Over 17 years ago, in one of those events that gives California its reputation for zaniness, voters recalled Governor Gray Davis and chose Arnold Schwarzenegger from 135 candidates to replace him. Davis had a lot of problems, many of them derived from a crisis over the state’s electricity grid. But California is notoriously difficult to govern. “The Governator” ultimately left office in 2010 with a job-approval rating not much better than that of Davis.
Now the current governor, Gavin Newsom, whose popularity has taken a pounding during the latter stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, is facing a possible recall as well, as the Los Angeles Times reports:
The latest effort to recall Newsom from office, one of three launched since he took office in 2019, began in June. Though spearheaded by supporters of Trump with assistance from far-right-wing fringe groups, the recall campaign has since been adopted by mainstream California Republicans, who formed their own parallel campaign led by some of the same strategists who helped oust former Gov. Gray Davis in 2003. A Times investigation last month chronicled the role of anti-vaxxers, QAnon supporters and far-right groups in the recall campaign.
The various GOP-funded recall committees claim to have collected 1.3 million voter signatures to force a statewide special election this fall. But only about 410,000 signatures had been verified by elections officials as of last month, with another report on the tally scheduled for mid-February. Proponents of the effort to recall Newsom have until March 17 to turn in almost 1.5 million voter signatures, but will likely need to collect more than that to offset those determined to be invalid.
Though the recall effort is largely a Republican project, it could gain support from other voters unhappy with Newsom’s record, as a new UC Berkeley survey shows: 46 percent approve of Newsom’s performance and 48 percent disapprove, 31 percent of whom disapprove strongly. “This represents a big shift in public sentiment from last year when large majorities approved of the job Newsom was doing,” UC Berkeley reported.
Perceptions of an inconsistent and ineffective COVID-19 response from Sacramento is making the predictable Republican complaints about a progressive Democratic governor more viable:
The latest poll finds fewer than one in three Californians (31%) rating Newsom as doing an excellent or good job in handling the pandemic overall, down from 49% last September. Also, just 22% offer a positive rating of the job he and state government are doing in overseeing the distribution of the coronavirus vaccines to the public. In addition, only about half (47%) have a great deal or some trust in the way the Governor and state government are setting the rules when issuing stay-at-home orders or setting guidelines for business to follow to slow the spread of the virus, with majorities describing them as inconsistent (62%), confusing (60%) and ineffective (53%).
Aggravating the anti-Newsom sentiment have been twin scandals over state unemployment benefits being paid to prisoners, and the governor’s attendance at a birthday party for a campaign donor at the ultra-exclusive French Laundry restaurant at the same time he was urging Californians to avoid such gatherings.
Aside from the possibility that the recall effort won’t succeed in gaining the necessary signatures to place the issue before voters, the best news for Newsom is that California is a lot more Democratic than it was when Davis was recalled and Schwarzenegger defeated Davis’s lieutenant governor for the right to replace him. And while former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, a relatively moderate Republican, is already an announced candidate to become a Newsom replacement, Newsom may well survive if Democrats unite behind him.
And that’s all that really matters. The way California’s recall system works, voters are asked on the same ballot whether to revoke the term of the incumbent, and who they want to succeed her or him if the first measure wins a majority. The same Berkeley poll that showed Newsom’s popularity sinking also indicated Californians currently oppose removing him from office by a 45-36 margin. If all the major replacement candidates are Republicans, the partisan tilt of the Golden State may well save Newsom’s bacon, particularly if the recall election occurs after grievances over his handling of the pandemic have faded (if it’s held at all, it will likely be this summer; state law requires that it be held 60 to 90 days after the recall petitions have been certified).
Faulconer is a relatively attractive Republican candidate, but he’s no Schwarzenegger in terms of his name ID or some supra-political appeal. Lest we forget, California contributed over 5 million of Joe Biden’s 7 million-vote national popular margin over Trump — it’s not about to become a red state. Perhaps Newsom’s travails in 2020 will pour cold water on what many observers thought were his presidential ambitions. But if Democratic and independent voters aren’t furious at Newsom when the deal goes down, they may express fury at Republicans for forcing them to watch TV ads and go to the polls again so soon after the 2020 elections.