Newsom takes early lead as California awaits results of recall election
Governor Gavin Newsom speaks to Vice President Kamala Harris at a rally in San Leandro on September 8th. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
Governor Gavin Newsom took the lead early return Tuesday night in California's historic recall election, a vote that will either allow him to serve his term or install a Republican governor in this Democratic stronghold for the first time in more than a decade.
The election provided California voters with an opportunity to gauge Newsom's ability to lead the state through the COVID-19 pandemic, a global health crisis that has rocked families and livelihoods.
The recall offered Republicans the best chance in years to take the helm of the largest state in the Union, despite Newsom and the nation's leading Democrats, including President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, portraying the eviction campaign as "life and death" Fight against "Trumpism" and right-wing anti-vaccine activists.
Conservative talk show host Larry Elder emerged as a favorite during the campaign among 46 candidates hoping to become governor, although a victory would be meaningless if a majority of Californians voted to keep Newsom in office. If elected, Elder would become the first black governor in the state's history.
Newsom spent part of Election Day at an anti-recall rally at a union house in San Francisco, warning supporters of the consequences for the California economy and the public health of its nearly 40 million residents if he were recalled and replaced by Elder, the has vowed to repeal the state mask and vaccination regulations.
"California outperformed Florida, Texas, Indiana, and the United States as a whole in not only health but also economic outcomes," Newsom told reporters. "Our economy contracted at a more modest pace than in these states."
Newsom also criticized both the elder and former President Trump for saying Tuesday's election was rigged, calling these baseless allegations a threat to democracy and a continuation of the "big lie" that the 2020 presidential election was Trump was stolen.
“This election fraud stuff is a blast; it's embarrassing. And when I say that, I mean that, ”he said. “People like me come and go. We are a dozen, politicians. Literally a dozen. It's about our institutions. It's about this people. It's about trust and confidence. "
For Newsom, the election crowned an extraordinary eight-week struggle for political survival that took place less than three years after he won the governor's office by the greatest margin in modern history.
Newsom's campaign to crack down on the recall efforts began on an optimistic note as the governor indicated that California is "shouting back" thanks to lower COVID-19 infection rates in the state and efforts to ensure residents are vaccinated. State restrictions and closings have been lifted. By June, the baseball stadiums were crowded with fans, people dined in restaurants and, as Newsom promised, public schools would be open for the new academic year.
Newsom and his political allies had prevented prominent Democrats from jumping into the substitute field, eliminating a credible alternative for left-wing Californians who might be mad at the governor.
But in late July, shortly after the recall election was officially confirmed for the vote, Newsom had cause for concern: A poll showed that likely voters in California were almost evenly divided over whether to kick the governor out of office, a bad one A sign of a state in which Democratic voters are almost 2 to 1 superior to Republicans.
Political scientist Mindy Romero, director of the USC Center for Inclusive Democracy, said the ongoing aftermath of Newsom's COVID-19 policies likely left some voters who backed him in the 2018 election indifferent this time around.
She said they blamed Newsom "at least in part" for government-imposed restrictions that devastated businesses and forced school children to stay at home on distance learning programs. Under Newsom's oversight, the state also paid billions in fraudulent unemployment benefits while millions of unemployed Californians with legitimate claims faced frustrating, long delays in receiving their payments.
Romero said Newsom's most costly mistake occurred in November when supporters of the recall struggled to collect enough signatures on the petition to qualify for the election. Newsom attended a lobbyist's birthday party at the Napa Valley upscale French Laundry restaurant after asking Californians to stay home and avoid gathering with multiple families.
Recall proponents took up this and criticized Newsom as a distant elite and hypocrite who thought he was above the rules he imposed on other Californians. Romero said the message was "simple and intuitive for people to understand". It appealed to voters from across the political spectrum and is still lingering, she said.
"That should never have come too close," said Romero. "This whole process harmed the governor."
Dave Gilliard, one of the Republican strategists who led efforts to oust the governor, said Newsom would be in serious trouble until August. That changed when Elder became the leading contender for Newsom's replacement as governor.
"He was in bad shape," said Gilliard. "As the focus shifted from Newsom to his opponent, in this case Elder, his numbers improved dramatically. He was able to get the Democrats back into the election."
Elder is a perfect opponent, said Gilliard. The Republican opposed abortion rights and supported offshore oil drilling, anathema to the democratic majority in the state. Elder was also a staunch supporter of Trump, an immensely unpopular figure in California. In fact, Gilliard said, recall advocates pleaded with Trump's advisors to "convince him to stay out," which was successful until the last few days when he began making unsubstantiated claims that the California recall election was "rigged."
Most momentous, Gilliard said, was Elder's vow to undo the Newsom administration's mandates that require students to wear masks in public schools and vaccinations for teachers, government officials, and health workers. This at a time when the Delta variant was raging and most Californians supported Newsoms' measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
"Elder allowed Newsom to bring Trump back, at least Trumpism, when it came to masks and vaccines," said Gilliard. "When you combine that with the Delta variant and people were suddenly extremely concerned about COVID again, the timing for Newsom couldn't have been better."
At stake was the most powerful elected office in a state of nearly 40 million people, affected by homelessness, a severe shortage of affordable housing, an increase in violent crime, and thousands of businesses that have closed or continue to shut down nationwide during the height of the Pandemic.
Newsom is the second California governor to face dismissal. In 2003, angry California voters over rolling blackouts, budget cuts, and a steep spike in vehicle royalties shouted out Democratic Governor Gray Davis and actor-elected Arnold Schwarzenegger, who remained the last Republican to serve as head of government.
The spectacle of the 2003 recall election fascinated the nation with its only existing line-up of political candidates in California, including Schwarzenegger, the founder of Hustler magazine Larry Flynt, the co-founder of the Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, and the "Diff'rent Strokes" - Starring Gary Coleman.
By comparison, the 2021 continuation fell flat.
Reality TV star and former Olympic decathlete Caitlyn Jenner tried to capture some of the Schwarzenegger magic but, despite her visibility on the cable TV news, could not win over California voters.
Republican John Cox tried, as he put it, to make his campaign more "bestial" and at one point enlisted the help of a 1,000-pound Kodiak bear named Tag to spark interest in his campaign. Neither the bear nor the $ 7.6 million it put into the race helped replicate the success it had in 2018 when it won enough gubernatorial support to beat Newsom in the general election compete - only to be beaten.
On Tuesday morning, Cox admitted that Elder "really mixed up the race." Elder Cox, who was supported by 4% of likely voters ahead of the election, outperformed any other candidate by a double-digit lead, according to the latest UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll, co-sponsored by The Times.
Cox said he hoped the polls were wrong and reiterated his stance that undecided voters would make the election.
"The most important thing is that we vote yes on the recall ... whether people vote Larry or me," said Cox.
Kevin Paffrath, who has 1.7 million followers on his YouTube channel, had the highest profile of the little-known Democrats on the ballot and even managed to get on stage during one of the candidate debates. Paffrath, who proposed building a pipeline to the Mississippi to alleviate the devastating drought in California, should do relatively strong in the elections and perhaps even question the success of Republican Kevin Faulconer, former mayor of San Diego.
As a fiscal conservative with moderate to liberal positions on social issues such as abortion, immigration and the environment, Faulconer has long been considered the Republican Party's greatest hope of regaining the governor's office. But his campaign failed in part because the pro-Trump core of the California Republican Party was firmly behind Elder.
Recall candidate and State MP Kevin Kiley (D-Rocklin) remained upbeat as he cast his vote in Northern California on Tuesday, unfazed by recent polls.
A dozen supporters and campaign workers were in attendance when he took his ballot to a largely empty polling station in the Coptic Orthodox Church of St. Mary in Roseville. The fact that Newsom has been trotting out "Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Barack Obama" in campaign ads and rallies in recent weeks is a "sign of desperation," Kiley said.
"Ultimately, despite all attempts by our corrupt political class to take power away from the people, the people of this state are still sovereign and the idea of 'we, the people' still means something," Kiley said.
The Times authors Susanne Rust, Melody Gutierrez, and Faith E. Pinho contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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