The obsessive focus of California Democrats right now is getting through a recall election at some point this autumn focused on Governor Gavin Newsom. Only then will it be safe to turn their attention to the 2022 midterm election, when they will seek to extend their stranglehold on every statewide office and protect supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature.
While it’s unfortunate for Golden State Democrats (and the taxpayers footing the bill) to have to deal with the Newsom recall effort, they are in good shape to defeat it given polls showing a majority of voters steadily oppose the defenestration of the governor they first elected with over 60 percent of the vote in 2018. But Democrats did something interesting during this past weekend’s state party convention (held virtually): They debated their strategy for keeping Newsom in office. Initially Team Newsom decided to discourage the signing of recall petitions by framing the whole effort as a partisan exercise by a Republican Party that cannot win offices via regular elections. And indeed, the recall drive began as a largely pro forma right-wing organizing vehicle nobody expected to succeed. But then disgruntlement over Newsom’s COVID-19 restrictions, and a galvanizing incident wherein the governor was caught violating his own policies to attend a dinner for a donor at one of the world’s most exclusive restaurants, gave the campaign to punish him some real momentum.
Now as the context shifts from halting the recall movement before it could trigger an election to a battle over an election that is actually happening, some California Democrats think it’s time to abandon the partisan framing and take some of the complaints about Newsom seriously enough to rebut them, as the Los Angeles Times reports:
Christine Pelosi, who just finished a 10-year term as chair of the party’s women’s caucus, said she knows of Democrats from the Marina District in San Francisco as well as from the rural edges of the state who signed the recall petitions. By not recognizing the validity of their hurt and instead focusing on partisanship, Pelosi said, recall opponents are turning off Democratic and independent voters who could be brought back into the fold.
“We have to begin with compassionate empathy for the terrible year they had,” said Pelosi, the daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and a member of the Democratic National Committee. “If we’re not speaking to the reality of people’s truth, then they’re going to become engaged against us.”
Pelosi was speaking on behalf of an amendment to strip partisan references from a routine anti-recall resolution at the convention. The amendment failed by a 593-627 margin, but it illustrated how uncomfortable some Democrats have become with the idea of dismissing concerns about Newsom as nothing more than deceptive cover for an attempt by Donald Trump’s party to overturn the 2018 election.
There’s another aspect of the recall framing issue that might be influencing Democrats to retain the partisan optics of it all: Labeling the recall “Republican” might help keep any Democrats from running in the “replacement election” — the second ballot line that will name the next governor if a majority votes to remove Newsom from office. In retrospect, many Democrats believe the decision by Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante to offer himself in the 2003 replacement election contributed to the removal of Governor Gray Davis, and ultimately the election of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. 2020 presidential candidate and billionaire Tom Steyer has reportedly done some polling of how he might do as a replacement candidate, and there’s also been talk of Newsom’s chief Democratic rival in 2018, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa entering the race as well.
So for now California Democrats will continue to treat the recall effort with contempt as a MAGA contrivance that ought to be rejected out of hand without any serious consideration of the Newsom policies and conduct that clearly elevated it from a crank crusade to something requiring a special election. They can only hope the pandemic continues to subside while the economy and state revenues boom, making the whole recall phenomenon look like just another strange moment of a plague year.