost certainly won’t get a majority of votes. It’s possible that if Newsom is recalled, it happens with 48 or 49 percent of voters casting ballots to keep him and the next governor receiving just 15-18 percent of the vote.

In other words: Newsom could receive more votes than anyone else in the race but still lose his job to someone for whom only a fraction of Californians voted.

“It’s entirely possible you could have somebody who doesn’t have support across the state be the next governor,” said David Crane, a Democratic political operative who worked on the 2003 recall.

Why is Newsom’s job in danger?

Newsom’s approval rating was a healthy 57 percent in an August CBS-YouGov poll. But recall supporters say that life in California is becoming increasingly unaffordable and restrictive during the pandemic.

The recall benefits voters who do not want Newsom in office, and it’s fair to think they are more motivated to return their ballots, given the rare chance to unseat a sitting governor they don’t like. The question is whether the strong majority of California voters who already chose Newsom to be their governor three years ago, will be equally compelled to fill out another ballot to keep him in office.

That same poll found that Trump voters in California were almost 20 points more likely to say they’re very motivated to vote in the recall than Biden voters.

“To Republicans,” writes The Washington Post’s Dan Balz, “Newsom is the embodiment of unchecked liberal governance. The recall provides an outlet for voters angry or frustrated with conditions and politicians.”

Newsom’s strategy: Tell people to vote on only half the ballot

Newsom has settled on a strategy to try save his job: He and the California Democratic Party are telling people to only vote on the first question, whether to keep him in power, and skip the second entirely.

They’ve also discouraged viable Democratic candidates from running. The strategy seems to be to keep it simple: Don’t make Newsom voters do more work by researching a second choice, and don’t give Democratic voters another option to fall in love with. (Many Democrats think having a well-known Democrat on the ballot in 2003 hurt Davis.)

The setup carries an obvious danger for California Democrats: What happens if a majority say they want to oust Newsom? The party will find itself without a vetted backup.

That is what some polling suggests could happen. It’s a nightmare scenario for the party that is arguably of its own making, writes The Fix’s Aaron Blake.

What do the polls say about Newsom’s chances?

The polls say it’s close. Newsom has just a 4 percent lead in the first question on the ballot — whether he should keep his job — among likely voters, according to the August CBS News-YouGov poll.

A University of California at Berkley poll from late July found that Newsom had just a 3 percent cushion among likely voters: 47 percent said they wanted to recall Newsom, while 50 percent said they wanted to keep him.

The race is serious enough that powerful Democrats have spoken out about it; President Biden issued a statement urging California Democrats to vote for Newsom. Most of the money that’s been raised in this recall has been directed toward saving Newsom’s job, according to CalMatters. That underscores that California Democrats are taking this seriously.

Who is running to replace Newsom?

© Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Conservative radio talk show host Larry Elder campaigns in July.

Many people are running to be governor, and most aren’t widely recognizable. It’s California, so you’ve got reality TV stars (Caitlyn Jenner), the fiance of a former “Real Housewives” cast member, and others. The California Republican Party hasn’t endorsed any candidate.

Republicans

Larry Elder: He’s a conservative radio talk show host who has been gaining the most traction among conservative voters. In a UC Berkley poll, he got 18 percent of likely voters; the most of any GOP candidate. He’s a supporter of former president Donald Trump who opposes abortion and vaccine and mask mandates, and has made controversial statements, including once saying that employers should be allowed to ask women if they plan to have children.

Now, Elder is under investigation for not reporting a business it appears he owns on his financial records for the campaign, the Los Angeles Times reported. (His campaign told the Times it had made a mistake and fixed it.)

John Cox: He ran for governor in 2018 and lost badly to Newsom.

Kevin Faulkner: a former mayor of San Diego.

Kevin Kiley: a state assemblyman.

© Adam Beam/AP Republican state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley is interviewed by a talk radio host while sitting in a Starbucks.

Democrats

There are even lesser-known candidates on this side. (Newsom’s team engineered it that way.) Kevin Paffrath is a 29-year-old investor and YouTube star getting some attention.

CalMatters has a rundown of all the candidates.

Could this result be challenged in the courts?

Yes. There’s a federal lawsuit two voters just filed arguing that the recall vote is unconstitutional; legal experts are doubtful that the suit will go anywhere. The Los Angeles Times also looked into the likelihood of a legal challenge overturning the recall and determined the recall probably would survive.

Like it or not, California’s recall law is set up to allow the will of the minority to oust a sitting governor.

“It’s not a bad thing having to make sure politicians are always on their toes,” said Economy, the former recall spokesman.

But the way this recall is set up, argues Levinson, the law professor, “undermines what the majority of the electorate would want.”

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