President Biden sent an urgent message last week to the most populous state in the nation: Keep Governor Gavin Newsom “at work.” On the air, Senator Elizabeth Warren, the prominent progressive from Massachusetts, has repeatedly warned that “Trump Republicans” are “coming to take power in California.”
Text messages – half a million a day – spread the word on cell phones. Canvassers advocate for suburban front doors. As some 22 million ballots land in the mailboxes of active registered voters this week ahead of the September 14 recall elections, Mr. Newsom — a Democrat elected in a 2018 landslide — pulled out all the stops to hold on to his after.
The vote is expected to depend on whether Democrats can mobilize enough of the state’s massive base to counter Republican enthusiasm for Mr. Newsom’s impeachment. Recent polls of likely voters show a dead heat, despite math suggesting the governor should ultimately prevail.
Less than a quarter of voters are Republican. mr. Newsom has raised more campaign money than all four dozen of his challengers combined. And the governor’s biggest rival is talk radio host Larry Elder, who has called global warming “a pot”, says the minimum wage should be “zero-point-zero-zero”, and Stephen Miller, the Trump’s hardline gave the administration’s immigration adviser his first major public platform.
But the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t exactly been governor-friendly. Polls this month show that approval for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is weakening as the state writhes under rising deaths and hospitalizations.
And Mr Newsom’s supporters are experiencing a striking degree of ambivalence and distraction.
“I think he’s done as well as any governor given the last year of the pandemic, but I’m not a fan,” Anamaria Young, 53, said recently in El Dorado Hills, east of Sacramento. Removing the governor more than a year before the end of his first term feels undemocratic, said Ms. Young, a Democrat, but she also hates his lack of progress on homelessness and his respect for teacher unions.
“If my vote comes,” she said, “I really don’t know how — or if — I’m going to vote.”
Initiated by Republicans who disagreed with Mr Newsom over the death penalty and immigration, the once-long effort to recall the governor gained improbable traction as the coronavirus persisted. First, pandemic closures prompted a judge to extend the signature-collection deadline, then leaked news that the governor had been exposed eating with lobbyists at an exclusive restaurant after begging Californians to cover their faces and stay home. .
If a majority of voters decide to recall Mr Newsom, the new governor will be the one who gets the most votes of his 46 challengers, even if no rival gets a majority.
Critics of the state’s recall rules have long worried that 49 percent of voters could vote to keep an incumbent, only for a small number of voters to choose a replacement. On Friday, based on that argument, a lawsuit was filed in federal court to challenge the recall’s constitutionality. Mr. Newsom has urged Democrats to vote no to the recall and not even bother answering the second question, which asks who should replace him. Among likely voters, recent polls show Mr Elder, the current frontrunner, to support about 20 percent.
California’s Recall Elections
“No intellectually fair analysis” would predict the governor’s defeat, said Paul Mitchell, vice president of bipartisan data company Political Data Inc. in Sacramento. But state lawmakers expanded pandemic-related accommodations for voters throughout the year in February, handing out a wildcard.
The rules allow for postal voting on a scale comparable only to the 2020 presidential election — which is ostensibly a Democratic advantage, though out-of-year participation is harder to predict. Only one other attempt to recall a California governor has come to a vote, and 18 years have passed since the state replaced Gray Davis with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mr. Mitchell noted.
“The swing voters in this campaign are not the usual ones choosing which party to vote for,” said Nathan Click, a former spokesman for the governor who is now campaigning to defend him. “It’s Democrats who choose whether to vote.”
Elder, 69, a black “little libertarian” lawyer who rose to national status from Los Angeles, where he has been a fixture on talk radio for decades, said in an interview that he was not “some radical wild-eyed,” and that he entered the race at the behest of “normal folks” like his hairdresser and dry cleaner, as well as like-minded friends like Dennis Prager, his right-wing broadcaster mentor. His priorities — public school choice, high housing costs and rising crime — transcend party labels, he said.
He said his opposition to abortion was irrelevant in a state that supports abortion rights as much as California, and his view that a minimum wage deters job creation is the mainstream economy. Comments such as the one he made in 2008 on “Larry King Live” in which he disregarded global warming were only to criticize “alarmism”, he said, acknowledging that climate change is happening but incorrectly adding that “no one really knows to what extent” it is caused by man.
He said he has voted for every Republican presidential candidate since the 1970s, not just Donald J. Trump.
“Why bring up Stephen Miller? Why bring up abortion? Why raise the minimum wage?” said Mr Elder. “Because Gavin Newsom can’t defend his record.”
Polls show that the majority of Californians approve of Mr. Newsom’s policies, but when the polls are narrowed down to the most likely voters, his margin narrows.
A statewide poll conducted in mid-July by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, found that likely voters were almost evenly split on whether to impeach the governor, with 47 percent saying they would vote to recalling him and 50 percent said they would keep him, a lead just over the poll’s margin of error. Subsequent polls have confirmed those results.
So Mr Newsom has spent a lot to win his party’s 46 percent share of the vote. His recall received about $46 million in contributions through July, far more than Mr. Elder ($4.5 million); Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego ($2.1 million); John Cox, the businessman who campaigns with a bear ($9.4 million, largely self-funded); the reality TV figure and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner ($750,000); or another candidate.
The mere reminder that the ballots are going to the mailboxes should make many dropped Democrats likely voters, said Mr. Click, and teams of supporters text some 500,000 Democrats every day. Representative Barbara Lee, co-founder and co-chair of the group Women Against the Recall, said the national Democratic Party is looking at such grassroots efforts as a potential model for future campaigns.
But Sonja Diaz, the director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at the University of California, Los Angeles, said Democrats seemed to be catching up as the Delta variant kept voters busy.
“People are procrastinating,” she said, comparing the governor’s team to overconfident college students who couldn’t graduate from high school. “Delta has made it clear that you are not ready for the exam.”
Northeast of Los Angeles, in Palmdale, colporteurs from an immigrant advocacy group introduced the governor to voters last week.
Ashley Reyes, 27, a registered Democrat who saw her toddler and his cousins playing in her driveway, said she wasn’t aware the recall was eligible for the vote. Her parents and in-laws were immigrants, she said, adding that she would vote to keep the governor.
Edgar Robleto, 62, a Republican, peered through his metal screen door in the 101-degree heat and replied, “I want him gone” when detectives called Mr. called Newsom. The state GOP, which represents 24 candidates, voted last weekend against endorsing one contender, lest any Republican choose not to vote.
Experts predict a fight. “Negative bias is the biggest driver of political decision-making right now,” said Mike Madrid, a longtime Republican adviser.
David Townsend, a Democratic adviser, agreed: “This is getting all tribal.”
“This is not about Newsom,” he said. “It’s about whether the Democrats want Trump to have a governor in California.”