State Watch

California Democrats weigh their recall options

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Democrats are united behind Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in advance of an almost certain recall election later this year, but in whispered conversations across the state, some party regulars are beginning to consider whether they need a backup plan.

While Democrats view the recall effort as a conservative power grab funded in part by national Republican groups, some wonder if another prominent Democrat should be put forward on the ballot in the event that voter outrage over a year of coronavirus lockdowns and economic suffering blows up in Newsom’s face.

California’s unique recall system gives voters two separate questions to consider: First, they will decide whether to oust Newsom from office. Second, they will get to pick from a list of those vying to replace him.

Most Democrats are confident that Newsom can survive the first question. Three independent polls conducted last month found voters opposing the recall, and by wide margins, in surveys conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, and the Public Policy Institute of California. Newsom backers point to the progress the state is likely to chart in the coming months as more people are vaccinated against the coronavirus and the economy roars back.

“I’m optimistic given the numbers that we’re seeing. I think Gavin Newsom is going to be fine. Not without work, obviously,” said state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D). “The angst and the anxiety and the concern that people have is warranted given the situation we’re in. But this governor saved thousands of lives.”

But if unforeseen circumstances conspire against Newsom — a new variant emerging, another wave of wildfires, an economic downturn or a mismanaged natural disaster — some Democrats are considering worst-case scenarios.

“Given the uncertainty over the past 14 months with COVID-19 and other unpredictable developments that always seem to happen with recall campaigns, I think Democrats absolutely should have a backup plan to protect their interests,” said Kerman Maddox, one of California’s delegates to the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Newsom’s advisers worry that putting another prominent Democrat’s name on the ballot would serve as an excuse for some independent voters or unhappy Democratic voters to vote in favor of the recall. They believe cracks in party unity were a part of former Gov. Gray Davis’s (D) undoing in 2003, when he was recalled from office.

That year, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (D) joined the race as a backup in case Davis was recalled. Bustamante won 31 percent of the vote — but fell far short of the eventual winner, Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

Bustamante’s apostasy has become a potent tool for Newsom’s strategists, working overtime to dissuade potential contenders from entering the field. 

“Nobody’s heard from Cruz in the 20 years since then,” Dan Newman, Newsom’s top strategist, told The Hill. “It certainly didn’t do a lot for his career. If you’re an ambitious Democrat, it has proven to not be a good career move, particularly in this case where the governor’s going to win.”

The nature of the recall election ensures that several candidates identifying as Democrats — maybe dozens — will add their names to the ballot. But most of those will be unknowns with little money to make a case to voters.

Some Democrats concerned about Newsom’s standing are privately watching a cadre of former state legislators who are sitting on several million dollars in dormant campaign accounts — candidates who would have little to lose, and potentially a tremendous amount to gain, by adding their names to the ballot.

Newsom advisers have taken to Twitter with sharp rebukes of more prominent names said to be considering a race. Sean Clegg, another Newsom adviser, has castigated former Democratic presidential contender Tom Steyer and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) after their names were floated. And the most prominent statewide elected Democrats — including Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis (D) — have made clear they do not intend to run.

“I implore all Democrats to stay off of the ballot. This recall is nothing but a political ploy by the likes of those who were Trump supporters who were not able to beat the governor in an election,” said Tony Thurmond (D), the state superintendent of public instruction. “I think it’s okay to disagree with the governor on policy, but to engage in this recall to me seems like nothing other than a political stunt.”

Most top Democratic strategists and activists say they are in wait-and-see mode, as COVID-19 shots go in arms and the economy rebounds with the help of billions of dollars in federal recovery money, which Newsom can use to shore up his support and earn banner headlines in papers across the state. 

“Right now, I wouldn’t field a candidate. I would wait until we see where we are in September,” said Christine Pelosi, a DNC member and chairwoman of the California Democratic Party’s Women’s Caucus. “If in September things have gone incredibly well with the [vaccine] rollout and we’ve minimized the deaths and illnesses and depression and kids are back in schools and people have their lives back, then his message is ‘I heard the power of your voice and your concerns, and I delivered.'”

“Right now, I see no appetite in the Democratic Party to undercut the governor. Many of us are very critical in our own way,” Pelosi said. But if things go south, she said, the calculus would change: “You would need to save the Democratic governorship.”

Tags California Democratic Party Gavin Newsom Newsom recall Tom Steyer

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