State Watch

What’s next in the California recall

Supporters of an effort to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) have turned in the last of the more than 2.1 million signatures they collected over the past year, almost certainly setting up what will be the most expensive and most competitive election of 2021.

But it’s not yet clear exactly when that election will be held or who is running. Here are the next steps in the race for California’s governorship.

Counties count

The ball is now in the hands of election administrators in each of California’s 58 counties. They have until April 29 to verify the signatures the recall committee turned in.

Recall organizers need just under 1.5 million of those signatures to be valid to force an election. They collect many more than that figure in anticipation that some will be deemed invalid. 

But early tallies show organizers are on track to hit their goal: The most recent report from California’s secretary of state shows 83 percent of the signatures they had turned in through Feb. 5 were valid, a higher-than-usual rate for California petitions.

The legal hoops

Once the recall is confirmed, a series of windows begin to open: Voters who signed the petition have 30 days to withdraw their signature. Then the state Department of Finance has 30 days to estimate how much the recall election will cost — a pricey endeavor in the nation’s largest state.

The legislature gets another 30 days to review the cost estimates. Then it’s up to Secretary of State Shirley Weber (D) to make a formal certification that petitioners met the signature requirements.

Weber is just a few months into a job she won when Newsom appointed her to replace her predecessor, Alex Padilla. Padilla was Newsom’s choice to succeed Vice President Harris when Harris formally resigned her seat to take her new post as vice president.

Setting a date

Once Weber makes her formal announcement, it’s up to Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis (D) to schedule an election within 60 to 80 days. With all the review periods ahead, it’s likely that the election itself won’t happen until the fall — maybe as late as November.

But this won’t be a traditional election in which voters head to the polls. The state legislature earlier this year approved a measure that will send mail-in ballots to every registered voter in any jurisdiction that holds an election in 2021, a holdover from the coronavirus pandemic — and something of a boon to Newsom’s team, who can use Democrats’ voter registration advantage to hunt down potential supporters who might not otherwise be motivated to vote.

Running the campaign

Meanwhile, Newsom and his opponents will launch their campaigns. But this isn’t an ordinary election, and the two sides are going to be running very different campaigns.

Newsom has already previewed his message, lauding the economic boom likely to emerge as the pandemic subsides and lambasting what he calls a Republican-driven power grab funded by allies of former President Trump.

He needs voters to vote against the recall itself, the first question they will encounter on their ballot. To succeed, he needs to convince those voters that he has handled his job well enough — there are some signs that his approval rating may be slipping.

Perhaps the most crucial task Newsom faces is keeping California Democrats united. The last time a governor was recalled, in 2003, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (D) put his name on the recall ballot as a sort of fallback option. So far, no big-name Democrats have said they will be on the ballot — Kounalakis said doing so would be shameful.

The candidates running to replace Newsom, on the other hand, need to make their own case to break through what is likely to be the most crowded ballot in U.S. history. Eighteen years ago, 135 candidates ran, including a porn star, a porn magnate, actor Gary Coleman, media magnate Arianna Huffington, former Major League Baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who ended up winning with 48 percent of the vote.

There is no Schwarzenegger in the race this year, and Republicans are likely to be divided between a host of candidates. Former Rep. Doug Ose (R) said this week he would run. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer (R) and businessman John Cox (R) have also announced they will run. 

They will not be alone. One top Democratic strategist estimated that as many as 1,000 people could qualify for the ballot this year. Such a crowd could complicate efforts to replace Newsom if there is no consensus pick around whom independent and moderate voters can rally.

The recall organization will continue beyond the certification itself, making the case for Newsom’s ouster.

The 2018 election Newsom won over Cox attracted $75 million between the two campaigns, and millions more in outside spending. This year, the recall is one of only four major elections taking place — along with gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey and the race to become New York City’s mayor. California voters are in for a wild and expensive year.

Tags Alex Padilla California Donald Trump Gavin Newsom Kevin Faulconer

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