Before California became a cultural symbol of everything conservatives hate, it was once a symbol of Republican political strength. It went Republican in eight of the nine presidential elections from 1952 through 1988; in five of those contests the GOP nominee was from the Golden State. From 1943 through 2011, Republican governors (including the most famous one, Ronald Reagan) were in office for 47 of 68 years. Orange County was considered the premier national stomping grounds of the conservative movement, and Southern California was arguably the birthplace of the Christian Right.
All of that has gone away. The Democratic vote in presidential races in California rose from just over five million (and 51 percent) for Bill Clinton in 1996 to over eleven million (and 64 percent) for Joe Biden in 2020. The not-very-orthodox Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was the last Republican to have won a statewide election of any sort. His governorship ended after the profoundly Republican election year of 2010, in which California Democrats swept every statewide election (including landslide wins over the insanely well-financed Meg Whitman in the governor’s race and future presidential candidate Carly Fiorina in the Senate race) while expanding their majorities in the state legislature.
That background is helpful in understanding why California Republicans (and their national allies) have gone all-in on an effort to oust and replace Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom in a recall election. While the recall drive began with the usual cranky conservative complaints about Big Government and the godless hippies destroying property rights with their tree-hugger delusions, it took off during the COVID-19 pandemic. Growing public unhappiness with school closures and restrictions on small businesses and churches gave a boost to the signature-collectors. And then Newsom gave his haters the big gift of getting caught in a boneheaded violation of his own pandemic restrictions while honoring a donor/lobbyist at one of the most exclusive restaurants on the planet (Napa Valley’s French Laundry).
The petition verification process will still take a while, but it is universally expected that there will be enough valid signatures to trigger a recall election, probably this November. And the general feeling among Republicans is that it may provide them with the best opportunity they have to pick off a statewide office. They must first prevail on the initial ballot question of whether Newsom should be ejected from office. And then they must elect one of their own in the secondary ballot question of a replacement. The latter proposition is aided by the refusal (so far) of any prominent Democrats to offer themselves as the Next Governor of California. But on the former question, it’s not looking good for the GOP:
Every credible poll so far has shown voters by a comfortable margin rejecting the recall, with the vote pretty closely tracking partisan affiliation.
So you have to wonder now if California Republicans made a mistake by going down the recall road instead of just waiting for 2022. They’ll have to spend money in what might be a fool’s errand with no down-ballot benefit, and intraparty divisions could be exacerbated by intense competition for a “victory” in the replacement voting that won’t matter at all (there are currently three viable Republicans in the running, not counting a possible celebrity candidacy from Caitlin Jenner, who is talking with former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale about campaign strategy). The GOP could also find itself mocked as part of an off-year political circus: It is very easy to get onto the replacement-question ballot (135 candidates made the cut in the last gubernatorial recall election in 2003, which gave the world Governor Schwarzenegger), and publicity seekers (including 2003 retread, and former porn star Mary Carey) are already lining up.
Republicans might be better advised to wait for 2022, when they ought to benefit from the usual midterm swing against the White House party. Assuming they cannot beat Newsom or appointed Senator Alex Padilla, their main goal should be to protect their great prize from 2020: their success in clawing back four of the seven U.S. House seats they lost in 2018. These were all very close races, and the seats could be at risk if 2022 becomes the kind of GOP debacle they experienced in the 2010 midterms.
It’s possible, of course, that the pandemic could come roaring back in the months ahead, which might make life more difficult for Newsom along with incumbents everywhere. More likely, as life returns to semi-normal and California basks in balanced budgets with fresh stimulus spending, Newsom will get out of the danger zone. And by November, Golden State voters may no longer be entirely sure whether the French Laundry is an eatery or a dry cleaner.