Democrats seize momentum as California recall nears finish line

Democrats are riding a wave of newfound confidence heading into Tuesday’s gubernatorial recall election in California as signs show opposition to Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomCalifornia at risk of losing out on hundreds of millions in federal rental assistance, auditor warns Schwarzenegger says Californians 'made the right decision' not to recall Newsom California dreaming did not become reality for Republicans MORE’s (D) ouster swelling.

Tuesday will cap off what for Democrats has been a surprisingly tense race, with polls early on showing Newsom narrowly edging out the recall effort amid an enthusiasm gap in Republicans’ favor. But surveys now, following a massive scramble to put Newsom on more solid footing, show the governor with a double-digit lead on the question of whether he should be booted and political winds now flying in the face of recall supporters.

“The momentum is fully on the governor's side right now,” said California Democratic strategist Katie Merrill. “There's a very, almost nonexistent path for the recall to pass.”

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The reversal of Newsom’s fortunes happened in a matter of months, with several Democrats who spoke to The Hill boasting that what appeared to be a nail-biter early in the summer is shaping up to be a landslide victory on Tuesday.

As recently as mid-August, a CBS News poll showed that 52 percent of likely voters said Newsom should not be recalled, while 48 percent said he should be ousted, a difference that fell right at the edge of the poll’s 4-point margin of error.

But now, recall opponents are buoyed by back-to-back polls showing more comfortable margins.

A Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll from earlier this month showed Newsom beating the recall by a 58-39 margin. The poll showed that Newsom was buoyed by 90 percent support from Democrats and 49 percent support from independents.

And another survey conducted by the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies for the Los Angeles Times and released Friday shows 60 percent of California voters opposing the recall, while just 39 percent say they would support evicting Newsom from the governor’s mansion.

The results are still not set in stone, and political observers look upon polling with a grain of salt given prominent miscalculations in recent cycles. But the collective surveys underscore the advantage Newsom has in deep-blue California.

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“It's a special election, so the chances for there being an outcome other than what you've seen in every general election since 2006 are higher because of the uncertainties around turnout,” said PPIC President Mark Baldassare, referencing the last time a Republican was elected governor in the Golden State. “That aside, California is very strongly leaning towards a Democratic column state.”

Newsom’s rise in the polls can be explained by several factors.

First off, ousting a sitting governor is no easy feat, especially a Democrat in California. The last successful effort took place in 2003, when then-Gov. Gray Davis (D) was recalled after his approval ratings sunk into the 20s and 30s.

Newsom’s approval ratings certainly took a hit, with fumbles over the coronavirus pandemic and wildfires fueling statewide grumbling and enthusiasm for the recall effort. But his figures never dipped to the same levels from which Davis suffered, and with a two-to-one Democratic registration advantage over Republicans, that’s likely what would have been needed to get the boot.

“I think that's the fundamental takeaway from this, that structurally it's very, very difficult for Republicans to win statewide in California, even to win a recall in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of an economic downturn that we're trying to come back from, in the middle of these incredibly polarizing times we live in,” Merrill said.

After early alarm over his polling, Newsom also cobbled together a sprawling get-out-the-vote effort, which Democrats say has proved crucial to reversing his fortunes.

Democrats launched a full-court press to buoy Newsom, dispatching to California President BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race On The Money: Democrats get to the hard part Health Care — GOP attorneys general warn of legal battle over Biden's vaccine mandate MORE on Monday and Vice President Harris and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenFederal Reserve officials' stock trading sparks ethics review Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE (D-Mass.) earlier this month. Former President ObamaBarack Hussein Obama Obama backs Trudeau in Canadian election Former Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Senate Democrats ding Biden energy proposal MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBriahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Sanders 'disappointed' in House panel's vote on drug prices Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants MORE (I-Vt.) also cut ads for the governor.

“For a long time, it looked like he was on the ropes. Then they kicked it into gear,” Steve Maviglio, a former Davis aide, said.

On top of that, local organizations have put muscle into the recall. Maviglio told The Hill he’s received more than a dozen emails from different groups, a call from the local Democratic Party, texts from supporters and more urging him to vote.

And with every voter being mailed postage-paid ballots, it’s not hard to convert that outreach into a vote.

“The voting by mail has made this so much easier for people, especially the ‘lazy’ voters that don't vote in those off-years,” Maviglio said.

Newsom also made policy tweaks, especially on the coronavirus. After initially campaigning on a positive message that the pandemic was turning a corner, he shifted to focusing on vaccine mandates  which poll well in California  as the delta variant led to a worrisome spike in cases.

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“The message has been sharpened over time,” said California Democratic consultant Tyler Law. “That’s a message that resonates with a solid majority of voters. It sets up a clear choice: a governor who is fighting COVID with common sense versus a clown car of Republicans.”

Beyond a surge in anti-recall efforts, Newsom has also been aided by his opponents’ missteps.

Larry Elder, the conservative radio host who emerged as the front-runner of the candidates who would replace Newsom, was hit with a slew of scandals, including allegations by his ex-fiancée of domestic violence and the resurfacing of offensive comments about women.

Beyond his personal baggage, Elder has also espoused views like eliminating the minimum wage and restricting abortion  views that are anathema to liberal California and that have helped Newsom tie Elder to people like former President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE and Texas Gov. Greg AbbottGreg AbbottJudge schedules Oct. 1 hearing on DOJ request to halt Texas abortion law 24 Democratic AGs back Biden bid to block Texas abortion law COVID-19 hospitalizations starting to plateau in Dallas area, official says MORE (R), who recently sparked Democratic outrage after signing a law banning nearly all abortions.

“It got very real when you see somebody who looks like they're going to be the leading replacement candidate saying he doesn't believe in a minimum wage and is anti-choice in a state that's very pro-labor and pro-choice,” said Maviglio. “I think Larry Elder was the perfect candidate for Gavin Newsom to demonize and take the attention off of him."

To be sure, recall supporters are not ready to throw in the towel.

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“Of course we have a real shot,” said Randy Economy, an early organizer of the recall campaign, adding that he thinks the polls are “farcical.”

But prominent Republicans have already begun laying the groundwork to explain a defeat, with Elder warning of “shenanigans” in the race and Trump repeating his past unfounded claims of voter fraud by claiming Tuesday’s contest is “probably rigged.”

Some recall proponents are openly speculating that Newsom will survive Tuesday’s test, but they still insist they’ve won a messaging victory by making him fight for his political survival.

“He’s in a world of hurt, and I hope he's received that message loud and clear because I think everybody else has,” said Anne Dunsmore, campaign manager for recall committee Rescue California. “Maybe we won't get 50 percent plus one, but I think we've won.”

It’s unclear how long the dent in his armor will last. If Newsom limps across the finish line, even Democrats said he’d be vulnerable in his reelection bid next year. But if he wins by the margins shown in recent polls, he’ll enter the midterms with renewed standing among the electorate and a sprawling Democratic operation already in place.

“If you don't kill the king, he's only going to get stronger,” Maviglio said. “And I think that's what's going to happen.”