the inside game

‘A Complete Perversion of Our Democracy’

Gavin Newsom may yet win California’s recall election. But how did it get this close?

Gavin Newsom on September 8. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Gavin Newsom on September 8. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

One week before Election Day, Gavin Newsom strode into a closed-off street in San Francisco’s Mission District, where volunteers for his campaign sat at rows of folding tables, calling voters in at least three languages and imploring them not to recall him as governor of California. For 15 minutes, Newsom took pictures with well-wishers, directing them to the best selfie lighting, then turned to a bank of TV cameras to give some remarks and answer reporters’ questions about the chaotic state of the race. The day before, Larry Elder — a right-wing L.A. talk-radio host and Republican who is the likeliest to replace Newsom if the recall succeeds — had been caught suggesting that slave owners were owed reparations. That morning, the New York Times had published an ominous analysis that Newsom wasn’t connecting with Hispanic voters.

“This has become a significant distraction,” said San Francisco mayor London Breed, who was accompanying Newsom. The telegenic governor, collar undone, hands on his hips, nodded quickly and theatrically, then unspooled his standard speech and took some questions. Asked about his ostensibly waning appeal to Latinos, he offered a list of his accomplishments. Asked again, he squinted, grinned tightly, and urged the reporters not to pay too much attention to polls. Newsom agreed to take one more question, and a TV anchor started asking about Elder’s crowds. “A lot of people believe these things!” Newsom interrupted. He looked off, almost wistful. The anchor resumed asking about Elder’s appeal, and Newsom half-shook his head. He knew he shouldn’t go there. Elder is a Fox regular who claims to have introduced Snoop Dogg to “the evil weed” and who has recently been insisting that even though he favors eliminating abortion rights and the minimum wage, he probably wouldn’t go after them as governor. (He has, reportedly, been telling conservative activists the opposite.) “I’ll leave that to more objective minds,” Newsom started — then launched in anyway, reciting some of Elder’s most alarming provocations. “I don’t know what’s appealing about that! It’s very consequential, and I think it’s, ah, a profound statement on the world we’re living in.” Newsom tried to laugh, but it didn’t quite come out. “We’re debating democracy in this country right now. What’s the appeal of that?” He kept going, before catching himself getting a little too expansive. “So that’s — that’s a deeper analysis of what’s going on in this country,” he said. “But it doesn’t have to happen here in California.”

Every California governor since 1960 has faced at least one Hail Mary recall funded by partisans, but these almost never get far enough in the process to face actual voters. That’s because the efforts tend to be ridiculous. Only one has worked since the law was put on the books in 1911: Gray Davis’s ouster at the hands of Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003. Five earlier Newsom recall attempts failed in their infancy owing to lack of interest. Last November, however, a Sacramento judge cited the pandemic and extended a deadline for Newsom’s latest antagonists to gather enough signatures to trigger an election. They succeeded, and the result is a double vote concluding tomorrow. The first question on the ballot is whether Newsom should keep his job. If a majority votes to oust him, the results for question No. 2 — a 46-candidate free-for-all to fill his seat — will be counted. Elder could become governor of America’s largest blue state with the support of something like a quarter of its voters, just a year after 5 million more Californians voted for Joe Biden than Donald Trump. “We really could have a complete perversion of our democracy,” Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf told me.

Larry Elder on September 6. Photo: Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

Aside from the obvious exception of Trump, Newsom has found himself the subject of COVID’s first major political referendum. He is by far the most prominent state leader to face a vote since the pandemic’s onset last year. (No governorships flipped parties in the 2020 elections, aside from Montana, a red state where the Democratic incumbent was term-limited.) For ages, Newsom and his camp dismissed that idea as rubbish. “Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense,” one of his longtime senior advisers said to me in August. “This is an election about who will vote in a September election in an off year; it’s about nothing else.” And yet Newsom, in the final stretch, has now allowed that there’s something to the idea with the politics of COVID blending into Republican power grabs blending into a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment around the country. “You see what’s happening in Florida! You see what’s happening in Texas! We have to give those ballots back in!” he said on an early-September Zoom call with LGBTQ+ activists. “Forgive me for being intense about this, but, man, this is real! This recall is real!”

Polls that showed “keep” and “remove” voters almost evenly split in August, thanks to liberal apathy and right-wing fury, have now widened to a comfortable 13-point margin in Newsom’s favor, according to FiveThirtyEight’s average. But combined with the general unpredictability of 2021 politics (Will COVID depress turnout? Will mail voting lift it? Are polls even remotely trustworthy? And Trump’s absence means … what?), the risks are too great for Democrats to get complacent. Newsom’s stump speech imagines the horrors that would befall the state if he loses: A replacement would ignore climate change and put hard-right judges on the bench. Left unsaid is the real nightmare scenario — that if Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is 88, can’t finish her term, a Republican governor would replace her with a wing nut, tip the chamber away from Democrats, and tank Biden’s agenda.

It’s either Newsom’s superpower or his downfall that after over two decades in California’s political consciousness, most voters still don’t have a clearly defined picture of him. This has both allowed his liberal electorate to project its wishes onto him (All hail Jerry Brown 2.0, our hippie king!) and to be disappointed by qualities he never actually hid (You mean to tell me the guy who’s held office since he was 28 is, at his core, an operator?).

With his plastered-back hair, absurdly well-tailored suits, and catalogue-quality sleeve rolls, the 53-year-old manages to be both adaptable and consequential. A former centrist in the Clinton-era mold, Newsom has shifted ideologically with the vanguard of his party and consistently found himself near the center of its thorniest internal battles — one of its earliest champions of same-sex marriage in 2004 and one of few state executives anywhere promising single-payer health care in 2019.

When he finally attained the governorship that year, it was no obvious prize. The state’s housing and homelessness crises were worsening, as were its wildfires. Brown, his predecessor, warned on his way out the door that California was fiscally in tatters, too: “The next governor is going to be on the cliff. What’s out there is darkness, uncertainty, decline, and recession. Good luck, baby.” But when the coronavirus arrived in early 2020, it was immediately obvious that it would define Newsom’s term. His popularity dipped as COVID ravaged the state, but he stayed afloat politically. Some Californians appreciated his swift early lockdowns and, possibly more to the point, the contrast with Trump’s pandemic bumbling. He looked in comparison like a model executive.

In November, though, Newsom began committing a series of slapstick-quality self-owns. First, with his constituents in the grips of COVID cabin fever, he was caught maskless with political allies at the French Laundry in Napa — a gift to his opponents that a Hollywood writers’ room might reject as too on-the-nose. The gaffe switched the recall effort’s signature-gathering effort into overdrive. Since then, Newsom’s team failed to make sure he’d be labeled a Democrat on the ballot; he pulled his kids from a summer camp after a picture circulated of his 10-year-old son indoors without a mask; he sold his home for an aristocratic $5.9 million. “If you’re a Democrat, you have to have massively fucked up to lose here, and he’s come pretty close to succeeding,” one of his longtime local allies told me recently.

And yet other trends have worked in his favor. California’s vaccination program ramped up after a slow start with nearly 70 percent of residents getting one shot by September. Two-thirds of states have had more deaths relative to their population. Newsom also revealed that the bizarre economic vectors of COVID had left California, so recently on the brink of economic disaster, with a $75.7 billion budget surplus. He’s used it to send out new rounds of stimulus checks, to protect renters from evictions, and to hold lotteries for vaccine incentives. On the recall campaign trail, the flurry of activity plays as taking the pandemic seriously. The gulf between this impression and the one given by Newsom’s challengers hardly needs measuring. At one August debate between Republicans running to replace him, only one candidate would even admit to having been vaccinated.

Aside from making the case for himself, Newsom has found traction focusing voters’ attention on the dangers his leading opponent poses to California’s liberal order. Shortly after Elder got in the race this summer, Newsom’s political consultants sat the governor down with a highlight reel of the radio host’s most offensive claims. A sampling: Systemic racism is “a lie”; employers should be able to fire women who get pregnant; the women who marched against Trump in 2017 were too unattractive to be sexually assaulted. “What the fuck?” Newsom said, according to someone who was there. “Is this serious?” Soon Politico reported that Elder’s ex-fiancée had accused him of waving a gun at her while high. “I say he’s even more extreme than Trump,” Newsom now routinely tells supporters. It’s worked. By the end of August, Newsom had reeled in huge donations from unions, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood. Netflix’s Reed Hastings has donated more to Newsom than most of his opponents have raised in total, while producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, Laurene Powell Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Priscilla Chan, and Connie Ballmer aren’t far behind.

In the final days of the election, though, Newsom does not appear to have exhaled. He may be in much safer electoral territory than a month earlier, but to his close allies he seems unsettled — grinning, but in disbelief that he has come this close to ceding the governorship of America’s biggest Democratic stronghold to a provocateur in Trump’s image. Early on Labor Day morning in Los Angeles, just off Obama Boulevard, Newsom pulled up to a Black-voter-mobilization office, where he met a cheering mass of local officials, labor leaders, and volunteers — his final crowd in Southern California after a busy three-day swing. The recall effort, he said, was tangled up in the overall demise of American politics. “This is all part and parcel of what’s been happening in the last four years in this country — what happened with the Big Lie, what happened on January 6 and the insurrection, what’s happening with voter-suppression laws all across this country,” he told the crowd. Newsom, who is always slightly hoarse, was more gravelly than usual.

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‘A Complete Perversion of Our Democracy’