It’s the unofficial end of summer and the unofficial beginning of campaign season. But in California, it’s the official countdown to the September 14th recall election with the ballot deadline just one week from today.
So, for this issue, we’re going Hollywood and focusing entirely on the recall election and the odds that Governor Gavin Newsom remains in Sacramento.
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(cover photo credit: David McNew / Getty Images News)
So California, the Golden State, faces a potential recall of its golden boy Governor Gavin Newsom. Gibbsie, as you know, I was the strategist for the Arnold Schwarzenegger recall in 2003 and for me it's a bit of deja vu all over again.
For Newsom and team, this generally comes down to a strategy of making sure Democrats get out to vote for the Democrat. No need for a rocket science strategy when you have such an enormous registration advantage. Gavin Newsom won with 62% of the vote in 2018 and was heralded as the next big national thing, only to have COVID and a lot of other things come crashing down and put him in a position now of potentially being recalled.
Exactly, but before we dig in too deep on the politics, let’s take a step back and do a little time tunnel on how this Newsom recall came to be. It started during the first wave of COVID – with devastating economic impacts – and Newsom, being fairly aggressive about shutdowns, which ironically got him a lot of praise in the beginning of COVID from national observers, found himself facing a big backlash, mostly among Republicans and independent voters. That – along with L’Affaire French Laundry (more on that below) – sparked a signature drive to put a recall petition on the ballot. Which, surprising many, succeeded with over 2 million recall petition signatures submitted in March. That put the recall measure on the ballot for September. (In 1911, California voters created the recall process in the same election where women were granted the right to vote. And while we’re in Hacks history mode, a quick refresher on how a CA recall election works. There are two questions on the ballot. One, do we recall the governor or not and second, if recall “Yes” wins the majority, the new Governor is chosen from a long list – 46 in this election; there were over 100 in Arnold’s race – of candidates all listed on the same ballot. You don’t need 50% to become Governor, just get the most votes. So 22%, say, can elect a new Governor.)
Now, back to the current situation: After the recall signatures were submitted last Spring, vaccinations started, COVID slackened, the state started to open up and recall anger dissipated. The support for the recall ebbed in polling, and therefore in Sacramento conventional wisdom, and the Newsom campaign happily went into cruise control mode.
You mentioned the French Laundry fiasco Murphy. The recall petition really amped up after that story and the classic and very predictable backlash of a politician telling his constituents that they needed to do one thing in order to stay safe, and then appearing wildly out of touch, ignoring both the public health protocols that he had asked others to comply with. And then, to add insult to injury, the dinner was also with a good friend, who also happens to be a big lobbyist in Sacramento. So, I do think that sort of coalesced this “let them eat cake” attitude, that really turbocharged the recall. When you look back on it, that story crystallized the chants for a recall. Interestingly, over the last six decades, every Governor has faced the idea of a recall, though most never really go anywhere. The only other time this has happened was in 2003, spurred by blackouts and the electricity/power issues during the tenure of Governor Gray Davis.
Yeah, all it took was a couple of $98 appetizers.
Murphy, like you’ve never had one of those appetizers before? I think one of the most interesting and maybe consequential decisions Democrats made this time around is that there's no Cruz Bustamante in this race. He was the lieutenant governor in 2003 who, fearing Davis would be recalled, decided to run as an alternative, as did others, so if the Governor was recalled, the answer to question #2 about who might replace him could be answered with another Democrat. It sapped the energy and focus the “Save Davis” movement needed, which lacked a lot of passion and momentum needed to win. The difference this time is you see a concerted effort by Newsom to get people who are being mailed ballots to simply vote “no” on the recall and ignore the second question. So, the strategy goes, no energy goes into thinking about an alternative of who would be best to govern the state were this all to happen.
Yup, by the summer the Newsom folks thought they had everything under control. But then… about a month ago the Delta variant showed up, voter frustration rose, and the Governor’s numbers took a dive (like a lot of Governors around the country).
A few shocker polls showed the “Yes” on Recall numbers in a statistical tie, Sacto CW went nuts and a four-alarm panic fire broke out among California Democrats.
As Murphy said, about a month ago, there was a poll that actually had the “recall Newsom” campaign winning by 11 points, and the Democratic world, somewhat predictably, went kind of crazy. And you've seen a steady flood of pro-Democratic messages flooding into the state. Newsom is running basically a turnout campaign for Democrats.
For example, as I mentioned in Friday's issue, one of the first people to talk about the new Texas abortion legislation, not surprisingly, was Gavin Newsom even though, as Larry Elder, the leading Republican candidate, was quick to point out that with a super majority in the legislature that wasn't likely to happen in California. But you can see the Newsom strategy is simply to get Democrats aware of the recall, energized and fearful about what might happen if the Governor's mansion changed hands. Again, it’s a smart strategy given just how lopsided the party registration numbers are in California.
Yeah, the Newsom campaign has a very simple strategy, which is make the election a partisan referendum in overwhelmingly blue California. They are also in luck because there is no super-star Republican candidate.
We were able to slip California’s partisan blue noose in the Schwarzenegger campaign in 2003 because he was seen as an anti-partisan figure. He ran center right, but he was a breath of fresh air. He clearly loved California. He could link it to his biography and his immigrant dream and he didn't run hard right at all. He ran as new and forward and it worked. There's no candidate like that in this election. The leading GOP candidate in the polls is longtime radio talk show host Larry Elder. The best Republican is former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, but he has lacked the money or attention to break out. The guy Newsom easily beat last time, John Cox, is campaigning with a real live bear (and a helluva lot of bear tranquilizers I’d reckon) and finally there is Caitlyn Jenner who hired Team Trump/Pascale and is predictably now broke and way behind Elder.
For all his troubles, many self-inflicted, Gavin is still holding a very strong blue hole card: California state is even more blue today than it was 2003. In that recall election there were 6.2 million registered Democrats, now there are 10.3 million. The DTS (decline to state) or independent vote has grown from 2.4 million to 5 million, and the Republican vote – thank you, President Trump and others – has gone from 5.3 million to… 5.3 million. California is basically at the point where a box of hammers, spray painted blue, can get elected governor of California. So, if Team Newsom can hold Dem turnout up to a decent level, he’ll survive.
Yeah, the concern with the polling about a month ago was that it showed Republicans very energized about the recall and excited about the prospects. But on the Democratic side, a lot of Democrats were not at all focused on what was in front of them. And so, again it's why you see a lot of the just general generic messaging from the Newsom campaign and it's why you see all the big national names out campaigning for Newsom.
Exactly. And the more partisan the race becomes – which is easy to do against a guy like Larry Elders who has taken some hard-core conservative positions – the easier it for the Newsom to make the race about something other than punishing him.
Yeah, the campaign flipped a couple of weeks ago to pushing the, “Hey, here's the Larry Elder research notebook that we need to dump every day.” The numbers showed, in an LA Times story late last week, that turnout is pretty high in Democratic areas, which ought to give Newsom/ no on the recall campaign a little bit more confidence, even though there's a cavalcade of national stars, including the Vice President and likely the President, set to come out to make sure that the Democrats don't lose an election that they generally shouldn't lose, based on some quirky state law, like a recall. Remember, the Biden-Harris ticket got 64% of the vote in the 2020 campaign. The messaging of a Trump Republican running California is an easy sell.
The mechanism of the recall is the same as 2003, but the state and the candidates running to replace the Governor are very different. So, this time, I think those changes will probably save Gavin Newsom from the ejector chair.
Yup, the good news for Democrats is Republicans don't appear to have a terminator on the horizon to extinguish their hold of the governor's mansion. As you said, there's a huge built-in advantage for Democrats in 2021 that they didn't have in 2003, namely an enormous registration advantage. The polling that alarmed everyone in early August has now righted itself. The same outlet and polling firm that showed “Yes” on the recall with 51% changed in a more recent poll taken three and a half weeks later to 43% supporting the recall.
And, maybe the most interesting of ironies, Newsom and the Democrats are closing with a message pushing vaccine mandates and using science and smarts to fight the pandemic as opposed to a return to Trump and vaccine denial. Again, it polls well with Dems and that’s what counts here.
So, Murphy, one of the things that the newly not recalled Governor Newsom may have to confront after this is the recall is certainly going to get more votes as a percentage than his opponents did just a few years ago, and he's obviously going to have to confront that reality and I think make some real governing adjustments, not necessarily to be more conservative, but to address pressing issues in a more head on way.
Also, I think Democrats ought to be looking at this race and trying to figure out what are the issues like crime and other things that have the potential to drive interest in an off-year electorate, and then take it to a place that is far less insulated with Democratic votes to be successful in 2022. So, to me it’s an interesting thing for Republicans to watch to see what gets their base excited heading into 2022. Even though they're likely to lose this race, my hunch is the really smart national strategists are also looking to see what might work a year from now.
Ironically, I actually think this recall will eventually turn out to be a lucky thing for Newsom. He was stuck in lackluster land before this recall started. It's not just COVID. There’s a massive homeless crisis here, which never ends despite billions in spending. There is a huge scandal to fraud connected to billions of dollars in the state unemployment benefit office during COVID. It’s been a mess.
The recall gives Newsom a badly needed restart; should he win which I think is very likely. He’ll be able to say he's slayed the big red Trump monster, and then he can say it, “Now, here’s my new agenda,” and get a complete restart. Then in a year, in solid blue California, he’s going to easily win reelection. If they do that restart right with a centrist middle-class agenda, not a bunch of ultra-woke, lefty stuff (which is an open question) Newsom will be able to make a refreshed argument that everything that happens first in America happens in California and my plan shows the nation what a great post-COVID future can look like for the middle-class. If he pulls that off, which a big re-elect behind him, have no doubt he’ll start popping up in New Hampshire in 2023, particularly if Joe Biden is still in a tail-spin.
Yeah. I absolutely agree. He can and he must use this as moment as an inflection in his tenure. And I think that will be the real test coming out of this when he's likely successful in batting down the recall is, how does he restart this? How does he become the golden boy we remember? He was fairly adroit in announcing early that he would run for governor and leave the Senate to Kamala Harris, who was then the attorney general while he was the lieutenant governor. Everybody thought this is the guy who's now in the fast lane to national prominence and now finds himself, just a few years later, facing a recall. But I agree with you. The real question is whether or not he's got the structure and discipline and the focus to do 2.0 because I think a lot of Democrats will say, “Gosh, this was a bad time, and he got stuck in a bad political environment around COVID.” I think the reality is they worked themselves into this corner in a more purposeful way than just the randomness of what people are mad at government around COVID. If he understands and acknowledges, maybe not publicly, but in his agenda, what he has to do it differently, I think that will go a long way to determining whether or not he ascends back to some level of national prominence.
So, we’ll see what happens one week from today and you can keep it here for all the Hacks analysis of what’s to come (and check out the podcast while you’re at it too).
See you on Friday!
Murphy and Gibbs