Newsom recall spurs unprecedented turnout campaign

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Supporters of California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) have launched an unprecedented campaign to get out the vote ahead of a recall election next month that imperils his political future, an effort that likely represents the largest voter mobilization effort in state history.

Newsom’s anti-recall campaign has raised about $60 million so far, money that is flowing out to about 60 different organizations, from powerful California unions to local voter registration groups that will urge voters to return mail-in ballots that have already been sent out.

The campaign has deployed 700 staffers to organize the nation’s largest state. It is on pace to send 18 million text messages and knock on 1.5 million doors by the time the Sept. 14 recall comes around, said Nathan Click, a spokesman for the anti-recall effort and a former top adviser in Newsom’s official office.

“As someone who comes out of organizing, I’m really impressed with what they’re doing,” said Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D), who ran former President Obama’s field program in 2012 and served in a similar role for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “Because it’s a recall, we have to go chase these ballots. We have to leave no stone unturned.” 

There are early signs that the effort is paying off: Just over 1.5 million ballots have been returned so far, according to Political Data Inc., a California-based firm. More than half, 57 percent, come from registered Democratic voters; just 21 percent have come from registered Republicans. 

“Our entire strategy from day one has been to get this to look as much like a presidential electorate as possible,” Click said. “We’re seeing early signs that Democrats are getting energized. Democrats are usually late to get to these questions.”

Republicans argue those numbers are set to turn around. The California Republican Party that ended the 2020 election with 42,000 volunteers says it now has 66,000 people making calls and contacting voters. Those volunteers have called, texted or knocked on doors belonging to more than 3.5 million voters so far.

“Our voters like to vote in person, but we are doing the ballot harvesting. That’s something that we took to the next level in 2020,” said Jessica Millan Patterson, the chair of the state GOP. “We’ve built out our ground game.”

The recall is likely to drive millions to the polls — the last time a California governor faced a recall, in 2003, more voters cast ballots than did in either of the regularly scheduled gubernatorial elections of 2002 or 2006.

Click said the anti-recall campaign would target 10.3 million voters, 3.6 million more than the number who voted for Newsom in his 2018 campaign. Much of the campaign’s messaging has been logistical: Almost half of a 30-second advertisement filmed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is spent telling voters how to cast their ballot and the deadline by which to do so. 

One Sacramento-area voter, Steven Maviglio, said he had received a text message from a gun safety organization and a hand-written card from a local Democratic volunteer.

Maviglio, who worked for Gov. Gray Davis (D) when he was recalled in 2003 and who worked for two Speakers of the California Assembly, said he had never seen such a massive lift.

“It appears Democrats have woken up from their slumber. At the end of the day the recall will have been seen as a math challenge Republicans could never overcome,” Maviglio said. “Democrats simply had to launch an effective GOTV [get-out-the-vote] operation, which they have.”

Supporters of the recall effort say the raw politics of partisan voter registration mask a deeper anger among California voters. A recent CBS News poll showed 48 percent of California voters backed recalling Newsom from office — including 15 percent of self-identified Democrats and 18 percent who called themselves liberal. 

“I don’t know that all the Democrats are voting for Newsom,” said Mike Netter, a spokesman for the pro-recall campaign. “The people of California have a once-in-a-lifetime gift, and that’s Gavin Newsom. Gavin Newsom has literally ticked off most everybody about everything.”

The two sides are divided over the fallout from perhaps the most consequential development of the entire recall: Newsom’s aggressive, and successful, effort to keep any viable candidates out of the race as a backup plan in case the recall does succeed. 

Newsom’s team sees the absence of a prominent Democrat as an unqualified success, one that paints the recall as a Republican power grab. The 2003 recall succeeded in part, Democrats believe, because some of their voters saw then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante’s (D) presence on the ballot as a permission slip to vote to remove Davis. 

“Newsom’s nightmare would have been a well-financed Democrat running against him. The best chess move of this campaign was Operation Keep Another Democrat Out,” Maviglio said. “A pro-business Democrat with the managerial skills that could have made the case they could have better gotten California through the pandemic, wildfires and managed government response better — perhaps from Silicon Valley — would have been the largest challenge. It never materialized.”

Recall supporters say the lack of a Democratic Plan B will work in their favor because Newsom has become so polarizing himself. Those recall backers have not coalesced around a single Republican alternative.

“I think they made a very big mistake because they don’t realize how Gavin Newsom is an unrelatable governor who is an elitist who is out of touch with the people,” Netter said. “The Democratic Party in California is all about the individual politicians and not about the people. It’s really that simple. This is not about protecting California for them, it’s about protecting Gavin Newsom.” 

Conservative radio host Larry Elder (R) polls well ahead of any of the other contenders on the ballot. The California Republican Party decided against formally endorsing a replacement, in part to keep attention focused on Newsom.

“That allows us to be completely laser-focused on Question No. 1 and turning the vote out on Question 1,” Patterson said, referring to the first question voters will face: whether Newsom ought to be recalled. “We wanted to make sure that all of those Republicans that would have been voting ‘yes’ on the recall have a reason to turn out.” 

The competing sides have 20 more days to chase the 20.6 million ballots that have not yet been returned to county elections officials. Over that period, Newsom plans to bring in the most prominent names in his party. Vice President Kamala Harris, a Newsom ally dating back to their simultaneous rise through San Francisco politics, will visit Friday.  

President Biden plans to campaign for Newsom, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Wednesday. 

“This is a Democratic state. While I think there are probably a certain subset of the Republican base that is very enthusiastic about recalling Gavin Newsom, those numbers are just not going to be enough at the end of the day,” Wicks said. “Public polling showing it close actually helps Gavin, because Democrats need the fire in the belly.” 

Tags Barack Obama Buffy Wicks California California recall Elizabeth Warren Gavin Newsom Hillary Clinton Jen Psaki Joe Biden Recall election
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