Will California’s Recall Doom Gavin Newsom?

California Governor Gavin Newsom attends a news conference to launch a coronavirus vaccination supersite in San Diego, Calif., February 8, 2021. (Sandy Huffaker/Pool via Reuters)
Political conditions -- and Larry Elder as a competitor -- should make the once-golden governor nervous.

Tonight, there will be a debate between several candidates vying to replace California governor Gavin Newsom in the state’s upcoming recall election on September 14.

The embattled Newsom himself, as well as leading candidate Larry Elder and reality star/Olympian/activist Caitlyn Jenner, will not be present.

It’s just the latest of many twists surrounding this recall. Two decades after California’s first gubernatorial recall, my favorite state is striving to maintain its quirky reputation. With the possible exception of The Godfather II, sequels are generally not as good as the original. However, the 46 candidates in this latest casting call are trying to get decent ratings for this coveted role.

Meanwhile, the drama of this second-ever recall grows. Why is Newsom, a Democrat in an extremely blue state who, as of just a few weeks ago, looked like he would easily beat the recall, suddenly in treacherous waters? Remember, when signs of a recall began showing momentum, Newsom lifted the most sweeping lockdown efforts, and small businesses that had invested in cost-draining safety measures could resume serving customers, provided they had survived the most restrictive periods. It was during this period of relaxation that Newsom’s polling looked better.

But those polls did not portray the race happening next month, with Newsom’s voters less motivated to cast their ballots and new facts on the ground. It’s the waning days of summer. The beach beckons. Fewer people are focusing on the recall, which means many will decide their vote in the final weeks before the September 14 election. And now, the surging Delta variant is forcing the governor to battle the pandemic again when he can least afford it. He was hoping a little normalcy would make people forget about his draconian and erratic leadership on the issue. When Newsom’s polling was better, state Democrats had maneuvered to keep better-known Democratic candidates off the ballot. That will either prove bold or wildly irresponsible.

The latter is increasingly plausible. The latest poll shows Newsom’s lead uncomfortably close. The first of two ballot questions simply asks whether to recall the governor. Newsom needs a majority to remain in office. The second asks who should replace him if he is recalled. When digging deeper among motivated voters, the race tightens considerably, 50 percent of likely voters would keep Newsom and 47 percent would say goodbye. Only 3 percent are undecided. It’s all about the turnout. If voters oust the governor, a recall candidate only needs a plurality to win. In fact, my former boss, Arnold Schwarzenegger, became governor in 2003 with just under 49 percent of the vote, yet far more than his next closest contender.

Who initially garnered an inordinate amount of national media coverage this time around? Caitlyn Jenner. Where is Jenner polling? 3 percent. Jenner’s fame brought interviews with Fox’s Sean Hannity and CNN’s Dana Bash and a cover of Vanity Fair. When campaigning in the mega-state of California, national media outlets are terrific because your campaign is sure to reach all 58 counties in the state. In this case, it may just help the upcoming reality show Jenner is filming in Australia. Actual statewide electoral success is another matter. 

Now it’s Larry Elder’s turn in the spotlight. The attorney and longtime talk-show host comes in at a respectable 18 percent, and an even stronger 34 percent among general voters “strongly considering” him. Why did a talk-show host who would regularly kibbitz on air with his now-deceased mother suddenly become the most promising gubernatorial candidate of the largest economy in the nation? Well, because of that. Elder, a black Republican, has certain endearing qualities that appeal to California’s independent streak. He’s a straight talker who has conviction but does not have a pedantic affect. He is known as the Sage of South Central, not the toniest of L.A. areas, because he grew up in its hardscrabble, crime-ridden neighborhoods. And he has name recognition — a must given the short campaign timetable.

To get a sense of what buttons he is pressing, Elder shared some thoughts with me through his spokesperson: “Californians want a governor who will address rampant crime, rising homelessness, and out-of-control cost of living. They’re also angry at the dictatorial, anti-science way Gavin Newsom locked down California and treated small businesses and ordinary citizens as collateral damage during the pandemic.” Despite only entering the race two weeks ago, after initially being kept out over a technicality which he legally challenged, Elder knows Newsom is feeling the pressure of narrowing numbers. Elder reasons, “Given the latest polls, it’s no surprise that Newsom brings in outside politicians like Elizabeth Warren because his own citizens have lost faith in him.” The Massachusetts senator is featured in a heavy-handed 30-second advertisement intended to motivate California’s Democratic base and cast all candidates in an evil Trumpian light.

Elder has the megaphone now. Both former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican who is skilled at garnering crossover votes, and 2018 gubernatorial candidate John Cox, who lost handily against Newsom, are at 10 percent in a recent  UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll.

Strange as this recall may seem, it has nothing on 2003’s wild, free-wheeling frenzy. It’s enough to make me miss the days of Arianna Huffington trying to muscle in on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s media coverage after he made his candidacy official. But they were only two of the 135 gubernatorial candidates in the offing that year. You also had former porn star Mary Carey, who announced but did not qualify this time around, and the late Diff’rent Strokes actor Gary Coleman. Coleman even participated in the oft-forgotten one-episode game show Who Wants To Be Governor Of California? The Debating Game, featuring six underdog candidates. The difference in 2003 was that Gray Davis was extremely likely to be recalled, so it was a free-for-all to try to be the lucky one who got to replace him. This time around, it’s still unlikely but increasingly possible.

But whether or not the recall is successful, it has already affected the state. It proves a large segment of Californians are still willing to push back against a nanny state implementing business-stifling, inconsistent lockdowns (remember: restaurants could not serve their customers but adjacent food services for a production crew were allowed) — lockdowns Newsom himself infamously violated at the French Laundry. And it reminds Newsom that he has taken his constituents for granted. While his kids were in private school and mostly in-person, public schools were closed. Newsom shared an “I feel your pain” moment, mentioning what it’s like to live through Zoom school. He did not reference the $1.8 million the California Teachers Association donated to fight the recall effort. Maybe Californians will remind him soon.


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