The California recall is over, and it did not provide much suspense. But while voters’ verdict was clear, the significance of Gavin Newsom’s win for the national landscape is less obvious. I spoke with national political correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti about how to interpret what went down in the Golden State.
Ben: In the end, it wasn’t close: Governor Gavin Newsom romped to victory in Tuesday’s California recall over his closest rival, Larry Elder, and a motley assortment of other Republicans. He’s up by 28 points as of this writing, so it’s very far from the close call Democrats were worried about a few weeks ago. Do you think this was ever actually a contest, or more a case of one poll leading people astray? (Or was that one scary poll the central reason this turned into such a landslide, since Democrats started paying attention?)
Gabriel: There were several distinct stages to this race. When I first wrote about it a few months ago, the prevailing feeling — even among Republicans — was, more or less, “This is ridiculous; Newsom will win easily.” All polling suggested that was the case, and there was no single dynamic on the ground hinting otherwise, even if people weren’t happy that COVID was stilllll around. No one actually thought that was Newsom’s fault!
But this summer, there was a definite concern in Dem circles, even in the White House. There’s been a bit of revisionist history already that one single poll showing the recall succeeding caused this epochal freakout that led to a surge in Dem votes. That’s not totally true; it is true that warning signs started flashing for Newsom a few months ago. That SurveyUSA poll was one thing. But there were plenty of other surveys, public and private, showing Republicans faaaar more engaged and showing Newsom failing to fully connect with Latino voters, for example, or with many base liberals in the LA area. All the coverage of those polls absolutely helped get people engaged — no one in Newsom World denies that.
But they also usually hasten to say that this is an oversimplification, and I suspect they’re right: In some ways, this pattern is only natural for a weirdly timed special election driven by right-wing partisans in a blue state. Newsom’s team started putting out organizers and ads, and things turned around. Duh.
Ben: Sorry to contribute to the revisionist history. I am not a revisionist by nature.
Gabriel: If on-the-ground reporting is the first draft of history, Slack chats for publication are the first-and-a-half draft.
Ben: Naturally, political observers are trying to figure out whether and how this result will have national implications, particularly for next year’s midterms. Some people seem to be shoehorning in a previously baked take that the recall itself is a bad sign for Democrats; others view the landslide as a warning sign for a Republican Party that has gotten used to rallying around, for lack of a better word, kooks. But is there really much to extrapolate here, or is this a local story that only seems like a national one?
Gabriel: All of the above, of course! It’s not, though, a local story. I think Newsom’s ex-campaign manager Addisu Demissie was right when he said on Twitter last night, “Before anyone starts with the California isn’t America but tonight let me preempt with the fact that 1 in 8 Americans lives here.” Which, yeah, good point, Addisu.
I’m not sure what this portends for the midterms, except that Newsom executed a pretty obvious playbook pretty effectively: If you’re in a fairly Democratic-leaning area and your opponent is willing to paint him/herself as Trump 2.0, you lean into that. Seems obvious, and Newsom did it to great effect.
I’m really struggling with all the takes that this is a warning sign for Democrats. Sorry, but the Democratic governor of California steamrolls a right-wing provocateur and we read it as “Dems in disarray?” Come on. That’s national media at its eye-rolliest.
That said, there are probably a decent number of lessons to be learned from how Californians think about COVID and Newsom’s masking and vaccination policies. This was the first real supposedly competitive state-level race where someone who was in charge of a COVID response faced an up-or-down vote since the pandemic started. And it turns out this mass backlash just … isn’t happening. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of discontent in California — over lockdowns but also over the housing crisis, homelessness, wildfires, and on and on. Just that when it comes to the undisputed most important issue of the day, Newsom won largely by saying, again and again, I’m taking this seriously.
Ben: Right. We should say that this whole recall was really made possible by Newsom’s big unforced error on COVID — dining at the French Laundry in contravention of his pandemic safety measures. But it seems a bit of personal hypocrisy wasn’t the silver bullet Republicans were hoping for. I also think this points to the difficulty in forecasting what this means for next year. Beyond the long time lag, who knows whether the pandemic will finally have receded, or whether it will still be issue No. 1?
Gabriel: Right, yes, absolutely. I’m old enough to remember when the midterms were going to be all about Dr. Seuss, or something. That said, COVID completely changed the way we live and think and consume around the world, so even if the midterm question isn’t “Did Politician X handle lockdown and mask policy the right way?,” it’s hard to conceive of a world where the experience of the past two years isn’t fairly central to voters’ decision-making.
Then again, how many voters in 2014 made their decision based on the Ebola scare? In 2018, how many were terrified by the “migrant caravan”? Which is all a way of saying: We’re still building the fundamental landscape of the midterms, not the final marginal issues.
It can be frustrating, though, to look at this purely through that lens. We can also take more direct lessons from this for governance’s sake. Turns out voters like it when you address the pandemic head-on and don’t when you pretend it’s over. Newsom’s personal hypocrisy hurt him, obviously, but he got past it by making the race about policy and warning that if Elder were to win, California’s COVID policy would start to look like Texas’s or Florida’s, which are hands-off and scary.
Ben: What does it say about the current state of the Republican party that there were all these qualified-on-paper candidates, like former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer (as well as an international celebrity in Caitlyn Jenner), and voters rallied around a conservative talk-radio host?
Gabriel: Elder’s rise isn’t that shocking to me, after spending some time on the ground in California. He was decently well known in the southern part of the state, got a lot of play on Fox News, and enjoyed throwing Trump fans the kind of red meat they wanted. That’s enough to get ahead of the other Republicans, but clearly not enough to win over any moderates.
The Jenner story, I suspect, will be told soon. It has to be: What happened? She may not have ever been an acceptable candidate to California’s modern GOP, but there was money and buzz behind her Brad Parscale–fueled campaign and then it fizzled so quickly and embarrassingly that, clearly, there’s a bigger behind-the-scenes tale to be told.
Faulconer’s fall, though, is clearly the one that says the most. Here was a guy who was semi-openly preparing for a statewide run as a “sensible, moderate Republican” for years. He had run a huge city, and was decently well known. And then … he decided he had to go Trumpy and promptly lost all credibility. He was probably right that to win over Republicans in California, he had to take that turn, but it completely ended his chances with the moderates among whom he’d built his reputation in the first place. His attempt to turn back to some form of “I have something for everyone!” in the final weeks just came across as limp. Lots of people think he’ll now challenge Newsom in 2022. But why? And which version of Faulconer are we gonna get?
Ben: Could this cause other moderate Republicans around the country to reevaluate whether they need to go full Trump? For many, as it was for Faulconer, it’s sort of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation, electorally speaking.
Gabriel: Can I answer this after J.D. Vance loses his primary by 30?