California governor Gavin Newsom romped to a decisive victory in a recall election on Tuesday after a campaign that at one point looked like it might topple the first-term Democrat thanks to his self-inflicted wounds during the pandemic.
The election was called by the Associated Press less than an hour after voting ended, showing opposition to the recall leading by about a two-to-one margin. Overnight Election Day votes, expected to lean Republican thanks to Donald Trump’s relentless attacks on voting by mail, lowered Newsom’s margin a bit. But well over 60 percent of voters answered “no” on the question of whether he should be removed from office, and late-arriving mail ballots could boost the margin even more. Newsom won due to heavy support in the state’s urban and coastal Democratic strongholds; the state’s strong Democratic advantage; a lavishly funded anti-recall effort; and a divided and not terribly compelling Republican field of would-be replacements. The results were in stark contrast to the previous gubernatorial recall election in 2003, when Democratic incumbent Gray Davis was sacked and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected to replace him.
As expected, conservative talk-show host Larry Elder is comfortably winning the now-irrelevant replacement race with nearly half the vote. Elder conceded Newsom’s victory early Wednesday, and did not repeat his earlier unsupported allegations of fraud (he urged his supporters to be “gracious in defeat”). He also hinted he might run again for the governorship in 2022, when Newsom is expected to run for a second full term.
As recently as late August, the election looked very close, but as the recall drew closer, it sent a huge scare through the ranks of the state’s dominant Democratic voters. Indeed, recent polls also showed “yes on recall” trailing “no” votes by a steadily increasing margin. The trend that saved Newsom can be explained in multiple ways. The “no” campaign outspent its opponents handily, and took advantage of the state’s partisan makeup by depicting the recall as a Trump-inspired power grab in a state where Democrats have nearly a 2-1 registration advantage, control every statewide office, and hold supermajorities in the legislature. Team Newsom (with some help from rival Republican candidates) also amplified media revelations about the extremism and dubious personal conduct of Elder, who emerged as the top replacement candidate soon after entering the race in July. And finally, a possible turnout gap between excited Republicans favoring a recall and apathetic or complacent Democrats opposing it faded as the campaign reached its peak (all those ballots arriving in the mail had a particularly significant effect). It looks like the percentage of Democrats voting could match or even exceed that of Republicans. And Newsom’s tactic of asking supporters to skip the replacement contest entirely seems to have been effective; at present less than 60 percent of voters expressed a preference for a replacement candidate.
There will be a lot of “lessons learned” commentary on this election. Clearly the big one for incumbent governors from either party who might face a recall is this: Do not inflame people who already resent the pandemic measures you have imposed by ignoring your own rules and attending an unmasked indoor party for a lobbyist friend at one of the world’s most exclusive restaurants. Had Newsom not made this big mistake at around the same time as many Californians were giving up their own family Thanksgiving dinners in 2020, the perennial Republican effort to recall every Democratic governor would have died, like nearly all of them have. Newsom’s comeback was also instructive. Aside from what his campaign against the recall accomplished, he was helped a great deal by his management of COVID’s Delta resurgence, which he handled more adeptly than he did the original pandemic (or than many other governors handled Delta).
As for Republicans, they would be wise to avoid the undocumented “voter fraud” accusations that Elder and Donald Trump were making before the first vote was reported. To Californians who haven’t drunk the MAGA Kool-Aid, they are beginning to look and sound like a cult, which isn’t helpful given their minority status in the state. They should also express some regrets about climbing aboard the failed recall train, which leaves them in a weakened condition for the next general election in 2022. And much as they allegedly hate pandemic accommodations like expanded voting by mail, Republicans should understand that the recall would have never even gotten off the ground had not a judge given petition circulators a four-month extension in the deadline as a pandemic accommodation.
Finally, California voters and their legislators might also want to take a look at their recall law and see if they really want to encourage this complex and expensive form of between-regular-elections accountability (the election’s costs could top an estimated $300 million). It gave us political writers some excitement, but in the end it changed nothing.