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LOS ANGELES — California Gov. Gavin Newsom easily survived a recall election Tuesday in a closely watched race that drew national attention and campaign visits from President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, the Associated Press projected less than an hour after polls closed in the state.
With 62 percent of ballots counted — and more than two-thirds of them saying "no" to the recall — Newsom addressed his supporters in Sacramento.
"'No' is not the only thing that was expressed tonight," the governor said. "I want to focus on what we said yes to as a state. We said yes to science. We said yes to vaccines. We said yes to ending this pandemic.
"I'm humbled and grateful to the millions and millions of Americans who exercised their fundamental right to vote and expressed themselves so overwhelmingly by rejecting the division, by rejecting the cynicism, by rejecting so much of the negativity that's defined our politics in this country," he added.
Preliminary exit polls suggested that the very issue that recall proponents had hoped would unseat Newsom — the pandemic — was the one that helped propel him to victory. Not only did COVID-19 rank as the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds, ahead of homelessness, wildfires, crime and the economy, but just 3 in 10 California voters said Newsom’s pandemic policies were too strict, the main argument behind the recall. More than two-thirds (69 percent) said they supported the state’s mask mandates for students; just 24 percent said the pandemic was getting worse in the state.
In one sense, Newsom’s victory wasn’t much of a shock. In 2018, the former San Francisco mayor was elected governor with 62 percent of the vote — the largest Democratic landslide in state history. Nearly three years later, 57 percent of Californians still approve of his performance in office, according to a recent CBS News poll. And Democratic voters outnumber Republican voters statewide by nearly 2 to 1.
But both the pandemic and California’s bizarre recall rules, which set the bar much higher for governors who want to remain in office than for challengers who want to replace them, gave anti-Newsom conservatives a glimmer of hope.
Every California race for governor since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1966 has inspired quixotic recall efforts. Prior to February 2020, Newsom’s opponents introduced five recall petitions against him. None got off the ground. It was only when COVID-19 started to spike over the holidays of that year — and when Newsom seemed to be caught off guard by contradictory public opinion over restrictions and reopenings — that the recall proponents were able to gather the signatures they needed to get on the ballot.
Not helping matters was Newsom’s deeply hypocritical decision to attend a lobbyist’s maskless birthday dinner at the French Laundry, a fancy Napa Valley restaurant, or a state judge’s decision — on the same November day as Newsom’s fateful soiree, no less — to give those seeking a recall four extra months, because of COVID, to canvass the state for signatures.
Even then, the recall would have failed to materialize if California required more than 12 percent of voters to sign the petition — the threshold is 25 percent or higher in other states — or evidence of actual malfeasance. In 2020, at least 14 governors nationwide faced recall efforts. Only California’s attempt proceeded to a ballot.
Meanwhile, the election itself would never have been considered competitive if not for the way it was structured. The first ballot question ("Do you want to recall the governor?") required Newsom to secure at least 50 percent of the “no” vote to survive. This, in turn, was followed by a second question ("If the governor falls short of 50 percent, who do you want to replace him?") that would have awarded the governorship in that scenario to whichever one of this year’s 46 challengers earned a mere plurality — even if the governor got a far bigger plurality on the first question than his new replacement got on the second.
Incidentally, “keep Newsom” never fell below 47 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s average of California recall polls. Conservative radio host Larry Elder, the frontrunner in the pack of recall challengers, never cleared 30 percent.
Still, the rules are the rules — and for a while, it looked as if the recall supporters had a chance to capitalize. Partly it had to do with the tensions around the COVID-19 pandemic. Partly it had to do with realities on the ground — rampant homelessness, astronomical living costs, violent crime — that have been amplified by the pandemic. And partly it had to do with an intensity gap between Republicans who desperately wanted to dethrone a Democrat and Democrats who barely realized that the Democrat they just elected could actually be dethroned in an odd-year September vote, or who barely cared enough about state politics to save someone who seemed to represent a fraught status quo.
As a result, in early August the FiveThirtyEight average showed a near-even split between voters who wanted to keep Newsom in office and voters who wanted to remove him. One survey — later effectively disowned by the firm that conducted it — showed Newsom trailing by 11. Other, superior polls suggested that revved-up recall proponents could theoretically prevail if Newsom’s far larger but less engaged base failed to turn out. A few weeks of frenzied media attention followed.
Then, suddenly, California Democrats seemed to shake off their summer stupor.
Why? A number of things happened all at once. The surprisingly close polling — and all the coverage it triggered — convinced blasé Democrats that Newsom could lose. Simultaneously, the right-wing Elder — who denies the existence of systemic racism, opposes gun control and abortion rights, wants to abolish the minimum wage and pledged to overturn COVID-19 mask and vaccine requirements in schools and elsewhere — emerged as Newsom’s likeliest replacement. That transformed the election from a freewheeling referendum on a troubled time to a clear choice between two living, breathing candidates with wildly different politics — one of whom could never win a normal statewide election in heavily Democratic California, and one who already had.
Campaigning on behalf of Newsom on Monday at Long Beach City College, Biden made sure to link Elder to former President Donald Trump, who remains deeply unpopular here.
“All of you know last year I got to run against the real Donald Trump. Well, this year, the leading Republican running for governor is the closest thing to a Trump clone that I have ever seen in your state,” the president said, echoing Newsom’s own refrain that “we defeated Trump last year ... but we haven’t defeated Trumpism.”
By the time Biden visited, Newsom had already dropped tens of millions of dollars on commercials contrasting himself with Elder, swamping his Republican rivals and recall proponents on TV by a nearly 4-1 ratio; his campaign spent millions more on a massive get-out-the-vote effort. Harris stumped in the state as well; former President Barack Obama cut an ad.
Soon every single one of California’s 22 million registered voters who was still somehow clueless about the coming election got a very effective wake-up call: a paper ballot sent straight to their home mailbox. By Election Day, more than 8 million mail ballots had already been returned — and Democrats had sent in twice as many as Republicans. The GOP’s intensity edge had evaporated; so had its encouraging poll numbers. FiveThirtyEight’s final average showed “keep Newsom” ahead of “remove Newsom” by nearly 16 points, 57.3 to 41.5 percent.
The last hope for Elder and the other 45 candidates on the ballot seeking to replace Newsom was that Republican voters who had been trained by Trump to distrust mail ballots would flood polling places Tuesday and prove the pollsters wrong. But they didn't show up in anything like the numbers it would have taken to overcome Newsom's early advantage.
Because of all these quirks, it’s difficult to draw any conclusions about national politics from California. But there are three takeaways from Newsom’s victory that are worth noting as the 2022 midterms approach.
The first is that the GOP is still the party of Trump — even in a deep-blue state such as California, where the only kind of Republican who might still stand a chance of winning statewide would be an experienced moderate like former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. But Faulconer failed to crack 5 percent in the polls, and instead GOP recall voters gravitated toward Elder, a brash, Trumpian entertainer.
The second takeaway is that Republicans are now so invested in claiming (without evidence) that fraud is the only way Democrats can win elections, they’re going to keep doing it even when the election in question isn’t close. For days now, Trump himself has been releasing preemptive false statements about how “millions and millions of mail-in ballots will make this just another giant election scam,” while Elder’s campaign went so far as to create a website declaring that it had "detected fraud" in the "results" of the California recall election "resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated [sic] as governor" — but published the page online before the election had taken place or any results had been released.
“This election fraud stuff is a crock. It’s shameful,” Newsom said Monday when asked by a reporter if he had seen any credible evidence of election-altering fraud. “As an American, I’m ashamed by it. I’m disgusted. Stop. Grow up. These people are literally vandalizing our democracy, trust in our institutions. … Accept the results. There’s absolutely none. It’s embarrassing to even respond to that, because it’s fantasy. They’re making stuff up.”
Such fantasies are unlikely to have any impact in California. But they will keep delegitimizing the democratic process for the GOP base, which will continue to provide cover for new voting restrictions and election challenges in Republican-controlled swing states.
And the third takeaway from the California recall is that the politics of the pandemic may be shifting back in Democrats’ favor.
“No Republican running for governor could possibly have defeated Gavin Newsom in the recall election, but COVID could have,” Dan Schnur, a former spokesman for Republican former California Gov. Pete Wilson and the late GOP Sen. John McCain who teaches politics at several leading California universities, recently told Yahoo News’ "Skullduggery" podcast. “The reason it's not is because voters here have come to conclude that he is doing a much better job on it than they'd thought last spring and last winter.”
When the recall qualified for the ballot this past spring, Americans were optimistic that so-called herd immunity was on the horizon and that vaccines would soon vanquish the virus. In that context, the hands-off vision of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, among other Republicans, looked alluring. No indoor mask mandates. No vaccine requirements. No more stress on families or businesses. Just live your life as if the pandemic was already over, and soon it would be.
Then came the hypercontagious Delta variant. Now, a few months later, Florida has become one of the only states where more people are dying of COVID each day — long after free, safe and effective vaccines became widely available to all Americans age 12 or older — than during any previous wave of the virus. In fact, the Sunshine State is now recording nearly twice as many daily COVID-19 deaths (350 on average) than it was at last summer’s peak (185). No other state comes close.
In contrast, Californians are dying of COVID-19 at a lower rate today (103 per day) than last summer (140 per day), despite the fact that the Delta variant is twice as transmissible as the initial strain of SARS-CoV-2 that was circulating in 2020. That’s the kind of progress you would expect after vaccination.
During California’s bout with Delta, there have been no lockdowns, no business closures, no official curbs on indoor drinking or dining — just a general public bias toward caution that is both reflected and reinforced by indoor mask mandates (along with an emerging trend toward vaccine requirements, particularly for health, school and government employees).
In contrast, DeSantis doubled down on his opposition to mask and vaccine mandates when Delta took off, prohibiting local governments, local businesses and even local school districts from implementing such policies — and therefore discouraging Floridians themselves from behaving more cautiously. In fact, a new New York Times analysis shows that across all states that voted for Trump in 2020, undervaccination allowed nearly 12,000 preventable deaths during July and August alone — more than double the 4,800 in states Biden won in 2020, where vaccination rates are higher.
“Californians are “not particularly happy with [Newsom] on homelessness, on education, on public safety, but those issues, despite the Republican candidates' efforts to talk about them, are of secondary if not tertiary importance to the virus,” Schnur said. “And unlike last year, when Newsom was telling people to stay home, given the fact that we have vaccines now, the most onerous thing he's saying is you must wear a mask, you must get vaccinated. That isn't nearly as onerous. So particularly when compared and contrasted to other states in the country, Californians are feeling good about him on the only issue that matters to them right now.”
Ever the canny politician, Newsom took advantage of this development to argue that “Republicans want to take us backwards with this Sept. 14 recall,” as he put it in a recent ad. “They’ll eliminate vaccine mandates for health and school workers on day one, threatening school closures and our recovery.” On the stump, he warned that Elder will “walk us off that same COVID cliff as Texas and Florida, Tennessee and Alabama and Georgia.”
In effect, Newsom reframed the recall as a choice, above all else, between the laissez-faire COVID-19 policies that have failed to contain huge summer surges in Republican-led states across the South and the Golden State’s more careful approach to Delta.
On Tuesday, Californians chose the latter. Whether a similar playbook will work for other Democrats down the road remains to be seen. But what Newsom’s win does suggest is that while voters are desperate for the pandemic to end, many of them no longer believe that the best way to get there is by pretending it already has.
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