Column: In recall of governor, is California GOP smoking an exploding cigar?

Two people wave an American flag and a "Recall Gavin Newsom" flag on the side a road.
Not far from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s home, opponents ask for signatures for the “Recall Gavin Newsom” campaign on Jan. 19 in Fair Oaks, Calif.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

It’s election night 1990, and the California Republican Party is ecstatic.

U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson beat former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein to succeed George Deukmejian as the state’s next governor. Archconservative Dan Lungren replaced a Democrat as state attorney general. Wilson will soon appoint former Anaheim mayor and fellow moderate Republican John Seymour to take his old senatorial seat. Democratic Party registration is below 50% and will never top that number again.

And the best development of the night? Proposition 140 passed.


It’s a ballot initiative that sets term limits for legislators and cuts back their staff budgets. Proponents argue it’s a nonpartisan issue meant to sweep out inept politicians, but Republicans campaign hard for it because of Proposition 140’s unofficial target: Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, a politician so brilliant he can get Republicans to go against their own party the way Curly made Larry hit Moe.

Gov. Gavin Newsom at a lectern
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a visit by First Lady Jill Biden at the Forty Acres, the first headquarters of the United Farm Workers labor union, in Delano, Calif., on March 31, 2021.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

By pushing out Brown and his entrenched cronies, GOP leaders hope they can dilute Democratic influence in Sacramento, take over and let the Reagan Revolution run the Golden State forever.

We all know how that turned out.

Wilson and Lungren did win reelection in 1994. Brown did have to leave his post in 1995. But term limits transformed Sacramento not into a Greek-style agora of free men, but a swamp where Republican fortunes have sunk ever since like a mastodon in the La Brea tar pits.

The Republicans don’t know any of this on election night 1990. Nor do they realize that Proposition 140 will set a disastrous template for the GOP’s next 31 years in California: Any time they offer Democrats an exploding cigar of voter revolt, the cigar instead burns them.

This history is important to remember if, as expected, California voters go to the ballot box this fall to decide whether to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom. It’s the Republican’s latest Hail Mary to return to relevancy in California, and they fully expect voters to vault one of their own into the governor’s mansion.

Protesters, one with a sign saying "Our Governor is an Idiot!"
As coronavirus cases reach record numbers in the U.S. and California, hundreds gather at the pier and Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach to protest a state-mandated curfew of 10 p.m.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

I still don’t think Newsom will be recalled, although I’m not putting money on it just yet. But I’ll wager a roll of pesos that the ultimate loser will, again, be the Republican Party. The house — in this case, history — is on my side.

Just look at term limits. Proposition 140 was supposed to help Republicans take control of the state Assembly and Senate. Instead, the last Republican speaker of the House was Curt Pringle in 1996; the last GOP Senate president pro tem was … well, Republicans haven’t held that position in 51 years.

Instead, Democrats hold a supermajority in both chambers that could override any veto in the unlikely case a Republican replaces Newsom. The GOP term-limit grab ultimately had as much influence as a fork does to toss a hay bale.

Even more ruinous to the state GOP was Proposition 187, the landmark 1994 ballot initiative that sought to make life miserable for immigrants without legal status. Then-Gov. Wilson, a moderate who had never lost an election in his political career, veered to the right to boost his sagging reelection chances, and the rest of the Republican Party followed. They repeated 187’s xenophobic strategy to energize its base in the next two statewide elections by backing Proposition 209 (which ended affirmative action in the public sector and state higher education) and Proposition 227, which outlawed bilingual education.

We all know how that turned out.

A generation of Latinos became radicalized, and many of them ran for higher office as Latinos became a plurality of California’s population. They dot city councils, school boards, Sacramento and now Washington, where Alex Padilla serves as California’s first Latino U.S. senator. Back home, we’re now a sanctuary state where bilingual education is once again legal. Voters did reject last year a proposition that sought the return of affirmative action — but that’s a consolation prize for Republicans worse than a set of steak knives.

The 2003 recall of then-Gov. Gray Davis also led to no ultimate gain for Republicans. Yes, the Democratic Party suffered a national embarrassment of historic proportions, but they barely bent in both chambers when Arnold Schwarzenegger rumbled into the governor’s office in his Humvee and promised to blow up politics as usual. By the time Schwarzenegger left office in 2011, he was nearly as weak as his deposed predecessor, with little in terms of legacy other than that oh-so-conservative platform of climate change initiatives.

The Terminator is anathema to today’s Republican Party not just because he failed to return them to glory days, but also because he never turned into the culture warrior they were banking on to bring back voters to its frayed tent. You can find Schwarzenegger today trashing Donald Trump and telling reporters he thinks Newsom is “doing a good job.

And oh yeah: Trump! Top Republicans knew California Democrats, independents and even some Republicans despised the man Spy magazine memorably described as a “short-fingered vulgarian,” yet didn’t care. They went all in for the 2016 election — and we all know how that turned out.

While Republicans did make some surprising voter gains in the 2020 election, their long-term prospects look terrible once again. Look at what happened in my homeland of Orange County, a place once redder than a fire engine.

In the 2016 election, we went for Hillary Clinton — the first time since the Great Depression that Orange County had voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. Voter disgust with Trump led Orange County in 2018 to elect an all-blue congressional delegation for the first time ever. Biden beat Trump in 2020.

And in a recent supervisor special election, in a district where the GOP holds a comfortable voter registration advantage, Democrat Katrina Foley was able to pull an upset win. Instead of coalescing for an easy victory, the Orange County GOP watched three Republican candidates run against one another in a game of “quien es más conservative?” inspired by their guy Trump.

Now, we have the Newsom recall. The California GOP is willing itself to believe, like Wile E. Coyote or Sylvester the Cat or any other number of Warner Bros. cartoon buffoons, that this Acme-made trap will work this time, for real.

Hope springs eternal for Elmer Fudd come rabbit season! But that cartoon stogie always blows up in his face.

The irony in this California conservative walk of shame is that Republicans were once masters of political shock treatments. Previous success stories — the elevation of a B-list actor named Ronald Reagan, the passage of the anti-tax Proposition 13, the removal of California Chief Justice Rose Bird and two of her liberal bench mates — continue to influence state politics.

It’s a tradition the GOP still clings to, like a castaway holding on to a flotation device as the SS California sails off without them.