Six things to watch as California heads for recall election

California voters will decide on Sept. 14 whether to allow Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to serve out the rest of his first term or to oust him from office in a high-stakes recall election.

Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis (D) on Thursday formally set the date for the recall election after Newsom foes gathered more than 2 million signatures to force him onto the ballot.

Since California voters won the right to recall their public officials in 1913, only eleven efforts have qualified for the ballot. Six of the 10 completed recalls have resulted in an elected official getting the boot, including a recall attempt against Gov. Gray Davis (D) in 2003, the only other time a recall aimed at a governor has qualified.

Newsom, though, faces very different circumstances than Davis did 18 years ago. Here are the six factors to watch ahead of September’s vote.

Will the tight time frame matter?

State law sets out a series of benchmarks for any recall attempt to qualify for the ballot, and Newsom’s strategists could have used those procedures to delay a vote for months.

The September date Kounalakis set is earlier than some expected. That’s a sign that Newsom’s team is optimistic that it can maintain his positive approval ratings for the next few months. It also potentially limits the amount of time his rivals have to get campaigns off the ground; the early date means candidates who want to run have just about two weeks to file their paperwork.

Fifty-eight candidates have filed notices of intent to run with state officials so far. That field is sure to grow: 135 candidates ran to replace Davis back in 2003, including a porn magnate, a porn star, a media mogul, a former Major League Baseball commissioner and various actors, such as Todd Richard Lewis, the self-described “Bum Hunter.”

The leading Republican contenders — former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, businessman and 2018 candidate John Cox, former Rep. Doug Ose (Calif.), and Olympian-turned-reality show star Caitlyn Jenner — have been running for months.

But none of those four have lit a substantial spark. The short window probably limits the potential for a game-changing candidate, if one actually existed, to get in the race.

Will Republicans coalesce?

Voters will face two separate questions on the recall ballot. First, should Newsom be recalled? Second, regardless of how a voter answers that first question, which candidate should replace Newsom in case he does get recalled?

The proponents of the recall are running a campaign to convince voters to check yes on the first question, but they are staying neutral on the second question. That leaves it up to Faulconer, Cox, Ose and Jenner — and the other 54 candidates — to carve out a substantial coalition of their own. There’s no runoff election, so a divided field could mean only 10 or 15 percent of California voters actually pick the next governor.

That’s a problem for Newsom’s opponents. In 2003, Davis appeared to be fending off a recall — until August, when Arnold Schwarzenegger made a surprise entrance into the race and became the face of the recall.

This time, the polling looks better for the incumbent: Voters oppose the recall, and there’s no one on the level of a Schwarzenegger or even a leading Republican around whom the party can rally. If the GOP doesn’t pick a candidate, voters have less of a rationale to boot the incumbent.

Do Democrats have a backup plan?

But what if things go off the rails for Newsom and his approval rating begins to slip? Anxious California Democrats are debating among themselves whether to field a backup contender, a Democrat who can hoover up votes from those who oppose the recall in case it actually succeeds.

Newsom’s team is firmly against that idea. They worry that a Democrat who adds his or her name to the ballot would give the recall legitimacy at the same time Newsom is trying to portray it as an illegitimate Republican power grab.

More quietly, they worry about repeating Davis’s experience in 2003. Davis strategists believe they were sunk when Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (D) jumped into the race, giving some Democrats who weren’t enamored of Davis the permission they needed to vote for the recall and then for another Democrat.

(Bustamante, for the record, strongly disagrees with that assessment.)

So Newsom’s team has been working overtime to dissuade other Democrats from running. It has taken public shots at former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) and billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, both of whom have floated their own names as potential replacements.

California’s executive officers, all Democrats, have said they do not plan to add their names to the ballot. But then again, the same thing happened in 2003 — and it was all going to plan until Bustamante broke ranks.

Twelve Democrats have filed to run this year, but none of them hold elected office or have any name identification. Newsom hopes it stays that way, but nervous, or ambitious, Democrats might decide to add their names to the ballot just in case. The next two weeks will tick by very slowly for Newsom’s advisers.

Will COVID-19 cooperate?

The recall itself qualified because a state judge ruled proponents should get extra time to gather signatures because of the pandemic, and they took advantage of voter anger at the lockdowns that kept California shuttered for longer than most other states.

But Newsom has rescinded his coronavirus-era emergency orders, and California is doing much better than most states in beating back the virus. More than 58 percent of Californians are at least partially vaccinated, and in the last week, the state has averaged just 942 new cases a day.

In the last week, California is averaging just 3 cases per 100,000 residents a day, much better than neighboring states Nevada and Arizona and marginally better than Washington or Oregon.

At the same time, a booming stock market and federal recovery money has helped Newsom act like a post-COVID-19 Santa Claus. He has toured the state in recent weeks doling out big checks, and the state is in the process of giving away more than $100 million in incentives to get people to take their vaccines.

That’s a pretty stark contrast to Davis, who entered his recall with the deepest budget hole in state history at the time.

If there is no resurgence of the coronavirus and no need for new lockdowns, the recovery Newsom gets to tout is going to be a political asset. But if some new variant emerges or the delta variant that suddenly concerns public health officials reverses California’s positive trends, then the political calculus will change very quickly.

Will disaster strike?

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, serving as California’s governor had become an exercise in disaster management. Fire seasons are getting worse as the climate changes. Some of the world’s most active fault lines crisscross the state. Temperatures are rising, and water levels are falling.

Newsom and his recent predecessors have always spent part of their years touring burned-out cities ravaged by wildfires or commiserating with farmers whose crops cannot survive. In Davis’s case, an energy crisis for which he was blamed helped sink his approval ratings.

This year, experts say a new wave of disastrous fires is on the way. Three major fires are already burning in Northern California.

When disaster management goes wrong, governors are frequently left shouldering the blame. California always faces the prospect of a fire burning out of control or an earthquake flattening a freeway or a heat wave knocking out power. Uncertainty is Newsom’s biggest foe.

Who turns out to vote?

There is a myth that recall elections draw small turnout, belied by California’s own experience. In 2002, Davis won reelection when 7.74 million people voted. The next year, 9.4 million voters cast ballots in the recall. In 2006, Schwarzenegger won reelection in a race that drew 8.7 million votes.

This year, the more voters who turn out, the better it will be for Newsom. He won election in 2018 with 62 percent of the vote, and Democrats now hold a massive voter registration edge over Republicans. California is a much more liberal state than it was when Davis was governor.

It may not have been an accident, then, that the Democratic-controlled legislature earlier this year voted to send mail-in ballots to every voter in any election that took place in 2021. The bill passed before the recall qualified, but it’s handy for Newsom’s team as it tracks down every Democratic vote possible.

But it remains true that voters who back a recall have more motivation to cast a ballot than those who favor the status quo. Expect Newsom’s team and his Democratic allies to mount a major get-out-the-vote effort in the weeks leading up to the Sept. 14 recall in hopes of fending off the most significant challenge Newsom has faced in his political career.

Tags Caitlyn Jenner California Gavin Newsom Gray Davis Kevin Faulconer Recall election Tom Steyer
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