California Gov. Gavin Newsom will remain in office after overwhelmingly defeating the recall effort aimed at ousting him.
The landslide finish is a welcome relief for Democrats after a jittery summer in which a series of misleading polls predicted the race as a dead heat, prompting Newsom and his team of analysts to sound the alarms and enlist national Democratic help and resources.
In the final days, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris stumped with Newsom, while former President Obama cut a television ad. Obama deemed the election a “matter of life and death” – the difference between “protecting kids from COVID or putting them at risk, helping Californians recover or taking them backward.”
The decisive victory is giving Newsom and other prominent Democrats new ammunition for projecting his pandemic strategy to the national level. Celebrating the big win Tuesday night, they warned Republicans that running to the right, especially on issues related to the pandemic, may help win GOP primaries but could spell certain defeat in general elections, especially in blue or purple states and districts.
Radio talk show host Larry Elder, the top vote-getter to replace Newsom had the recall succeeded, had little competition from the GOP field of candidates vying for a chance at governor, racking up 38% support in the latest poll. But the black Republican who has made a career as a combative provocateur served as an easy foil for Newsom, who assailed his pledge to overturn all statewide mask and vaccine mandates on his first day in office.
Media outlets called the race earlier than expected, shortly after 9 p.m. on the West Coast. By midnight, with 66% of precincts reporting, the victory had widened to nearly 30 percentage points — 64.8% voted to keep Newsom while 35.2% voted to replace him. Election experts warned the margin will likely narrow but remain substantial as more votes are tallied in the days ahead. California election law requires voters to turn in or have ballots postmarked by Election Day, but there are seven additional days for county officials to receive them.
A clearly relieved Newsom appeared before supporters after media outlets began calling the race for him. The first-term governor twice said he was “humbled” by the experience, as well as grateful for the outpouring of support. He said the resounding victory amounted to a rejection of “Trumpism,” which described as alive and well in the GOP.
“I want to focus on what we said yes to,” he told supporters and reporters gathered in the courtyard of the John L. Burton Democratic Headquarters in Sacramento. “We said yes to science. We said yes to vaccines. We said yes to ending this pandemic. We said yes to people’s right to vote without fear of fraud or voter suppression. We said yes to women’s fundamental, constitutional right to decide what she does with her own body.”
Whether voters galvanized behind Newsom’s leadership or against Elder’s right-wing views is difficult to discern. David Axelrod, the former chief political strategist for Obama, argued that the results were “more a warning sign for Republicans than necessarily a sign of a great encouragement for Democrats” considering the state is solidly blue.
Speaking about next year’s midterms, he warned of “historical barriers” for sitting first-term incumbent presidents and expected Republican advantages in key states and districts after redistricting. “Democrats really start from behind” in House races, he said on CNN after the cable network called the election for Newsom. “So much depends on the course this virus takes, the course the economy takes.”
Leading up to Election Day, Elder echoed some of the same claims of fraud Trump has raised about the recall in recent days. But after the overwhelming vote in the governor’s favor, he readily conceded to Newsom while vowing to keep the movement alive. On Tuesday, Elder told a local radio station that he planned on running against Newsom again in the regular gubernatorial election next year.
“Let’s be gracious in defeat,” Elder said at an Orange County gathering of supporters. “We may have lost the battle, but we are going to win the war.”
Perhaps the greatest irony of the recall effort is that what sparked it nine months ago — some of the most aggressive COVID measures in the nation — ultimately ended up helping Newsom stave off defeat as the contagious new delta variant stoked new worries about vaccine breakthrough infections and cases in children. GOP consultant Rob Stutzman predicted the turn of events in the election’s final stretch. He had served as deputy chief of staff to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won the last California recall in 2003, successfully replacing then-Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
Newsom in recent weeks became the first governor to require statewide masking in schools, and vaccines for state workers, beating Biden to the punch on his federal worker mandate.
Of course, the recall also projected what Californians would and would not tolerate in pandemic measures. From the beginning of this year, it was clear most frustrated parents wanted public schools and most businesses open, with a majority of residents putting up with or fully backing widespread mask rules and embracing vaccination or testing rules for teachers.
Newsom at times struggled to thread that needle, especially as it related to school reopenings. Earlier this year, he pushed back on COVID-related demands from teacher unions, one of his biggest allies and financial contributors.
Even though Newsom earns high marks in recent polls for his handling of the pandemic, he and Biden, campaigning together on Monday, spent little time highlighting his overall record as governor. Instead, the pair lambasted Elder as a “Trump clone” who is wildly out of step with the majority of the state’s liberal voters when it comes to abortion, the minimum wage, paid maternity leave, racial-equality measures, among many issues.
Elder, who has never held public office, had high name recognition among Republicans from his role as a talk show host and Fox News contributor. The right-wing rabble-rouser shook up the race with his late entry in early July, quickly vaulting past former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a pro-choice centrist, as well as businessman and perennial candidate John Cox, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley and former Olympian-turned-reality-star Caitlyn Jenner.
Hitting Newsom for some of the most aggressive COVID lockdown policies in the nation, Elder blasted him for spikes in crime, rising homelessness, sky-high cost of living and housing prices, as well as declining school standards and for failing to curb the recent spate of devastating wildfires.
Elder’s successful showing vis a vis his fellow challengers ultimately carried a mixed signal. Without the global star power of someone like Schwarzenegger, perhaps no Republican can win in a state where registered Democrats outnumber them 2-1, but a more centrist candidate would have done less to mobilize Democrats against them.
There are plenty of lessons for Newsom and fellow Democrats as well, top political analysts across the state warn.
Many veteran political observers argue Newsom suffered from largely self-inflicted wounds, costing Democrats money and political capital that’s increasingly in short supply. While Biden remains popular in California, his approval rating nationwide is five points underwater since the chaotic and deadly Afghanistan withdrawal, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls.
Newsom and recall opponents raised and spent some $80 million to fight his removal – nearly five times as much as all his opponents spent combined. The campaign war chest included $5.5 million from the Democratic Governors Association, $3 million from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and more than $7.6 million from public employee unions.
And the governor harnessed the trappings of his office – as well as taxpayer dollars – to benefit his campaign. He delivered a March state of the state speech at an empty Dodger Stadium, meant as a solemn reminder of COVID deaths but mocked as a public display of his own strict lockdown policies. He used part of a $76 billion state budget surplus on vaccine lottery winnings and $600 in pandemic stimulus checks that landed in the final weeks before the election.
Some of the anger Newsom stirred with his pandemic policies was deeply personal — as well as avoidable. In addition to his notorious attendance at a dinner party at the elite French Laundry restaurant while warning all California residents against such gatherings, Newsom tried to empathize with parents about the difficulty of learning on Zoom calls while shuttering public schools last year. The problem? His own kids were attending private schools already offering in-person instruction.
“To many, Newsom came across as elitist, egomaniacal and hypocritical – and his lengthy internet monologues about the pandemic, his eagerness to suspend usual procedures and laws, his boasts about how well the state was managing the disease, and the evident unfairness of some of his decrees — grated on many Californians,” wrote Dan Waters, a CalMatters columnist and 60-year veteran of California newspapers.
Newsom now swears he’s learned his lesson the hard way. But with the experience in the rearview mirror and a regular reelection contest next year, he’ll likely never face such a threat again and sail on to another full term. In addition, Democrats in the state legislature are determined to make it tougher for recall proponents to trigger such elections.
Will Newsom change his leadership in style or substance or view the results as a vindication? California offers no shortage of monumental challenges that will provide those answers very soon.