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Newsom’s Unnecessary Gamble

If voters do choose to pass the recall, the next governor is almost certain to be a Republican who supported Donald Trump in at least one of the last two presidential elections.
[additional-authors]
July 20, 2021
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference at the California Department of Public Health on February 27, 2020 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

As anyone in Hollywood will tell you, sequels are never as good as the original. (Except for “Godfather II,” of course.) The same concept appears to hold in state politics too. The original California recall campaign for governor back in 2003 featured a battalion of 130 candidates including international action hero and bodybuilding champion Arnold Schwarzenegger. The resulting political extravaganza attracted worldwide public and media attention and resulted in Arnold taking over for deposed incumbent Gray Davis as the state’s first Governator.

But based on early reviews, this year’s recall looks like it will be a tremendous box office disappointment. While Gavin Newsom’s survival is by no means assured, he starts with a sizable advantage against a smaller and less visible field of challengers. Instead of endangering Newsom, the real-world threats of Covid, wildfires and sporadic economic recovery seem to have overshadowed the campaign, making it an afterthought in the minds of many voters. This may change as the September 14 election draws closer, but for the time being, the other candidates have been scrambling to create even small amounts of public interest and media coverage for their campaigns. Meanwhile, Newsom has leveraged the state’s unprecedented budget surplus into a series of widely-covered news events in which he announces massive cash giveaways to various constituent subgroups.

From the beginning, Newsom’s fate in the recall has been almost entirely dependent on Californians’ attitudes about the coronavirus. For most of last year, the recall’s sponsors struggled to build any support or interest at all. Then the pandemic worsened over the winter, and the governor’s ill-fated decision to celebrate a lobbyist friend’s birthday at an expensive restaurant without masks and social distancing struck a nasty chord with voters who had been increasingly restless with the state’s stringent shutdown measures. As a result, the recall qualified for the ballot with far more than the required number of signatures.

By this spring, the state was beginning to reopen and Newsom’s survival began to look much more likely. But as the Delta variant spreads, and many county governments (including Los Angeles) move back toward mask-wearing restrictions, Newsom’s success might be somewhat less certain.

The governor’s opponents are also buoyed by a sizable enthusiasm gap in public opinion polling, which shows that recall supporters are much more excited about the election than Newsom’s backers. California’s deep-blue political leanings make this race difficult for any of the governor’s Republican opponents, but the combination of a low-turnout off-year election and a Covid-weary electorate keep the possibility of an upset alive.

As a result, Newsom’s team has worked overtime to prevent any other prominent Democratic candidate from entering the race. Last weekend’s filing deadline showed a handful of unknown Democrats among the 40 or so candidates, but none of them have held public office or have demonstrated the capacity to put together a formidable campaign effort. Given the nature of the recall ballot, in which voters are first asked whether Newsom should or should not be removed in office and then asked in a second question which of the potential alternatives should replace him in office, the governor and his advisors are taking a tremendous risk.

If the pandemic continues to surge, or if the current wildfire threat continues to worsen, an upset in which Newsom is defeated is still a distinct (albeit small) possibility.

Even though Newsom is a strong favorite to defeat the recall on the ballot’s first question, nothing in politics is certain. If the pandemic continues to surge, or if the current wildfire threat continues to worsen, an upset in which Newsom is defeated is still a distinct (albeit small) possibility. But because no other recognizable Democrats will be included on the list of possible replacements in the ballot’s second question, if voters do choose to pass the recall, the next governor is almost certain to be a Republican who supported Donald Trump in at least one of the last two presidential elections.

Newsom’s advisors point back to the 2003 recall, when they believe the presence of fellow Democrat Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamente’s presence in the race contributed to Davis’s defeat by theoretically splitting the Democratic vote. But by pressuring other Democrats to stay out of the campaign this year, Newsom leaves voters in a strongly left-leaning state with no option other than a Trump-supporting Republican. As long as Newsom succeeds in defeating the recall on the ballot’s first question, his decision to clear the field of other Democratic candidates will be moot. But off-year elections are notoriously unpredictable, and the governor’s refusal to provide a fallback option for his party’s loyalists is a considerable—and unnecessary—gamble.


Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.

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