California governor faces recall attempt

Supporters of an effort to recall California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomEquilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Shipwreck sends waste thousands of miles Less than 2 percent of philanthropy goes toward our biggest threat — climate change Appeals court blocks California vaccine mandate for prison workers MORE (D) are collecting tens of thousands of signatures in an effort to force him to defend his job more than a year before his term ends.

The group, led by retired Yolo County Deputy Sheriff Orrin Heatlie, says it has collected more than 1.3 million signatures of their goal of 2 million they hope to turn in by March 17 to force a recall election. 

Recall organizers are banking on what they say are more than 100,000 volunteers who have signed up to gather signatures, and the group has raised $2.5 million, largely from prominent Republican donors who backed former President Trump.

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“It’s old-school politics. Put up a card table and sit out in front of a grocery store. Go to a park, go where there’s people at,” said Randy Economy, a longtime political strategist advising the recall campaign. “We’re changing the rules of the game. Volunteerism in politics still works.”

Newsom has already begun stockpiling his campaign account ahead of his anticipated run for reelection in 2022. Filings made this week show he ended 2020 with more than $20 million in the bank, money he could use to defend himself in a recall election.

Newsom has not publicly addressed the recall attempt. But behind the scenes, his political advisers are gearing up for what is expected to be an expensive fight. Those advisers say they do not want to give a potential recall the oxygen it would need to cross the finish line, but they are making the necessary preparations to mount a campaign if it becomes necessary.

To qualify for the ballot, organizers need to turn in about 1.5 million verified signatures. Campaigns trying to qualify for the ballot typically turn in many more signatures than necessary to account for those that will be thrown out as invalid. The California secretary of state’s office said last week it had verified 410,000 signatures that organizers had turned in so far.

“To get it on the ballot is doable. California’s gubernatorial position and statewide positions are arguably the easiest recall requirements in the country,” said Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College, who researches recall elections. 

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But winning a vote to recall a sitting governor is much harder. Though recall petitions are common in California — Newsom has faced five previous recall attempts, all of which failed to make the ballot — only once in state history, in 2003, has a governor been successfully booted from office.

In the intervening years, California has changed substantially, from a state that has regularly elected Republicans to statewide office into one of the firmest bastions of the Democratic coalition. Democrats hold every statewide office, supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature, and 42 of the state’s 53 seats in the House of Representatives.

“The big issue is how has California changed,” Spivak said. “We’re talking possibly a very different state 18 years later.”

Newsom, elected in 2018 with 62 percent of the vote, has faced criticism in recent months over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, both in the restrictions he has implemented and in the rollout of a vaccine that has come in only limited supply from the federal government.

“His administration is completely out of touch. They have failed miserably not only on the pandemic, but people are hurting. People are out of work,” Economy said. “You can only lock down people long enough before people really start feeling the effects of it.”

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Newsom’s approval rating has dropped from 64 percent in September to just 46 percent in late January, according to a poll conducted by the University of California-Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. Just 31 percent say they think Newsom is doing an excellent or a good job handling the pandemic, the poll found, and only 23 percent said he was doing an excellent or good job handling jobs and the economy.

The poll found 36 percent of California voters would vote to oust the governor in a recall election, while 45 percent said they would vote to keep him in office.

A separate poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California found Newsom’s approval rating at 52 percent among likely voters. In that poll, 50 percent approved of his handling of the coronavirus outbreak. It did not ask voters about a possible recall.

Democrats say they are keenly aware of the need for Newsom to wrestle the coronavirus pandemic under control. After a post-Thanksgiving surge, the number of cases confirmed in California has dropped substantially in recent weeks, though more than 10,000 people are still testing positive every day.

If recall proponents meet their goals, they would force an election that would likely take place anytime between late July and November, depending on several deadlines and decisions that would face the secretary of state. In that election, voters would face two questions: First, whether to keep Newsom or oust him from office, and second, a list of candidates who would replace him.

California observers said a potential recall would likely attract hundreds of candidates, any of whom would only have to pay a $3,916 fee to appear on the ballot. In 2003, when voters recalled Gov. Gray Davis (D), 135 candidates appeared on the ballot, among them a porn star, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, actor Gary Coleman, media magnate Arianna Huffington — and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won with almost 49 percent of the vote.

This year, there is no unifying figure like Schwarzenegger. Three potential Republicans have emerged as contenders: Kevin FaulconerKevin FaulconerFinal California recall count shows Newsom with tally identical to 2018 Republicans trapped in a media prison of their own making Seven takeaways from California's recall election MORE, the former mayor of San Diego, who intends to challenge Newsom in 2022; businessman John Cox, who lost to Newsom in 2018; and Mike Cernovich, a right-wing conspiracy theorist.

Economy, the recall adviser, said his allies did not intend to rally around one of the potential alternatives.

“Our job is not to pick the next governor,” he said. “Our job is to make sure Californians have the ability to recall this governor.”