How Gavin Newsom fought back against the recall

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, no governor in America moved faster to close down schools, restrict businesses and order his own constituents into a long and painful lockdown than did California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D).

Newsom’s steps, at times taken ahead of public health advice issued by the Trump administration, poured gasoline on what had been a sleepy and uninspired effort to recall the governor, firing up a fierce anger that has now forced Newsom to defend himself in a pricey fight to save his political career. More than 2.1 million Californians signed petitions supporting his recall.

Paradoxically, as a new wave of coronavirus infections crests over residents who are at once weary of the pandemic and openly accepting of the vaccines that have blunted if not completely muted the delta variant, Newsom’s response may be what propels him to victory Tuesday night as the first California governor to survive a recall election.

Where polls over the summer showed Newsom only barely surviving, a new spate of late surveys shows he is cruising to victory. A survey released Friday by the University of California-Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, conducted for the Los Angeles Times, shows 60 percent of California voters rejecting the recall. 

In late July, the same pollster showed 47 percent backed recalling Newsom, while 50 percent favored keeping him in office, a margin narrow enough to set off alarm bells among state and national Democrats.

“That was a wakeup call, not just to the governor’s campaign team but to Democrats across the state,” said state Sen. Josh Newman (D), who went through his own recall election in 2018.

The sea change in Newsom’s favor has taken place against the backdrop of a return to school for the 6.1 million California children who stayed home all or most of last year; assistance checks for low-income earners and small businesses approved by a legislature flush with tax revenue and federal stimulus dollars; and a Democratic electorate that has awoken to the threat posed by a Republican who would replace Newsom if he is recalled. 

Most importantly, the recall election is taking place at a moment when coronavirus infections are sinking in California after a summer spike, thanks in large part to the population’s widespread acceptance of vaccines. More than 83 percent of Californians have received at least one dose of vaccine, a higher share than all but eight other states. 

“Covid actually became an asset to him. His Covid policies helped fuel the signatures to get the recall on the ballot, but by the time the ballots arrived, his pro-vaccine mandate, pro-mask mandate policies were popular with a majority of voters, including 40 percent of Republicans,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist who worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger the last time a California governor was recalled, in 2003. 

The Berkeley poll showed 69 percent of those who have been vaccinated oppose recalling Newsom from office, while just 29 percent who have been jabbed want him removed. Among those who say they will refuse a vaccination, 96 percent plan to vote to recall Newsom.

Newsom’s other great stroke of luck is another paradox: the emergence of a Republican rival, conservative radio personality Larry Elder (R), at the head of the field. Far more voters say they will vote for Elder as Newsom’s replacement, 38 percent, than anyone else — the second-place contender, YouTube personality Kevin Paffrath (D), scores just 10 percent of the vote.

Newsom’s campaign had for months blasted what they called the “Republican recall.” By the middle of August, the campaign was running advertisements — in English, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin and Korean — contrasting Newsom’s calls for vaccine mandates with Elder’s opposition, showing Elder alongside former President Trump.

“As Joe Biden would say, don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative,” said Christine Pelosi, who chairs the California Democratic Party’s Women’s Caucus. “Compared to the alternative, come on, we’re not going to have Larry Elder come in and with line-time veto power and executive power and appointment power to dismantle all the progress we’ve been forcing Sacramento to make.” 

In a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, almost two-thirds said they thought a conservative Republican governor would jeopardize California policies on climate change, immigration, health care and abortion, according to the Berkeley poll.

In the eyes of California voters, Elder had become the embodiment of that conservative Republican.

“By the time the ballots had dropped, this race had snapped into a typical general election-type frame,” Stutzman said. “In California, that’s a 60-40 election. The Elder factor has worked very well for Newsom.”

The polls that frightened Democrats were a function of the malaise among their own voters, many of whom were apathetic about casting a ballot at best, angry at the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic at worst. Just 58 percent of Democrats said they were very motivated to cast a ballot, compared with 87 percent of registered Republicans.

But in the race’s closing months, Newsom’s allies have raced to his aid. Vice President Harris campaigned for Newsom on Thursday, and President Biden plans to stump with the governor in the Los Angeles area on Monday. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have cut advertisements and made appearances, and countless local Democrats have fanned out to campaign with or for Newsom, virtually and in person, across the state.

Most crucially, Newsom’s campaign has invested some of the millions a more traditional campaign might have spent on television in a get-out-the-vote effort that has funded dozens of outside activist groups, from labor unions to Hispanic advocacy organizations. 

“You have to have the grassroots, and it has to be a two-way street,” Pelosi said in an interview before rushing off to set up her local phone banking operation. “No more should you only run television campaigns. You’re just lighting the money on fire.” 

The latest Berkeley poll showed the fallout of the turnout operation: 80 percent of registered Democrats now say they have a high interest in voting or have already voted in the recall.

“There was this high level of disengagement among the state’s Democrats. Now, however, they’re quite engaged,” said Mark Di Camillo, who directs the Berkeley poll. “The election in its final weeks became more than just an election or a recall of Gov. Newsom. It really frightened voters, especially Democrats, that there was a lot at stake here.”

Registered Democrats have accounted for 53 percent of the total ballots returned so far, according to tabulations from the California-based firm Political Data Inc., though they make up just 47 percent of all registered voters. Republicans make up 24 percent of the electorate, and 25 percent of the ballots that have been returned to date.

What had been a frightening threat to Newsom’s political career may now turn into a resounding win, one that would further marginalize California Republicans — several strategists suggested that an anemic showing by former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer (R), polling at 8 percent in the Berkeley poll, could shut off the financial spigot that might once have been available to Newsom’s most viable challenger when he runs for reelection next year.

“Remember,” Pelosi said, “Tuesday night is the beginning of the next campaign.”

Tags Bernie Sanders California California recall Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Gavin Newsom Joe Biden Kevin Faulconer Recall election
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