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Q&A: What you need to know about the attempt to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom

Gavin Newsom
Gov. Gavin Newsom, shown during a 2019 news conference, is facing an attempted recall.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)
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Every California governor in modern history has faced recall attempts to oust them from office. Until now, only one ended up before voters. The latest effort, aimed at Gov. Gavin Newsom, gained enough signatures amid the COVID-19 pandemic to qualify for the ballot, and the election was underway Tuesday.

Here’s what California voters should know about the rules, the next steps and the personalities involved:

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What is a recall?

Under California law since 1911, voters can seek to oust an elected official through the ballot box by invoking a recall. But it’s not easy, particularly if there isn’t major financial backing to pay for signature-gatherers.

California is one of 20 states to allow for a gubernatorial recall. (In 19, including California, a successful recall effort is decided by voters. In Virginia, the matter heads to the courts.) The threshold in the Golden State for making it onto the ballot: 12% of registered voters in the last gubernatorial election from at least five counties must sign petitions backing the effort.

In Newsom’s case, that means his opponents had to submit 1,495,709 valid signatures. (In reality, as many as 2 million signatures are needed to account for those that are duplicates or invalidated.) Newsom’s critics gathered 1,626,042 valid voter signatures, according to a report issued April 26 that contained information collected from elections officials in California’s 58 counties.

Proponents are typically allowed 160 days to gather the necessary signatures, but the courts gave Newsom’s recall supporters four additional months because of the pandemic.

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What’s the history of recalls in the United States?

Many recall attempts have been launched against governors across the U.S., but only three have made the ballot previously — a successful recall of North Dakota Gov. Lynn J. Frazier in 1921, a successful recall of California Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 and an unsuccessful effort to oust Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2012.

Scott Walker is the only governor in U.S. history to successfully beat a recall. Gavin Newsom’s campaign is trying to emulate his success, but there are key differences in the dynamics.

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Who is behind the Newsom recall?

The early roots of the recall included supporters of former President Trump, some with ties to fringe groups. But as the movement grew, it was adopted by mainstream California Republicans, including some of the strategists who worked on the 2003 recall of Davis.

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Who funded the recall campaign?

The three groups promoting the recall spent about $5 million in the first quarter of 2021 on their efforts to qualify the matter for the ballot. Major donors included John Kruger, an Orange County entrepreneur and education reform advocate, Beverly Hills developer Geoffrey Palmer and Silicon Valley billionaire Douglas Leone. The recall also has received a large contribution from Silicon Valley venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya, who in the past has donated to Democratic politicians and causes.

The Republican National Committee earmarked $250,000 to fund outreach to Republican households in California, including links to sign recall petitions, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee chipped in $175,000 from his political action committee. The Republican Governors Assn. also launched a fundraising committee seeking contributions from national GOP donors.

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What’s behind the recall?

The recall proponents’ petition calling for Newsom’s ouster cited the state’s high taxes, homelessness crisis and the governor’s position on issues such as immigration and the death penalty. But their reasons evolved as the pandemic continued.

In the final months of signature gathering, much of the argument was over the closure of small businesses and schools, as well as the vaccine rollout. They also seized upon the billions of dollars of fraudulent payments made by the state’s unemployment office.

Now, as the governor has tapped the budget surplus to offer stimulus payments to many Californians, recall backers accuse Newsom of using his official powers to bribe voters in advance of the recall election.

Amid tight recall race, GOP hopefuls court Southern California voters

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How does the Newsom recall compare with Davis’ ouster?

Like Newsom, Davis governed during a period of intense voter frustration. In 2003, increased car registration fees and rolling power blackouts upset the electorate.

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There are key differences, however, between the two Democrats, and the state’s politics then and now. Davis narrowly won reelection with 47% of the vote; Newsom received 62% to become governor in 2018. California voters are also much more liberal than they were 18 years ago.

In addition, no wealthy celebrity with sky-high name recognition and broad appeal — Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced Davis — emerged to challenge Newsom. Conservative talk radio host Larry Elder, however, entered the race in mid-July and immediately shot to the front of the polls of replacement candidates and raised millions of dollars.

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What are voters seeing on the ballot?

Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis scheduled the recall election, which was underway on Tuesday, though every registered voter in California began receiving mail ballots in mid-August because of the pandemic. Voters were asked two questions: Do they want to recall Newsom? And if Newsom is recalled, which candidate would they want to replace him?

Early numbers provide good news for Newsom but also show he must turn out young and Latino voters.

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How did the recall unfold?

The scheduling of the election kicked off a compressed two-month campaign for Newsom and his allies to make the case for why he should remain in office, and for recall supporters and the candidates running to replace him to convince voters the governor should be ousted and to explain why they were best suited to become the state’s next chief executive.

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Though scores of candidates expressed interest in running, only a few launched professional campaigns, raised money and took other steps that indicated a serious bid for office.

State elections officials said on July 21 that 46 candidates would appear on the ballot. In mid-August, former Rep. Doug Ose suffered a heart attack, dropped out of the race and endorsed fellow Republican Kevin Kiley, a member of the state Assembly. Earlier in the month, financial disclosures revealed that Newsom and his allies had an enormous fundraising edge over their rivals.

Election day was Tuesday, but if the race is close, it could be several days before the results are known. County elections officials have a month to complete their official tally, and then Secretary of State Shirley Weber has eight days to certify the election results. So if the recall is successful, the new governor would be sworn in about a week before Halloween.

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How much will the special election cost, and who pays for it?

Local officials from across California estimate the cost of conducting the election could run as high as $400 million, though the state Department of Finance estimated the cost of the special election at $276 million, a price tag that will be borne by taxpayers.

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The money has mostly gone to county election agencies for printing ballots, setting up voting sites and processing votes. The state set aside $250.2 million to fund the recall election. And donors spent tens of millions on campaigning. Pro- and anti-recall forces had no caps on their fundraising.

Poll shows 60.1% of likely voters surveyed oppose recalling Newsom compared to 38.5% in favor of ousting the governor.

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Is Newsom in jeopardy?

Although most California voters are opposed to the recall, polling over the summer suggested Newsom was vulnerable because of Democratic voter apathy. But recent surveys showed the governor would likely retain office with a comfortable lead, which can be attributed to two factors: money and the emergence of Elder as the GOP front-runner.

Elder shot to the front of the pack of replacement candidates when he entered the race in mid-July. He has a decades-long history of making controversial statements insulting women and minorities, as well as policy positions such as eliminating the minimum wage, which allowed Newsom to present a stark one-on-one contrast to voters in the closing weeks of the race.

Democrats also spent more than $36 million on turnout efforts in August.

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Newsom allies pay top dollar to hold the governor’s seat in deep blue California

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What were Democrats’ responses to the recall effort?

Democrats’ arguments against the recall varied over the last several months but ultimately settled on the COVID-19 health crisis. Newsom warned that some Californians would literally die if the recall was successful because his GOP rivals opposed mask and vaccine mandates.

“It’s a matter of life and death,” warned one anti-recall ad.

Newsom had initially characterized the effort as a costly waste of money fueled by extremists.

“A handful of partisan activists supporting President Trump and his dangerous agenda to divide America are trying to overturn the definitive will of California voters and bring Washington’s broken government to California with this recall effort. The last thing California needs is another wasteful special election, supported by those who demonize California’s people and attack California’s values,” he wrote to the secretary of state’s office in his official response to the recall.

The president joined Gov. Newsom Monday evening in Long Beach, capping off a day of campaigning by most of the recall election’s leading candidates.

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For months, Newsom didn’t publicly address the recall, and when asked by reporters about it, he demurred. “I’m focused on the vaccine issue,” he said during a news conference earlier this year on the pandemic. “That’s my focus. That’s why I’m here.”

As the recall effort gained momentum, Newsom increasingly held public events around the state, flanked by Democratic elected officials, who made the case for him remaining in office, and granted increased media access — moves viewed as the governor shifting into campaign mode.

Newsom also benefited from a recovering state economy and a nearly $76-billion budget surplus, which allowed him to propose sending $600 state stimulus checks to many Californians, a $5-billion rental assistance plan and other programs. At times, he looked like a game show host announcing gifts to voters.

On March 15, Newsom’s allies formally launched an anti-recall campaign led by national Democratic stars including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The state Democratic Party kicked in more than $500,000 as Newsom embarked on a virtual national media tour.

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More than $70 million was donated to the anti-recall effort, including $3 million from Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings, which is notable because Hastings was among the pro-charter school activists who spent millions opposing Newsom in the 2018 gubernatorial campaign. The Democratic Party, labor unions and Silicon Valley titans were among the governor’s other major donors.

The state party was widely castigated over its first response to the recall when, days after the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, party Chairman Rusty Hicks called the effort a “California coup” and tied it to the extremist groups involved in the riot.

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Who’s running to replace Newsom?

Of the 46 candidates who appeared on the ballot, 24 were Republicans, 10 had no party preference, nine were Democrats, two belonged to the Green Party, and one was a Libertarian.

There were five prominent GOP candidates in the race:

They were former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Olympian turned reality-television star Caitlyn Jenner, Elder, Kiley and businessman John Cox, who lost the gubernatorial election to Newsom in 2018.

Democrats have returned more than half of the 6.6 million ballots mailed in so far; Republicans account for a quarter.

Newsom, who is prohibited from running to replace himself, scored a major victory by keeping prominent Democratic politicians out of the race. The most well-known Democrat on the ballot is personal finance influencer Kevin Paffrath, who has 1.7 million followers on YouTube. He lost a legal effort to have his nickname “Meet Kevin” appear on the ballot because it is a trademark.

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If the recall is successful, the candidate who succeeds Newsom does not need a majority of the votes. He or she only needs a plurality, or the most of all the candidates who run. And then voters will be asked to decide the matter once again in 2022, when the regularly scheduled gubernatorial contest is on the ballot.

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