California Governor Gavin Newsom ably fended off a recall attempt from Republicans on Tuesday after changing the stakes of the contest from a referendum on his own performance and into a partisan fight over Trumpism and the coronavirus.
The California recall election was the first significant US political contest of Joe Biden’s presidency and served as a stress test for both parties before next year’s midterms that will determine whether Biden’s Democratic Party can retain control of Congress.
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The rejection of the Republican-driven recall and top Republican challenger Larry Elder is a signal that candidates aligned with former President Donald Trump will struggle for votes in key US political battlegrounds like California’s former Republican stronghold, suburban Orange County.
Four takeaways from Newsom’s victory:
COVID Precautions can help Democrats
Republicans intended the recall to be a referendum on Democrats’ rule of California, and the homelessness, crime, high housing costs and energy problems that accompanied it. But in a bit of political manoeuvring — and with the help of the spreading delta variant — Newsom turned it into a referendum on Republicans’ opposition to precautions against the coronavirus.
The Republicans running to replace Newsom opposed mask and vaccine mandates, and the California governor was happy to highlight that. Newsom aired an advertisement calling the recall “a matter of life and death” and accusing the top Republican candidate, talk radio host Larry Elder, of “peddling deadly conspiracy theories”.
Ironically, the recall gained steam after Newsom was caught in November at a lobbyist’s birthday party at a swanky Napa Valley restaurant — unmasked and in a large party that violated his own social distancing orders. But his strategists have been arguing for weeks that his leadership during the pandemic is a plus for him — and that other Democrats should not be afraid to lead on the issue.
In his remarks after winning, Newsom kept the emphasis on the virus. “I want to focus on what we said yes to as a state: We said ‘yes’ to science, we said ‘yes’ to vaccines, we said ‘yes’ to ending this pandemic,” the governor told reporters.
GOP revives baseless election fraud claims
Republicans’ groundless claims of election fraud are not going away anytime soon.
Even while ballots were still being cast, Republicans were claiming the election was “rigged”. It was a baseless allegation — and a strange one considering Republicans performed relatively well under the same California election system in November, gaining four congressional seats.
But former President Donald Trump’s false election fraud rhetoric quickly has burrowed into Republican politics. The former president enthusiastically added his own voice to the claims. And, several days before the polls closed, the Elder campaign bizarrely began circulating a link to a petition demanding an investigation into his loss, alleging widespread fraud — which some Republicans feared was a message that his voters should not even bother to show up Tuesday.
The recall was always a long shot in a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by nearly two-to-one and where the GOP has not won a statewide election since 2006. But Republicans’ turn to conspiracy theories and baseless fraud claims to explain a loss that polls had indicated was coming for months shows the party will not walk away from those suspicions. That led to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol after Trump’s defeat.
Notably, Elder seemed to try to climb down from the inflammatory election allegations Tuesday night. In his concession speech, he told supporters, “Let’s be gracious in defeat.”
Still, some Californians worry about what could happen in their state.
“This is going to be the second election in a row where there are going to be aggressive, emotional charges of voter fraud,” said Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California. “I cannot see a positive out of it.”
No light at the end of the tunnel for California GOP
The recall offered California Republicans their only plausible shot at a statewide office in one of the most Democratic states in the US. The recall is a way to dodge a head-to-head match that would send voters to their regular partisan corners.
That’s what happened in 2003 when Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger won a recall against Democratic Governor Gray Davis. Schwarzenegger’s moderate politics never would have won a GOP primary but were appealing enough to voters fed up with the incumbent. Some Republicans hoped that would happen again this year, with former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a moderate, on the ballot.
But there were two problems for the GOP. First, California is very different now compared with 2003 — it’s more liberal and more diverse. There are more than three million more registered Democrats in the state now than during the last recall, and nearly 400,000 fewer Republicans.
Second, Faulconer never caught on. Instead, Elder’s bombastic style, honed during his decades on talk radio and echoing Trump, vaulted him to the top of the Republican pack. Newsom, sensing a favourable contrast, started pounding Elder on the airwaves.
Some Republicans had hoped the populist approach of Elder, who is African American, could appeal to California’s diverse electorate. But that does not seem to have worked.
“Larry Elder was exactly what Gavin Newsom needed,” said Rob Stutzman, a veteran California GOP strategist.
Uncertain model for Congressional midterms
Democrats showed they could turn out their voters even as their party held the White House — a traditionally tough feat that is why the party in power usually loses seats in Congress in midterm elections. Republicans are trying to win back the House and Senate. Turnout in the recall was expected to be high — some experts predicted it will be in the neighbourhood of the more than 12 million who voted in 2018 in California.
Finally, the recall was a referendum on Newsom and how Californians wanted their state governed, particularly in regards to the coronavirus — an issue the governor has a lot of influence over. The midterms will be a referendum on Biden. The power the GOP could win — control of Congress — is not the executive branch, where coronavirus regulations have come from to date.
It is not clear Democrats can mount the same defence of Congress as they did of their governor in the nation’s most populous state.