Donald Trump hasn’t been in office for nearly eight months, and he’s not on the ballot in the California recall election. But you wouldn’t know it from the closing arguments Monday night from Gov. Gavin Newsom and President Biden.
Newsom and Biden joined forces in Long Beach to rally Democratic troops to defeat the recall election with only one day left for voters to return their ballots in the second effort to remove the state’s sitting governor in 18 years.
Yet, the Democratic pair spent far more time warning of a return to Trumpism than they did touting Newsom’s record during his COVID-plagued 2½-year tenure leading the state.
In back-to-back speeches lasting roughly 20 minutes total, Newsom and Biden invoked Trump’s name 14 times as they attempted to turn Larry Elder, the combative conservative talk show host and black Republican threatening the governor’s job, into a Frankenstein reincarnation of Democrats’ most apocalyptic fears.
“I’m going to make this as simple as I can: You either keep Gavin Newsom or you’ll get Donald Trump. It’s not a joke,” Biden told a crowd of nearly 1,000 elected Democratic state officials and supporters gathered at Long Beach City College.
“Well, this year … the leading Republican running for governor is the closest thing to Trump I’ve ever seen,” the president added moments later. “I really mean he is a clone. … Can you imagine him being governor of the state? You can’t let that happen. There’s too much at stake.”
Even as Biden described Elder as someone far too right-wing to represent the solidly blue state, he still seemed deeply worried about the possibility of that outcome. “The eyes of the nation — it’s not hyperbole — are on California because the decision you’re about to make,” he warned. “It’s gonna have a huge impact on California that’s gonna reverberate around the nation, and quite frankly … the world.”
Earlier Monday, the president was in Northern California surveying via helicopter damage from the Caldor Fire, which has blackened more than 219,000 acres, destroying more than 1,000 structures, including 782 homes. It’s one of several mega-fires still burning across the state, creating an eerie red haze or thick smoky fog in hard-hit areas. The president’s trip comes one day after he declared this season’s wildfires a major disaster.
Seeking to shift blame for the blazes away from Newsom, Biden acknowledged that “decades of forest management decisions” have played a role but argued that climate change has “supercharged” the fires, increasing their ferocity and frequency over the last few years.
“This is not about red or blue states, it’s about fires — just fires,” he said.
Even before the first spark of the late-summer fire season, Newsom has been facing criticism for grossly misleading the public about his wildfire prevention efforts. An investigation by CapRadio and National Public Radio’s California Newsroom found the governor overstated by “an astounding 690%” the number of acres treated with fuel breaks or prescribed burns in the forestry projects he said needed to be prioritized. At the same time, Newsom slashed roughly $150 million from Cal Fire’s wildfire prevention budget in 2020, the same year 4.3 million acres burned, the most in the state’s recorded history.
Biden on Monday ignored the criticism that has been aimed at Newsom, claiming he is working “closely” with the governor to “make sure California has every resource — every resource available — to keep families safe.”
“And the governor has led this state with poise and strong leadership,” Biden said about Newsom’s efforts, without citing examples. “He’s been an innovator in terms of long-term solutions.”
When it came to touting accomplishments, Biden focused on Newsom’s recent success in helping California become a state with one of the highest COVID vaccination rates and one of the lowest recent tallies of weekly coronavirus cases in the nation.
If California voters decide to keep him in office, Biden argued, they’ll be “protecting California from Trump Republicans trying to block us from beating this pandemic, COVID-19.” He added that “Gavin Newsom has had the courage to stand up for science. … He's been one of the leading governors in the nation protecting people, and vaccinating his state.”
All the top Republican candidates in the race, including Elder, have said they would roll back many of Newsom’s COVID-related restrictions if elected. Newsom himself referred to Elder as “to the right of Donald Trump,” arguing that his views on race and gender, opposition to any minimum wage, as well as abortion, are out of step with the far more liberal California electorate.
Newsom then repeated well-rehearsed but misleading attack lines about Elder that have marked most of his stump speeches over the last month. He argued that his challenger believes climate change is a “myth,” despite the GOP candidate stating during the campaign that he believes in global warming but does not know if it’s a key factor in the increasing severity of the state’s wildfires.
The first-term governor also asserted, inaccurately, that Elder believes that “women are smarter than men.” (Elder, writing in a 2000 column, cited an Annenberg study that found that women knew less about politics than men at the time.)
In the final furious weeks of the recall, wild accusations have been flying from both sides. Elder’s ex-fiancée spoke to Politico and accused him of brandishing a handgun in the middle of a domestic argument between the two of them. Over this past weekend, Hollywood actress and #MeToo activist Rose McGowan accused Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the governor’s wife, of trying to silence her rape allegation against Harvey Weinstein.
Weinstein is now serving a 23-year sentence for sexual assaults and harassment. The Newsom campaign denied the charge as a wild fabrication. McGowan then tweeted out an email Siebel Newsom sent that confirmed interactions between the two.
Trump, who lost this state by more than 30 percentage points last year, has mainly steered clear of the California recall, not endorsing a GOP candidate in the race. But in the last few days, the former president has claimed that the election is “rigged.” Presumably, Trump was referring to the 22 million unsecured ballots mailed to registered California voters, but Democrats portrayed it as the same baseless and dangerous undermining of voting integrity that led to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Even before Elder entered the race in early July, Newsom was blaming the recall effort on Trump supporters and QAnon conspiracy theorists. But when Elder, one of the more conservative candidates in the race, surged to the top of the GOP pack, Newsom had an easier foil.
In midsummer, public opinion polls showed Republican voters were far more motivated to oust Newsom than Democrats were to save him, rattling Democratic officials across the state and nation. Newsom called on national Democrats, including Biden and fellow Californian Kamala Harris, who made an appearance last week on his behalf, to get involved in the race.
Even though there are nearly twice as many Democratic as Republican voters in the state, Democratic strategists worried that low turnout on their side could doom Newsom, which would in turn demonstrate weakness as both parties look to next year’s midterm elections with control of both the House and Senate at stake.
A string of recent polls, however, have shown Newsom in a strong position heading into Election Day. The most recent survey, released Friday by the Public Policy Institute of California, found that 58% of likely voters want to keep Newsom in office while 39% want him removed. The RealClearPolitics average of polls is very similar with 57% support for retaining Newsom and 41.5% for ousting him.
All registered voters across the state received a mail-in ballot, and those must be returned in-person by Tuesday or mailed and received by officials by Sept. 21 in order to count.
Out of those 22 million ballots that were sent out, 8.2 million (37%) have been returned so far, according to data firms tracking the returns. Those numbers include 52% ballots cast by Democrats so far, 25% cast by Republicans and an estimated 23% by independents or those indicating no-party preference in their registration. Republican Party officials believe their voters, distrustful of mail-in voting, will show up at drop-off locations in large numbers Tuesday to deliver their ballots in person. Democrats counter that it’s wishful thinking and are touting already higher-than-expected turnout as a boon for Newsom. Which side is right will be known in due time. The polls close today at 8 p.m.