But a recall election is an imperfect barometer – especially for national trends. Democrats are more than Republicans nearly 2 to 1 in California, so the results may not translate to governors in cast states or reflect how voters will judge members of Congress next year. The fact that the unusual competition was held at the end of the northern summer meant that some voters were not even set.
Voters were asked two questions: Should Newsom be recalled, and if so, who should replace him? Only a handful of the 46 names on the replacement ballot had any level of public recognition, but most failed to gain traction among voters.
Conservative talk show host Larry Elder, who took part in the race just three months before election day, quickly rose to the top of the pack. But that allowed Newsom to make the campaign a choice between the two men, rather than a referendum on his achievements.
Newsom considered Elder to oppose the minimum wage and abortion rights as proof that he was outside of ordinary California. The governor branded him “more extreme than Trump,” while Biden called him “the closest to a Trump clone I’ve ever seen.”
Although the contest did not really bring out the circus-like element of California’s 2003 recall – when voters replaced Democratic Gov. Gray Davis with Republican movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger – it contained its own quirky moments.
Reality TV star and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner took part in the race but gained some momentum and left the state for part of the campaign to film a reality show in Australia. Businessman John Cox, who lost badly to Newsom 2018, tried to spice up his campaign by hiring a live bear to join him and branded himself as the “beast” of Newsom’s “beauty”. The most famous Democrat on the replacement vote was a 29-year-old YouTube star who gives financial advice to his followers.
Although Newsom defeated the recall, he may soon run against the elders again: the governor is up for re-election next year, and the primary, which puts candidates from all parties to a vote, is just nine months away.
The recall, initiated by an amateur political organizer, was not the first attempt to remove Newsom, and it began as an expression of frustration over the Democrats’ grip on power. But when Newsom issued the country’s first state residence order, the pandemic became the driving force of the race.
Recall organizers needed about 1.5 million signatures – California has 22 million registered voters – to make the vote. They owe their success in part to a single day in November, when a judge gave them four extra months to collect signatures due to the pandemic.
On the same day, Newsom attended a birthday party with friends and lobbyists at the lavish French laundromat, a gathering that violated his pandemic rules. The episode led to a PR disaster.
Supporters of the recall expressed frustration over month-long closures of companies, restrictions that kept most children in distance education for an entire school year and confusing patchwork of rules governing how people can gather with friends and family. Rising murders, an unabated homelessness crisis and a scandal of unemployment fraud further angered Newsom’s critics.
But the wider public stayed on Newsom’s side. Surveys from the Public Policy Institute of California showed that his approval rating remained above 50 percent throughout the pandemic. With a few weeks left, the institute’s survey showed that 60 percent of California approved Newsom’s handling of the pandemic.
During the first months of his campaign, Newsom declared that California was “roaring back” from the virus, and he used a lot of tax money to distribute billions for programs from children’s education to homelessness. Middle- and low-income Californians received checks of up to $ US0000 each ($ 1500).
The emergence of the highly contagious delta variant over the summer dampened Newsom’s positive news, as he began to describe the race as one of “life or death” consequences. He pointed to Texas and Florida, which saw a worsening sharp rise when their Republican governors rejected worm and vaccine mandates, as a warning of what California could become. When Texas’ new law banning most abortions went into effect on September 1, Newsom comparison with the GOP state only got sharper.
Newsom administration has mandated children wear masks in schools and require all healthcare professionals to get vaccinated. Teachers and government employees must be vaccinated or tested regularly. Ace Smith, one of Newsom’s political consultants, said before the race that he believed it would give Newsom – and the Democratic Party – a “clear mandate” for “sanity” in public health.
The party’s largest luminaires stepped out for Newsom and highlighted the national efforts. Beyond Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former President Barack Obama appeared in the state or in campaign ads to help Newsom increase turnout.
National Republican leaders largely held the competition at arm’s length. Trump barely commented on the race until the final days, when he suggested without proof that the results would be rigged due to post-in voting. One of the original organizers of the recall said his comments would do more harm than good.
In recent days, Elder’s campaign repeated Trump’s messages, saying he expected “shenanigans” and linking to a website that suggested Newsom had already won the election due to fraud. The website included language from a petition circulating to help Trump’s efforts to overthrow last year’s presidential election, but that wording was removed on Tuesday afternoon.
Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who once considered the party’s best hope of winning back the state office given his record in a Democratic city, failed to find his niche with voters and struggled to appeal to both the party’s base and the broader voters. Elders immediately caught the attention of the party’s conservative grassroots, but he also promoted independence and Democrats who may have considered a vote against Newsom.
Newsom has been considered a potential White House candidate since at least 2004, when he defied federal laws to issue marriage licenses to LGBT couples as mayor of San Francisco. His victory maintained those prospects, although he will still have to navigate the ambitions of Harris, who came up with the San Francisco policy along with Newsom.
Newsom came to the competition with advantages – it was his to win or lose. California’s electorate is less Republican, less white and younger than it was in 2003, when voters started Democratic Davis. Newsom had to raise unlimited funds, dwarfing its competitors while flooding TV screens with advertising. Public unions and business leaders and technology executives poured millions into his campaign.
The GOP had planned to build on its four congressional victories by 2020 and recruited tens of thousands more volunteers for the recall campaigns. Election turnout and recall results in the four Southern California districts, in the suburbs of Orange County and Los Angeles, will provide an early indication of the party’s ability to hold seats next year.