The last time I wrote about California’s recall election, in early May, it seemed like a big joke. John Cox had just rolled into Sacramento with a live Kodiak bear. Caitlyn Jenner held up the other half of the Republican circus tent, pretending she could appeal to a conservative base that generally despises LGBTQ people.
“I think Newsom is going to fly right through the recall into re-election,” I told the Los Angeles Times in June.
But a strange thing happened over the summer. The ridiculous recall morphed into a terrifying fever dream. Shock polls showed a surprising number of “likely voters” raring to toss Gov. Gavin Newsom from office. A rabidly pro-Trump radio host seemed likely to become California’s next governor if Newsom fell.
Suddenly, the recall became a steamroller instead of a clown car. Or did it? New polls show Newsom winning by over 20 points, and we’re already witnessing a narrative shift. Was California’s recall nightmare a testament to Newsom’s ineptitude and mediocrity — and to the GOP’s surprising ability to compete here? Or was the intense anxiety plaguing Democratic voters this summer simply the desired product of a brilliant political strategy?
This week, we’ll know more. If Newsom wins by double digits, the summer’s hyperventilations may look silly. Newsom can then frame his fear-based campaign as a clever con to drive Democratic turnout and inflate the margin of victory in an election he was always going to win.
A convincing victory is crucial for the ambitious Newsom. He’ll want to market himself to American voters as the guy who won the 2018 governor’s race with more votes than any Democratic governor in state history. A close recall vote would brand him as the Democrat who nearly lost California to Trump Republicans — not exactly the bold champion we need to face down GOP authoritarians hyped up on fake news and Russian cyberwarfare tactics.
I’ve been Newsom-skeptical since his first run for San Francisco mayor in 2003. This summer, however, I found myself in an unfamiliar role: Newsom booster. As panicky texts streamed in from friends and family, I reassured them that everything would be fine. The math, along with the state’s voter trends, made a successful recall virtually impossible. Plus, I had faith in California voters. They would never replace a progressive Democrat with a Trump Republican less than a year after voters in Georgia and Pennsylvania helped evict Trump from the White House.
Few of my friends believed me. Everything they’d heard — from the press, from the polls and from Newsom — told them he was in deep trouble. Breathless media coverage forced them to imagine the unbounded horrors of a Gov. Larry Elder who might cancel abortion rights and replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein with a right-wing fanatic. (“It doesn’t affect me — the recall is just against him,” Feinstein coolly replied when asked by CNN whether she should resign as a precaution.)
Newsom’s message, designed to motivate voters through terror, was overwhelmingly clear: Anyone who sat this one out risked consigning California to a season in hell. Effective? Sure, but it also underscored Newsom’s inherent weakness.
A California governor wielding a $75 billion budget surplus and legislative supermajorities should be able to maintain a commanding lead while mostly ignoring the opposition. But Newsom spent months cadging $3 contributions in fearful emails and leaning on national figures like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to rescue him. This spectacle forced us to re-enact the anxiety of the Trump years, sending the demoralizing message that, even here in the Golden State, we aren’t safe.
After taking harsh criticism for his uneven handling of the COVID pandemic last year, the recall was the last thing Newsom needed. Yes, he helped bring it upon himself with the infamous French Laundry faux pas. In fairness, however, fate also dealt him a terrible hand. The pandemic radicalized voters on both sides of the political aisle, and Newsom became an easy target for their wrath. A judge then gave recall supporters extra time to gather signatures (shortly before the French Laundry scandal broke). Without this twist, the recall had no chance.
The stars aligned against Newsom, and he paid a heavy price. So did we. This election will cost taxpayers an estimated $276 million. Any system that allows 12% of any subset of voters to waste this much money on a pointless tantrum needs serious reform.
Hopefully, Newsom will beat the recall handily and coast to re-election next year. This will be thin solace if Democrats lose the House and the Senate in the 2022 midterm elections, but California voters deserve a break after the trauma of the past few months. Our governor also deserves a chance to deliver on his promises.
Newsom’s first term began with a spirit of boldness and optimism. He halted the death penalty, prioritized the housing crisis and expanded programs to reduce poverty. He put himself on the hook for solving homelessness, which was a politically risky but righteously brave thing to do. He also stuck his neck out by announcing plans to phase out the sale of fossil fuel-powered cars by 2035 and by expanding health care coverage to undocumented immigrants. The list goes on and on.
Whatever it is some Democrats don’t like about Newsom, it has little to do with his policy positions, which read like a Democratic wish list for progress. Of course, voters don’t elect policy lists. They elect leaders, which is why things like character, integrity and symbolism also matter.
That’s one major lesson Newsom should take away from this close call — even if he does manage to beat it by a landslide.
Gil Duran is the Opinion Editor of The Examiner.