Democrats looking for a reason to care about the recall attempt against Gov. Gavin Newsom should know there’s more at stake than just Newsom’s career, or even Republican control of California.
In a sort of worst-case scenario for the party, a successful recall could lead to Democrats losing their majority in the U.S. Senate, and have ramifications on some of the biggest issues facing the nation today, according to analysts.
If Newsom is recalled, his Republican replacement could be put in a position to appoint a successor to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, should the oldest sitting U.S. senator vacate her position for any reason during their term. Feinstein, 88, has rejected calls to retire before her term ends in 2024 over concerns about her rumored “cognitive decline.”
While a vacancy is not expected, such an appointment would almost certainly flip control of the U.S. Senate from blue to red — and could block President Joe Biden from moving forward with his agenda. The senate is currently split 50-50, but is controlled by Democrats with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as tiebreaker.
“It could potentially grind President Biden’s agenda to a halt for the foreseeable future,” said Julie Edwards, a local political consultant and former communications manager for U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley from Oregon.
Edwards said the Senate flipping red would threaten Democratic legislation and appointments that are already barely clearing Congress by a small margin. She offered as examples the narrow confirmation of former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as Health and Human Services secretary, as well as the close passage of the American Rescue Plan, which extended unemployment benefits and provided COVID-19 relief payments.
“There are other things that Democrats all across California, in San Francisco and across our nation want to get done that will be difficult regardless, but will become next to impossible if Mitch McConnell is calling the shots,” she said.
That’s not to mention Republican control could give the party the opportunity to block a Biden appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court should its oldest member, Justice Stephen Breyer, vacate his position. The San Francisco native turns 83 this month.
Edwards remembered the impacts of a situation similar to the one Democrats would face if Newsom were recalled. It happened under former President Barack Obama, when Democrats lost their filibuster-proof super majority in the Senate. In 2009, Edwards was a Senate staffer working for Merkley when Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy died, triggering a special election that was won by Republican Scott Brown.
“Losing that seat had a big impact,” Edwards said. “When Scott Brown was seated, that basically ground to a halt a lot of the efforts to push through additional progressive legislation in areas like immigration reform and climate change.”
Democrats who haven’t paid attention to the recall until now are hardly alone. A recent poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and the Los Angeles Times found that turnout is likely to be far lower among Democrats than Republicans, meaning that Newsom faces a real threat of being recalled next month.
Democrats are fully aware that this election will likely come down to turnout.
In response, California Democratic Party Vice Chair David Campos said they’ve stepped up efforts to energize voters in all California counties by phone-banking and canvassing door-to-door.
“I think that people haven’t fully appreciated the fact that the impact goes beyond California,” Campos said. “That’s really scary and it’s one of the reasons why we have to do everything possible to make sure that this recall is defeated. The biggest challenge we face in this election is complacency as Democrats.”
Campos said a vacancy in the Senate while a Republican serves as governor is “very possible.” He pointed to Republicans “ramming through” the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court before the last presidential election to illustrate the importance of Senate control.
“This election is arguably the most important election happening in the country this year because of what hangs in the balance,” Campos said. “One vacancy in the U.S. Senate could alter the course of history and, in the near-term, create some real issues for people. That’s why people need to understand how critical this is and how much is at stake.”
But the party is still a couple steps removed from being in that nightmare scenario for Democrats.
And even if Newsom is defeated in the recall election Sept. 14, the new Republican governor of California would have to stand for election in November 2022 — likely against a Democratic challenger or even Newsom himself.
Political consultant Jim Ross said the problem for candidates trying to beat back a recall is they have to ask voters for their support, without having an opposing candidate in direct contrast to themselves. That would not be the case if a Republican governor went up against a Democratic challenger in 2022 after serving in office.
Thus far, Republican radio host Larry Elder has emerged as Newsom’s leading opponent in the recall, with the most support from voters who have decided on a candidate other than Newsom, according to the Berkeley IGS poll from last month.
“It would be a head-to-head after a year of Larry Elder being against the minimum wage, trying to roll back environmental protections, repealing protections on renters, a whole litany of things that would just activate the Democratic base,” Ross said, predicting that Republicans would overwhelmingly lose.
In the meantime, Feinstein might never have left office — or given Republicans a shot at replacing her.
“I don’t think Feinstein is going anywhere any time soon,” Ross said.
Still, speaking from an individual capacity and not as a representative of the party, Campos said he thought Feinstein should resign because she is “disconnected” from Democrats in California.
“I’ve said that before, irrespective of the recall,” Campos said. “She’s going to have to figure that out for herself. I don’t see her resigning, which is why for me the focus is on doing everything possible to make sure the recall is defeated.”