By Laurel Rosenhall and Sameea Kamal
The attempt to throw Gov. Gavin Newsom out of office appears headed for defeat based on early vote counts released tonight in California’s historic recall election.
That was enough for CNN and NBC to declare that the recall had failed and Newsom had survived.
But there are likely many more votes to count. Here’s why: The votes reported so far are only those ballots cast before today, from voters who sent them in by mail, left them in election drop boxes or voted early in person. After 8 p.m., election officials will begin counting ballots that were cast today. And ballots postmarked by today will be counted as long as they arrive within a week.
Republicans are expected to make up a larger share of those voting today at polling places, so the results may shift toward the “yes” side as those ballots are counted.
Among the candidates seeking to replace Newsom, should a majority of voters choose to recall him, GOP talk radio host Larry Elder was leading the pack with 42% of the vote. Democrat Kevin Paffrath was a distant second at 13%, while former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican, was in third place with 10%.
Elder indicated that he will likely run for governor next year if he does not win this time.
“I have now become a political force here in California in general and particularly within the Republican party, and I’m not going to leave the stage,” he said today in an interview with Fresno radio show KMJ Now.
But even before election day, Elder began casting doubt on the validity of the results. He said he thinks there may be “shenanigans” and that he’s prepared to file lawsuits over irregularities. For days, a “Stop CA Fraud” website linked from his campaign site called for an investigation of the “twisted results” in the recall election “resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor;” those words were deleted in the last 24 hours.
Newsom’s strategy to fight the recall relied on taking lessons from the only other gubernatorial recalls in modern American history: the 2003 ouster of California Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and the failed attempt to recall Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2012. (The governor of North Dakota was recalled a century ago, long before the modern era of political communication.)
The lesson from the Davis recall: Box out any prominent Democrats from running as a replacement and focus on telling Democrats to just vote “no.” In 2003, Democrat Cruz Bustamante, the lieutenant governor, ran with the slogan “No on the recall, Yes on Bustamante.”
Newsom’s campaign said that gave some Democrats the belief that they could recall Davis and still have a Democratic governor.
“We weren’t going to make that same mistake,” said Newsom strategist Ace Smith.
The lesson from Walker beating back a recall: Play offense and define your opponent. Walker succeeded in part because he was able to cast the recall as an attack by labor unions and paint them as the villain.
Newsom’s team used the same strategy, but with the opposite politics. In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one, they cast Republicans as the bogeyman, and repeatedly tried to tie the recall to former President Donald Trump, who is deeply unpopular in California. And when Elder emerged as the front-runner, Newsom focused on bashing his conservative stances on race, immigration, women’s rights and pandemic management.
“Politics should always be choices,” Smith said. “The choice in this case is not whether your governor is perfect or not, the choice is whether your governor would do a far better job than the other person who would be governor.”
Newsom also benefited from an enormous fundraising advantage — raising five times as much money as his opponents combined. And he got help from organized labor. Unions contributed millions of dollars to his campaign and also organized a huge effort to knock on doors, make phone calls and send text messages urging voters to say “no” to the recall.
“It really was all about in-person contact and communication,” said Steve Smith, a spokesperson for the California Labor Federation. “That’s what we knew it would take, given the research we did early in the summer where we saw a tremendous amount of apathy and low information. TV ads alone weren’t going to solve that problem.”
Newsom also bet that his strict approach to the pandemic — as the first governor in the nation to require vaccines for health care workers and state employees — would pay off in a state where two-thirds of residents are vaccinated. He contrasted his approach with his GOP opponents, who said they would repeal mandates for masks and vaccines.
Exit polling from today’s election reveals that the pandemic is the main issue on California voters’ minds, and that more than 6 in 10 say getting vaccinated is more of a public health responsibility than it is a personal choice.
CalMatters is a nonprofit newsroom committed to explaining California politics and policy.