California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday emphatically defeated a recall aimed at kicking him out of office early, a contest the Democrat framed as part of a national battle for his party’s values in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and continued threats from “Trumpism.”
Newsom bolted to a quick victory boosted by healthy turnout in the overwhelmingly Democratic state. He cast it as a win for science, women’s rights and other liberal issues, and it ensures the nation’s most populous state will remain in Democratic control as a laboratory for progressive policies.
“‘No’ is not the only thing that was expressed tonight,” Newsom said. “I want to focus on what we said ‘yes’ to as a state: We said yes to science, we said yes to vaccines, we said yes to ending this pandemic.”
With about 60% of ballots counted, “no” on the question of whether to recall Newsom was ahead by a 2-to-1 margin. That massive lead was built on votes cast by mail and in advance of Tuesday’s in-person balloting. While likely to shrink somewhat in the days ahead as votes cast at polling places are counted, the lead that Newsom took among votes cast before Election Day — which were counted first Tuesday night — was insurmountable.
Republican talk radio host Larry Elder almost certainly would have replaced Newsom had the recall succeeded, bringing a polar opposite political worldview, though he would have had to contend with a Legislature dominated by Democrats.
The California recall, which turned on Newsom’s approach to the pandemic, mirrored the nation’s political divide over business closures and mask and vaccine mandates, and both parties will dissect its outcome heading into the 2022 midterm elections.
President Joe Biden sought validation of the Democratic Party’s approach of tighter restrictions and vaccine requirements. The race also was a test of whether opposition to former President Donald Trump and his right-wing politics remains a motivating force for Democrats and independents.
Republicans had hoped for proof that frustrations over months of pandemic precautions would drive voters away from Democrats. They also searched for evidence that voters were tiring of liberal leadership. Democrats have controlled every level of state government in California for more than a decade, a period marked by a housing crisis and the damaging effects of climate change. Republicans won back four U.S. House seats last year, success that leaders hoped had indicated revived signs of life.
But a recall election is an imperfect barometer — particularly of national trends. Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1 in California, so the results may not translate to governors in toss-up states or reflect how voters will judge members of Congress next year.
Voters were asked two questions: Should Newsom be recalled, and, if so, who should replace him? Only a handful of the 46 names on the replacement ballot had any level of public recognition, but most failed to gain traction with voters.
Elder held a commanding lead on the second question and appeared all but certain to end the race with the votes needed to have replaced Newsom had the recall been a success.
He had entered the race just three months before Election Day and quickly rose to the top of the pack. But that allowed Newsom to turn the campaign into a choice between the two men, rather than a referendum on his performance.
Newsom seized on Elder’s opposition to the minimum wage and abortion rights as evidence he was outside the mainstream of California. The governor branded him as “more extreme than Trump,” while Biden called him “the closest thing to a Trump clone I’ve ever seen.”
Newsom became the second governor in U.S. history to defeat a recall, cementing him as a prominent figure in national Democratic politics and preserving his prospects for a future run. Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall in 2012.
Though the contest didn’t quite bring the circus-like element of California’s 2003 recall — when voters replaced Democratic Gov. Gray Davis with Republican movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger — it featured quirky moments of its own.
Reality TV star and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner entered the race but gained little momentum and left the state for part of the campaign to film a reality show in Australia. Businessman John Cox, who lost badly to Newsom in 2018, tried to spice up his campaign by hiring a live bear to join him, branding himself as the “beast” to Newsom’s “beauty.”
Though Newsom defeated the recall, he may soon be running against Elder again: The governor is up for reelection next year, and the primary, which puts candidates from all parties on one ballot, is just nine months away.
The recall started as a project of an amateur political organizer but grew as frustrations about the pandemic wore on. Recall organizers needed about 1.5 million signatures — California has 22 million registered voters — to make the ballot.
The effort got a boost when a judge gave organizers extra time. Also contributing was Newsom going to maskless dinner at the lavish French Laundry restaurant with lobbyists and friends. The episode spiraled into a public relations disaster.
Supporters of the recall expressed frustration over monthslong business closures and restrictions that kept most children out of classrooms. Rising homicides, a homelessness crisis and an unemployment fraud scandal further angered Newsom’s critics.
But the broader public stayed on Newsom’s side. Polling from the Public Policy Institute of California showed his approval rating remaining above 50% throughout the pandemic. With weeks to go, the institute’s poll showed 60% of Californians approved of Newsom’s handling of the pandemic.
In the early months of his campaign, Newsom declared California was “roaring back” from the virus, and he used a windfall of tax dollars to dole out billions for programs from child education to homelessness. Middle- and low-income Californians got checks of up to $1,100 each.
The rise of the highly contagious delta variant over the summer dampened Newsom’s positive messaging, as he began to frame the race as one of “life or death” consequences. He pointed to Texas and Florida, which were seeing worsening surges as their Republican governors rejected mask and vaccine mandates, as cautionary tales for what California could become. When Texas’ new law banning most abortions took effect Sept. 1, Newsom’s comparison with the GOP state only became more stark.
Newsom’s administration has mandated children wear masks in schools and is requiring all health care workers to get vaccinated. Teachers and government employees must be vaccinated or tested regularly.
The party’s biggest luminaries stepped out for Newsom. Beyond Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former President Barack Obama appeared in the state or in campaign ads.
National Republican leaders largely kept the contest at arm’s length. Trump barely commented on the race until the final days, when he suggested with no evidence that the results would be rigged because of mail-in balloting. One of the recall’s original organizers said his comments would do more harm than good.
In the closing days, Elder’s campaign echoed Trump’s messaging, saying he expects “shenanigans” and linking to a website insinuating Newsom had already won the election due to fraud. The site included language from a petition circulated to help Trump’s effort to overturn last year’s presidential election, but that wording was removed by Tuesday afternoon.
Newsom has been viewed as a potential White House contender since at least 2004, when he defied federal law to issue marriage licenses to LGBT couples as mayor of San Francisco. His victory maintained those prospects, though he will still have to navigate around the ambitions of Harris, who came up through San Francisco politics alongside Newsom.
Newsom came to the contest with advantages. California’s electorate is less Republican, less white and younger than it was in 2003, when voters booted the Democratic Davis. Newsom was allowed to raise unlimited funds, dwarfing his competitors while flooding TV screens with advertising. Public worker unions and business and tech executives poured millions into his campaign.
The GOP had looked to build on its four congressional wins in 2020 and recruited tens of thousands more volunteers to campaign for the recall. Voter turnout and the recall results in the four Southern California districts, in Orange County and the Los Angeles suburbs, will offer an early indication of the party’s ability to hold the seats next year.