San Francisco, California – The Democratic governor of a deep blue state could be removed by Republicans.
California Governor Gavin Newsom faces a high-stakes election on September 14 that threatens to replace him with one of the dozens of candidates, including a popular conservative radio host who is against abortion and has praised former Republican President Donald Trump.
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Newsom is in the midst of a recall election — an attempt by Republican voters to remove him from office. Nationally, the outcome could be a bellwether for the 2022 congressional midterm elections, and top Democrats are throwing their weight behind Newsom.
This week, Vice President Kamala Harris travelled to the Bay Area to support Newsom, and President Joe Biden is expected to join his campaign next week.
Registered voters are receiving ballots in the mail that pose two questions: first, should Newsom be recalled? If voters answer yes, they can choose from a list of 46 candidates to replace him.
If 50 percent or more vote against recalling Newsom, he will remain in office. If a majority votes in favour of recalling him, he would be removed, and the candidate with the most votes on the second question would replace him.
Critics of the recall have said the process is unfair because, for example, 49 percent of voters could vote against recalling Newsom, and his replacement could have a smaller percentage of the remaining votes.
How did we get here?
Not every state has recall elections, but in California, any voter can initiate the removal of an elected official if they gather enough signatures.
California voters start recalls all the time, but they do not often gain traction — this is only the second recall election of a governor in state history, and the fourth in US history.
In February 2020, retired police officer Orrin Heatlie started the recall after he was offended by Newsom’s comments telling undocumented people not to open their doors unless police had a warrant, according to The Associated Press news agency.
Heatlie and volunteers gathered thousands of signatures from other Republicans who disliked Newsom, but they needed the signatures of 12 percent of voters from the previous election — 1.5 million people.
Two events put the wind at their back. Citing the COVID pandemic, a judge gave recall organisers four extra months to gather signatures. And in November, Newsom attended a maskless dinner with 11 friends and lobbyists at a posh restaurant where dinner starts at $350 per person — at the same time, he had told Californians to wear masks and avoid gathering with their families for Thanksgiving dinner.
People of all political stripes saw his actions as hypocritical, and donated to the recall effort and added their signatures. Although Newsom acknowledged he should have set a better example by not joining the dinner, the recall effort surpassed the threshold of required votes.
Sarah Hill, associate professor of political science at California State University, said Newsom’s actions confirmed public perception. “It matched with what people’s opinions were [of Newsom], and it really provided the example that people needed,” she said.
“This guy is elite and doesn’t understand what normal Californians are dealing with; he’s out of touch, we need to do something about this,” she said, describing the public perception. “So it provided that momentum.”
Voters who want Newsom recalled cite a mix of reasons; a recent SurveyUSA poll found those voting to recall him said it was due to his COVID response, handling of COVID restrictions, and closures of businesses and schools. About 11 percent pointed to his actions at the fancy dinner.
What are Newsom’s chances of being removed?
In early August, polls narrowed to a dead heat between voters who wanted to keep versus remove the governor, putting Newsom in jeopardy.
Democrats wanted him to stay, but they were initially less engaged in the recall than Republicans. “He had what we were calling an enthusiasm gap,” explained Mindy Romero, founder and director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy in Sacramento.
Until August, the governor ignored the recall, but the numbers forced him to switch strategies, and he began framing it as an urgent threat, she explained.
“He has changed his approach in the last two weeks especially, really upped the game, really directly saying the stakes are high, they’re so high it’s life and death. I think that’s working,” Romero said.
Another force motivating Democrats is the rise of Larry Elder, a popular conservative radio host who is now the leading candidate among voters who want to recall Newsom.
Throughout his career, Elder has made a string of sexist comments. He promoted a 1950s’ textbook How to be a Good Wife that told women to prepare dinner for their husbands and not to complain, claimed women knew less than men about politics, economics and current events, and the Los Angeles Times reported that he suggested some women who attended the Women’s March against President Trump were “safe” from sexual assault because they were unattractive.
According to CNN, in a 1996 advertisement for his radio show, he said women do not face a glass ceiling in their careers, and Black people “exaggerate the significance of racism”.
Elder opposes abortion, wants to end Newsom’s vaccine and mask requirements, and called Trump “almost God-sent” — positions that could motivate Democrats to vote to keep him out.
Newsom solidified Elder as the conservative frontrunner by framing the election as a choice between himself and Elder in a left-leaning state, Romero said.
“He is crowning the frontrunner that he is happy to have,” she said.
Polls now show voters are leaning towards keeping Newsom. The SurveyUSA poll, conducted between September 7 and 8, found 54 percent of likely voters would keep the governor versus 41 percent who want him removed.
What does the recall mean for the 2022 midterms?
As election day nears, pro-recall campaigners and Elder are holding rallies to get out the vote. Nationally, political strategists and media are circling, awaiting data that can be picked apart from clues ahead of the 2022 midterms.
“It’s really about 2022,” explained Raphael Sonenshein, political scientist and head of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University. Analysts want to know what strategies are most effective and which base is more mobilised, he said. “People are looking for the entrails of the chicken to find out what’s happening out there.”
If Newsom survives, he faces a general election in November 2022. If he is kicked out, his replacement would only hold power for one year before the next election.
California recalls were originally intended as a check on power, but ultimately either party can spin the results for political gain.
Regardless of the outcome, Romero said the recall’s success has emboldened Republicans. The midterms often swing back towards the party that lost the last election, and the recall gives Republicans a powerful narrative to say, “We’re taking back our country,” she explained.
“It’s a dream come true for Republican strategists to be able to point to what’s happening in the recall,” she said.