2022 midterms

Post-Recall, California Republicans Are Running on Empty

For a hot minute in 2021, Larry Elder looked like a potential Republican governor of California. He won’t make the mistake of running again. Photo: Ashley Landis/AP/Shutterstock

It was a strategic decision that made a lot of sense at the time. In 2021, California’s Republican Party, which was sinking into chronic minority status, went for broke on recalling Democratic governor Gavin Newsom instead of focusing their resources on the 2022 midterm election, in which they might normally expect to make gains. They had what looked like a perfect-storm opportunity to go after Newsom: a low-turnout recall election where Republicans who loathed the governor as an embodiment of San Francisco’s progressive elite would go to the polls en masse, smiting him as Democrats snoozed.

COVID-19, and Newsom’s huge gaffe in getting himself photographed violating his own regulations, made small-business owners and parents upset about lockdown policies potential recall supporters. The pandemic also led the courts to give recall-petition organizers plenty of extra time to gather signatures. Multiple Republican leaders — including former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, 2018 Republican candidate John Cox, celebrity athlete and reality star Caitlyn Jenner, and veteran radio gabber Larry Elder — signed up to run as replacement candidates, and for a while it looked like Newsom was in big trouble.

But in the end, Democrats woke up and rallied behind Newsom, whose anti-recall campaign successfully made the vote a referendum on Republican extremism rather than his own missteps. It certainly helped that California sent mail ballots with a prepaid return envelope to every registered voter; voting to save Newsom’s bacon was very easy. In the end, 62 percent of voters rejected the recall bid in the balloting that concluded on September 14, 2021. The identification of Republicans with former president Donald Trump was underlined when Larry Elder, who came out on top in the ultimately irrelevant replacement contest, claimed voter fraud without a shred of evidence even before the voting ended.

So an election that was supposed to create a breakthrough for Republicans and a springboard into 2022 instead left the California GOP defeated, leaderless, and closely tied to a MAGA movement that is about as vibrant in California as the Democratic Socialists are in North Dakota. And it’s looking like the party won’t put up much of a fight against a second full term for Newsom. As Politico reports, the politicians who flooded the replacement ballot in 2021 are one by one taking themselves out of a doomed 2022 gubernatorial contest:

Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s camp confirmed to POLITICO on Thursday that Faulconer would not contest Newsom’s reelection push this year. With that, every high-profile Republican who ran to replace Newsom in last year’s recall has bowed out of the 2022 contest …

Conservative talk show and top replacement candidate vote-getter host Larry Elder removed himself from the running months ago, and businessperson John Cox — Newsom’s 2018 opponent — did the same more recently. Assemblymember Kevin Kiley is running for Congress. Former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner has not sought a second act in California politics.

It looks like the field to challenge Newsom is mostly composed of anonymous schmoes who could struggle to survive a top-two primary and make it to the general election. (With Republicans scattered, a progressive protest candidate could be able to win enough votes to earn the right to be trounced by Newsom in November). A weak top-of-the-ballot presence in 2022 could damage Republican hopes of denting the Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature, or to defending the U.S. House gains they made in 2020.

Could a national midterm wave lift California Republicans to a position where they can exceed their low expectations for 2022? Perhaps. Though it’s worth remembering that the GOP’s long losing streak in statewide elections began in 2010, which was nationally the best Republican election since 1946. That year Republicans had the insanely well-financed Meg Whitman running for governor and future presidential candidate Carly Fiorina running for the U.S. Senate, and they both lost big. They have nothing like that kind of high-life talent available to them for 2022 and may miss yet another great opportunity.

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Post-Recall, California Republicans Are Running on Empty