State Watch

Federal stimulus boosts Newsom ahead of recall

California Governor Gavin Newsom
Getty Images

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Over the past year, opponents of California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) harnessed growing anger against his coronavirus restrictions to force a recall election that will roil the state’s politics for the rest of 2021.

But as he prepares for the greatest challenge of his political life, Newsom will now have the opportunity to spend months handing out big checks in all corners of the state thanks to President Biden and congressional Democrats, who rode to the rescue with a relief package that will flood California’s constantly strained budget with more than $42 billion in federal funds.

“That’s a big deal,” Dan Newman, Newsom’s chief political strategist, said in an interview with The Hill. “A lot of people and a lot of small businesses have suffered, and thank God we’ve got a new administration that’s given out relief.”

On Thursday, Newsom visited a firebreak in Fresno County, in the heart of the Inland Empire, to tout $536 million in new spending on fire prevention and sustainability projects. He has spent recent days touring mass vaccination sites in Kern County, San Bernardino, Orange County and San Diego.

Newsom has pledged to reopen the state fully by the middle of June — a timetable that even allies say privately will be easy to meet, given the pace of vaccinations — and to get schools reopened to in-person learning.

Legislative leaders say they plan to roll out new billion-dollar proposals in the coming weeks to address California’s ongoing homelessness crisis, water management issues, child care affordability and both K-12 and higher education. Each initiative is an opportunity for Newsom to generate headlines months before the first question on the recall ballot will stand as a literal referendum on his leadership.

“This is amazing, we can do all these things,” said Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D), a Newsom ally. The governor “is doubling down on investments that are once-in-a-century.”

The boon of federal money is a stark contrast to the last time a governor was recalled in California, in 2003. Back then, Gov. Gray Davis (D) spent a year cutting the budget in the face of a steep deficit.

“Gov. Davis had to cut billions from popular programs and raise fees, including some that he had reduced several years early when we were enjoying surplus funds,” said Steven Maviglio, who worked for Davis in 2000. “Gov. Newsom can play Santa Claus. He can shower the state with billions of dollars in relief funds on programs that will revive the economy. That can only help boost his popularity.”

Democrats across the state say they are not coordinating on daily messaging calls yet, though Newsom’s campaign to beat back the recall has settled on an early set of talking points: The recall, they say, is being run by a host of Republicans in the mold of former President Trump, and the decision before voters is a choice between a popular progressive governor and a Republican Party that was bleeding support in the Golden State even before its hard shift to the right nationally.

“The governor’s up for reelection next year, so in my opinion the recall is just a waste of taxpayer resources put forward by some far-right activists,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting (D), who heads the Budget Committee. “They’re being funded by people with fairly far-right ideology.”

The recall election has not yet been scheduled ahead of a long signature-verification process and other legal hurdles. Most California political observers expect the eventual election to be held in the fall.

California Republicans see an opportunity to capitalize at a moment when their fortunes are near a nadir. Though the party won back control of four U.S. House seats in 2020, they remain stuck in a virtually irrelevant minority in Sacramento; just nine of 40 state senators and 19 of 80 members of the Assembly are Republicans.

Until January, Newsom had in Trump an easy foil deflecting attention from his own handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump took just 34 percent of the vote in California in November.

“We might not like Gavin Newsom, but we certainly didn’t like Trump,” said Assemblyman Chad Mayes (I), a former Republican minority leader who has since left the party and who does not back the recall.

But California voters may give the party a second look if they can paint Newsom as out of touch; Republicans anticipate further backlash against Newsom’s visit to one of the nation’s priciest restaurants for an unmasked indoor dinner with lobbyist friends.

“The French Laundry thing was completely inexcusable when he gets on TV every day and wags his finger at us. Most people view him as somebody who thinks he’s entitled. It fits into that narrative,” said state Sen. Scott Wilk, the Republican minority leader. “He brought the recall on himself.”

At least two prominent Republicans have entered the race: Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego, and John Cox, a wealthy businessman who ran against and lost to Newsom in 2018. Reality television star Caitlyn Jenner is reportedly considering a run, and others are likely to jump in too, once the recall formally makes the ballot.

National Republicans have weighed into the recall both financially and strategically; the Republican Governors Association has spoken with several potential and current candidates, and the Republican National Committee has contributed $200,000 to its state affiliate, which has in turn given $185,000 to the recall committee.

That, Newsom backers hope, will allow them to paint the recall election as a choice between Newsom’s leadership and Trumpism, even if the former president has left the stage.

“It allows us to make it in some sense a patriotic defense of California and California values and Gov. Newsom as a proxy for it,” Newman said.

And while the federal money will help Newsom make his case, Republican backers of the recall have inadvertently given him another opening: A recall campaign operates under special campaign finance rules that treat the recalled candidate like a ballot measure campaign, able to accept unlimited donations — a boost for a candidate like Newsom who raised more than $50 million even before he was an incumbent.

“The candidates have limits except for their self-funding,” Newman said. “The person who’s on the recall ballot does not.”

Tags American Rescue Plan California coronavirus relief funds Donald Trump Gavin Newsom Joe Biden Kevin Faulconer Recall Republican Governors Association Sacramento San Diego Stimulus
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