Just three years ago, a debate featuring several Republican candidates for California governor packing a ballroom and spurring national headlines would have been a Grand Old Party pipedream.
California Republicans at the time were just months from losing eight House seats and falling into third-place voter registration status, behind no-party preference. A few months later, Gavin Newsom would sail into office with 62% of the vote, the biggest victory margin for a non-incumbent in the state since 1930.
But there they were last night, under the klieg lights at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum — four GOP candidates angling to oust Newsom, being taken very seriously by the news media and the state’s largely Democratic political class in the final stretch of the Sept. 14 recall race.
Businessman John Cox, who lost to Newsom in 2018, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley and former Rep. Doug Ose squared off in a substantive, spirited yet civil contest, mostly avoiding shots at each other while training their fire on Newsom.
The candidates blasted the governor on everything from job-crushing COVID lockdowns to the state’s homeless crisis, sky-high housing costs, rising crime, and a massive $30 billion unemployment fraud scandal.
“This used to be the state where anyone could get ahead. Now it’s the state that many can’t wait to leave fully behind, and our soaring housing costs are central to that,” argued Kiley, a 36-year-old lawyer and former public school teacher, noting that the median house price in California is $750,000, up 20% since last year.
While two of the most well-known candidates – Larry Elder, the new GOP frontrunner in the field, and Caitlyn Jenner – skipped the debate, the four who participated repeatedly blasted Newsom over his pandemic restrictions, new masking policies in schools, as well as additional vaccination requirements for government workers. (Debate organizers said Newsom did not respond to their invitation.)
Faulconer struck a pragmatic note early on by beginning his first COVID-related response by encouraging “everyone to get vaccinated” as “our way out of” the pandemic before eschewing mandates and stressing the desire to return to basic pre-pandemic freedoms.
“We’re not going to mandate our way out of coronavirus,” Faulconer said. “… I do not support a mask mandate in schools.”
Cox too disparaged Newsom’s recent announcement that he would require state employees and health care workers to show vaccination proof or take a weekly COVID test.
“I don’t believe that we should do that,” he said. “…[Newsom] got slapped down in court for closing the churches while strip clubs and pot shops were deemed essential. I think it’s a real problem when politicians and governments get involved in deciding what’s essential and what’s not.”
Ose added: “This is not the last variant we’re going to have. If we don’t break this pattern of government overreach into our daily lives, we’re going to get stuck with this over and over and over.”
With COVID cases rising again, the candidates’ emphasis on personal freedom over public health mandates earned a swift rebuke from Team Newsom. “All of them said they wouldn’t lift a finger to protect Californians against the Delta variant or even require health care workers to prove their vaccination status — that’s pretty outrageous,” Nathan Click, Newsom’s communications chief, said after the debate.
Faulconer spokesman Matt Shupe reminded Click that the former mayor had encouraged everyone to get vaccinated. “You’re spreading misinformation,” he countered in a tweeted response to Click’s assertion.
In addition to COVID restrictions, the Republicans assailed Newsom over increasing crime, homelessness and the governor’s recent decision to cut thousands of farmers off from river water as the drought worsens.
Faulconer, the institutional Republican favorite, earned instant praise for providing the most detailed, articulate answers while Ose delivered the best one-liners. Surprisingly, none of the candidates took aim at Elder, who made himself vulnerable to attacks by deciding to attend a Bakersfield fundraiser instead.
“I've seen the disasters of these policies on the streets throughout this great state of ours,” Faulconer said. “It's time to have a governor who is going to put victims first and put criminals in jail. Every California family deserves to be safe, to feel safe and to have a safe neighborhood. That is not reality under Gavin Newsom’s California.”
Faulconer specifically accused Newsom of “enabling” the “defund the police” movement and faulted him for supporting Proposition 47, which reclassified some theft and drug-possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors.
Ose reminded the audience that the state already has 41 separate programs for the homeless across nine different agencies, spending $4 billion each year as homeless populations have continued to rise. “What we’re doing isn’t working,” he said. “… We need to get treatment for the drug addicted. We need to get treatment for the mentally ill. We need to stop calling failure success.”
One of the few digs any of the candidates made against another came when Ose was asked why he previously called Faulconer “plastic man” over his homelessness policies. Ose said he did so because he believes Faulconer was misleadingly citing reduced homeless rates by changing the way the homeless are counted and by moving them to neighborhood communities.
The San Diego City Police Department, Ose said, has routed homeless into satellite cities round San Diego, reducing the city’s numbers but not decreasing overall numbers. “These are not answers. Hotels for homeless are not the answer,” he asserted.
Addressing the animosity between environmentalists and Central Valley farmers over the state water control board’s decision to cut off the flow from the state’s main rivers and streams, Ose pushed specific proposals that could help eliminate the difficult trade-off.
“I’m going to talk to the people of this state about common-sense solutions, and that means desalination. That means building more storage. That means building more recycling,” he said. “There’s one farmer in this race – and that’s me. My sisters and I raise thousands of acres of rice. Water is not theoretical to me.”
With COVID cases surging across the state and the nation as the Delta variant takes its toll, several recent surveys have shown the once sleepy race tightening with nearly half of California voters supporting the recall and the other half opposing.
A new poll released Wednesday by Survey/USA and sponsored by the San Diego Union Tribune has some bad news for both Newsom and his GOP challengers on stage Wednesday night. The poll is the first showing Newsom losing the recall question — 51% to 40%. Despite the governor’s efforts to cast the recall as a purely Republican exercise, the survey found that independent voters back his removal by a ratio of 5 to 3. And nearly 47% of Latinos support removal while 41% want to keep him in office.
The poll of 1,100 California residents (not likely voters) also shows that respondents are so split among the candidates, the next governor in the election after the recall would be Democrat Kevin Paffrath, a YouTube personality, winning with 27% of the vote.
In an attempt to consolidate more support behind one candidate, the California GOP is set to vote Saturday on whether to endorse one of the Republicans in the race. Cox has accused the party of insider “trickery” for trying to orchestrate the party’s seal of approval for Faulconer, and ultimately, his win.
It’s impossible to tell how many Democratic or Republican voters will cast their ballots in mid-September just as children are getting back on track at school amid new COVID jitters. Cementing the last few years’ use of expanded mail-in ballots, Newsom signed a law earlier this year to ensure that every registered voter receives a mail-in ballot for any election this year.
Though still a longshot, toppling a once popular Democratic governor in predominantly blue state wouldn’t just be an embarrassment for the party nationwide; it could send aftershocks rippling throughout the country ahead of the 2022 midterms. It’s a point Newsom himself recently made in a plea for help from top Democratic leaders.
The pain would be all the more searing considering the political reality in the Democratic-dominant state. If a Republican finds a way to topple Newsom, it would likely be only a short-term victory. Recall rules allow a Republican to win with only a plurality of the vote as long as a majority of voters back the first ballot question agreeing to recall Newsom. But Newsom could then run again next year and regain his job, calling the entire process and its $276 million price tag into serious question.