California Politics: Fear and loathing on the Newsom recall campaign trail

Gov. Gavin Newsom meets with Latino leaders in East Los Angeles
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The recall election targeting Gov. Gavin Newsom presents a yes-or-no choice on whether to remove him from office before the end of his term, the kind of contest where no one should be surprised that an extra dose of anger and outrage dominates the discussion. After all, it’s the political equivalent of firing someone.

But as the Sept. 14 deadline for voting approaches, the rhetoric has gone far beyond whether to retain Newsom or dismiss him. Instead, voters are being told that the consequences could be cataclysmic.

“It’s a simple decision, from my perspective,” Newsom said Wednesday during a Zoom event with a group of progressive activists. “This is about life and death. I really believe that’s the case.”

The leading replacement candidates also have raised the stakes beyond those in a traditional campaign.

Larry Elder, the leading GOP contender, uses “This is a battle for the soul of California” as the tag line in his TV ads — a more ominous version of President Biden’s pledge last year to “restore the soul of America.” Meanwhile, the latest ad from GOP candidate John Cox opens with shadowy images of anguished adults and children while words including “crime” and “wildfires” flash on the screen.

Even in an era in which fear has replaced hope as the nation’s political rallying cry, the recall has taken on a very dystopian feel. And there’s some evidence to suggest that Newsom’s warnings might be serving their intended purpose.

More Democrats who are more motivated

From the outset, Newsom’s political fate has widely been seen to rest on whether Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters participate in the recall election. The party holds an almost 2-1 lead in voter registration over Republicans, and researchers have estimated that more than 40% of independent voters typically back a Democrat when forced to choose.


If the governor turns out his base, the enthusiasm of Republicans and other conservatives would be a moot point. Newsom would prevail.

On Wednesday, the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California released a new statewide poll showing that 58% of likely voters would vote against the recall. The survey was conducted over a nine-day period ending last weekend and, like all polls, has a margin of error that could make the race slightly closer or more lopsided.

But perhaps the most intriguing part of the poll was its estimate that 46% of all likely voters are Democrats — almost the exact same percentage of Democrats in the registered electorate. That would mean the playing field has shifted away from where it was a few weeks ago, with reports that many Democrats were not very interested in voting.

Republicans were slightly overrepresented relative to their numbers in the electorate (28% of the poll’s likely voters compared to 24% of all registered voters). Independent voters comprised a slightly smaller share of the poll’s likely voters.

For the recall question to pass, Democrats either need to skip voting or a lot of them need to turn on Newsom. And the poll suggests neither of those things is happening. In fact, the latest tally of completed ballots by analysts at Political Data, Inc. shows 53% of all ballots completed so far have come from Democrats — an even clearer indication of Newsom’s strong political vital signs.

The recall may hinge on the pandemic

This week, the governor’s supporters dug deep into their doomsday political playbook. Their new TV ad, while name-checking former President Donald Trump, insists the Republican recall challengers would enact policies that unleash a new, deadly wave of COVID-19 infections.

“Voting yes elects an anti-vaccine Trump Republican,” the narrator warns while an image appears on the screen of a vaccine vial covered up by a red-slashed symbol. “Voting no keeps Gavin Newsom fighting the pandemic, based on science, compassion and common sense.”

The ad doesn’t name any Republicans and fails to mention that all of the leading GOP candidates say they have been vaccinated. They have also expressed support for COVID-19 vaccinations but oppose statewide vaccine mandates.


Here too, the latest statewide poll offers insight into Newsom’s strategy. A plurality of likely voters cited COVID-19 as the state’s most pressing problem, as did voter subgroups of Democrats, Latinos and older voters. (Older voters, as of now, are casting more ballots than young voters.) And 58% of likely voters said the governor is doing a good job at handling the coronavirus outbreak.

It probably also explains why Newsom’s only official event in almost two weeks was on Tuesday, when he celebrated news that more than 80% of eligible Californians have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

In fact, it’s likely that the pandemic and vaccinations have long been at the heart of his recall strategy. Newsom hinted as much in a conversation with The Times’ Editorial Board on Aug. 11, just before ballots were mailed to voters.

“You will see a strategy to truly define the cause and effect, the consequences,” he said. “You’ll see it unfold.”

It’s also important to remember that elections adapt to events. And the governor’s warnings of the consequences of a Republican as his successor may be broadened to other issues in the wake of this week’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to leave in place a Texas law banning most abortions. For Democrats and abortion-rights activists, it could serve as a rallying cry against candidates like Elder, who told reporters this week that he disagrees with the landmark 1973 ruling in Roe vs. Wade but said that abortion “is not anything that’s on my priority list” if elected.

What is on his list, at least in terms of the campaign, is focusing on California’s crime rate. On Thursday, Elder lashed out at L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, then called the prosecutor “a product of our governor, Gavin Newsom.” While the rhetoric over crime has overlooked data showing a larger national trend that stretches beyond the state’s borders, it’s a frequent topic for the Republican candidates and one that aligns closely with the party’s traditional tough-on-crime platform.

And Newsom seems more than happy to focus on Elder, using him as a stand-in for a host of GOP conservative viewpoints.

“I think people are waking up to what this is about, and what Larry Elder is all about,” Newsom said Thursday during an event in San Francisco.

Elder controls the GOP conversation

Elder has used a career’s worth of conservative talk radio connections in the recall campaign to quickly build a base of support and grab the national spotlight. And he has made it clear that he won’t go away should the recall be unsuccessful. The new PPIC poll offers a glimpse at just how quickly he’s come to dominate the California GOP landscape.

Fifty-seven percent of likely Republican voters said they’re backing Elder in the recall. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer was a distant second with support from 8%. It gets even worse from there for the others: Assemblyman Kevin Kiley clocks in at 5% support, Cox with only 3% and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner — whose media presence never matched up with measured support — fails to register any support.

While those are bleak numbers for everyone not named Larry Elder, it may be most striking when it comes to Faulconer and his attempt to run a more middle-of-the-road statewide campaign. No Republican has been more talked about than Faulconer in recent years when it comes to leading the party out of its electoral wilderness in California. Remember that Democrats have won 34 of the last 36 elections for statewide office beginning in 2010. The most recent Republican victories in statewide races were in 2006 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

It should be noted that, like Elder, Faulconer has vowed to run for governor in 2022 if unsuccessful this year. And his recent criticisms of the front-running candidate could provide the basis for one of the most important storylines of the coming election cycle, a reflection of the deep divisions in the GOP over whether the party needs to change in order to win in California — or whether doing so would be tantamount to selling out its principles.

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Recall roundup

— Should Newsom be recalled, one of his opponents could find themselves trying to guide the nation’s most populous state through a fall coronavirus surge.

— California’s personal income taxes, collected under rules that require those who earn more to pay the most, could be dramatically reshaped should voters elect one of the recall’s leading Republican contenders.

— In his fight to keep his political life afloat, Newsom has staked his future on how well he can emulate former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

— He has 1.7 million followers and no political experience. Meet Kevin Paffrath, the recall’s best-known Democrat.

— How often have recall efforts in California been successful? Hardly ever.

California politics lightning round

— Democratic lawmakers have dropped a controversial proposal to mandate vaccines in the state, a move that would have been challenging to pass in the final weeks of the legislative session.

— As California continues the slow recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down many businesses last year, new $600 state stimulus checks have begun arriving in the bank accounts of residents who earn up to $75,000 annually.

— George Skelton writes that Newsom is not likely to ever free Robert F. Kennedy’s killer from prison.

— A federal appeals court upheld an injunction that stops Los Angeles from taking and destroying bulky items used by homeless people on public property.

— A labor leader guides Orange County Democrats’ quest to revamp the county’s politics.

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