California Republicans began the effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom before the pandemic upended everything. But without a doubt, the pandemic enabled the recall: The courts gave organizers more time to collect the necessary signatures, and Newsom’s handling of the pandemic, including his visit to a swanky restaurant in wine country amid his own lockdown orders, eroded his support.
When the state lifted restrictions earlier this summer, Newsom all but declared the pandemic over, celebrating with Minions and robots at Universal Studios in Hollywood. His political future looked rosy, too. Democratic leaders in the state lined up behind him, and many agreed that the sooner they could get the recall election done, the better the results would be for Newsom.
Now, with the vote just weeks away, the biggest threats to Newsom seem clear — and they are not the Republican candidates. The governor is being forced to grapple with multiple crises all at once, including a resurgence of Covid-19 cases, one of the worst droughts in state history and out-of-control wildfires. By definition, a recall is a referendum on the incumbent; in effect, Newsom is running against himself.
It is hardly surprising that he and other Democrats have portrayed the recall effort as an extension of Trumpism, painting opponents as right-wing outliers in a deeply blue state. And the numbers in the state clearly favor Democrats, who have a firm hold on state government and far outnumber Republicans in voter registration. The anti-recall campaign has raised more money than all of the Republican candidates combined. Indeed, Republicans have not won a statewide office since 2006 (the year Arnold Schwarzenegger was re-elected governor, after winning in a 2003 recall).
But polling shows that Republicans are far more fired up about the election than Democrats. And this is where things get complicated. Are Democrats so confident that they will not even bother to cast their ballots? Two recent polls have really shaken Democrats in the state — one found that likely voters statewide are almost evenly split, the other that voters in San Diego support recalling Newsom.
A recall election is relatively easy in California — just a handful of states have a similar process, and almost none have a lower threshold to get it on the ballot. Still, successful recalls are rare — the last statewide one happened in 2003 — and polls suggest most voters want to make it more difficult.
But if a majority of voters choose to remove Newsom from office, the challenger with the most votes will take his place. With dozens of Republicans on the ballot, that means a candidate with, say, just 20 percent of the vote could win. (Larry Elder, a conservative talk radio host leads in some polls with around 18 percent.)
As Chris Lehane, a Democratic political strategist who worked in state politics during the last recall effort, put it: “There’s no arguing there’s voter fatigue.”
“The last four years was an incredibly exhausting experience,” he said, adding that the state’s Democratic voters “need to realize that this recall is by no means a slam dunk,” or they risk waking up to the same kind of shock they faced after the 2016 election.
It’s a cliché to say that California is America’s future, but there is no question that a Republican win in the deep blue state would have reverberations nationally. It is a point that Newsom is making to rally his supporters, arguing that a successful recall would provoke more attempts to oust elected officials.
Jennifer Medina reports on national politics from Los Angeles for The Times.
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More than a year after the touring production of “Wicked” shut down, the cast and crew have reunited in Dallas. The show is the first Broadway tour back onstage, a month before musicals are set to resume on Broadway.
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