Republicans caught in California's recall trap

Republicans caught in California's recall trap
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Even after California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomNewsom pledges increased spending on busting retail crime rings The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks up bright side beneath omicron's cloud Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Shipwreck sends waste thousands of miles MORE’s blowout victory in the Tuesday’s recall vote, Democrats are reconsidering the Golden State’s 110-year history with the direct democracy device. Democrats have good reason for their concern — over the last 25 years, they have borne the brunt of relative explosion in state-level recalls in California. But hoping to avoid recall votes is a short-sighted view for the party. These recalls are a sign of a true reversal of fortune for the party and may provide a path for its continued domination of the nation’s biggest state.

That Democrats have been the primary target for recalls is clear. Two Democratic governors in California will have faced recall votes in the last 18 years. But that’s not the whole story. Since 1994, when the recall was used against a legislator for the first time in 80 years, six legislators have gone to voters early. And five of the six who have faced a recall either have been Democrats or were targeted because they supported Democrats. Three of these five were ousted. The only true Republican to face a recall in this time won his vote by an overwhelming margin.

Democrats may look at this information and feel that seven of eight recalls is the relevant information. It is not. The key point that should be looked at is the year 1994.


1994 was a great year for Republicans in California. Pete Wilson won reelection as governor, the fourth straight term for Republicans. No surprise there — the Democrats had control of the governor’s mansion for only 22 years in the entire 20th century. In that same election, the Republicans took control of the California Assembly for the first time in 25 years. The congressional delegation coming out of November was split 26-26.

In the senate race, Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinWhat's that you smell in the Supreme Court? New variant raises questions about air travel mandates Progressive groups urge Feinstein to back filibuster carve out for voting rights or resign MORE barely beat back a challenge from Michael Huffington. The surprise there may be that Feinstein won at all. Republicans held at least one of California’s U.S. Senate seats for all but 14 years of the 20th century. And if we go back a little further, to 1988, we see George H.W. Bush won California’s Electoral College vote. No surprise here as well — Bush’s victory was the sixth straight for Republicans and the ninth over the last 10 elections. The Republican Party could rely on California. Its two biggest presidential triumphs came from Californians Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan leading the ticket. In modern parlance, California may have been a purple state, but it was one with a decided red tinge.

Three decades and seven recalls later, we see a new world, one that calls into question any value that Republicans may have received from the recall. Newsom may have faced a recall, but his 2018 victory was the third straight by a Democrat — the first time the Democrats won three straight gubernatorial elections in California since before the Civil War and the longest stretch of continual Democratic control in the state’s history. The Democrats hold veto-proof majorities in both the Senate and Assembly. Since the 2003 recall, the party’s registration advantage has gone from less than 9 percent to more than 22 percent.

On the federal level, the numbers are just as stark. Democrats have a three-quarters majority in the House delegation — more than three times their overall majority in the chamber. This strong showing has given California’s Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPhotos of the Week: Schumer, ASU protest and sea turtles Hospitals in underserved communities face huge cuts in reckless 'Build Back Better' plan GOP infighting takes stupid to a whole new level MORE the Speakership. The U.S. Senate seats are so safely ensconced in Democratic hands that in the last two elections in 2016 and 2018, the Republicans did not have a candidate make the runoff. It is not too extreme to say that right now, nobody thinks a Republican is going to capture Vice President Harris’s old seat in 2022. And after almost half a century of losses, the Democrats have won California’s Electoral College vote for the eighth straight election, winning it by 29 percent. Once again, virtually nobody believes that whomever the Republicans nominate in 2024, they have a chance at capturing California’s vote. This means that one-fifth of the margin needed for the presidential victory — larger than the smallest 14 states combined — can be tattooed into the Democratic column. 

California is not the Democratic equivalent of Texas or Ohio or Florida. It’s not even Mississippi or Kansas. It is far bluer than any of those states are red. California is now the Democrats' own private Idaho.

Republicans have not come up with any response to this takeover of their party’s former electoral rock. Republicans actually had a good 2020 in California. Despite losing the top of the ticket by near historic blowout margins, the Republicans managed to capture four house seats. It was the first time since 1994 that they ousted a Democratic incumbent.

But instead of incrementally building on this success and tilling the voter soil, the Republicans have looked to a weapon of the weak and the easy fix of recalls. Much as the 2003 recall did not result in any long-term benefits to the Republicans, we may see similar problems for the party here. Even ousting Newsom was unlikely to result in lasting change in the most valuable state in the country.

Republicans have succeeded in using the recall to oust people, including in the shocking Arnold Schwarzenegger triumph in 2003. But the stagnation of the party suggests that they are paying a heavy price for trying the recall shortcut rather than working on building the party.

For the Democrats, there is a separate question. Why change any political laws whatsoever? If the price of complete domination of the state — a state that was the cause of so much heartache before the Republicans settled on the recall as a weapon — is that the party has to face a recall every so often, shouldn’t they be happy to take the win?

Joshua Spivak is the author of “Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom.” He is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College and writes the Recall Elections Blog.