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Op-Ed: Recalling Gov. Newsom is a desperation move by the shrinking GOP

Demonstrators rally in Huntington Beach
Demonstrators at a rally in Huntington Beach on Nov. 21, 2020, calling for a recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom.
(Associated Press )

Gov. Gavin Newsom might have expected a little kindness from the pro-Trump camp, after he so carefully navigated his relationship with Donald Trump, stroking Trump’s fragile ego by praising him whenever possible.

“Conversation, commitment. Promise made, promise kept,” Newsom said last April after the Trump administration delivered 90,000 swabs to California for coronavirus testing. Not surprisingly, Trump’s team immediately used Newsom’s praise in a campaign ad.

Newsom’s deference to Trump is not doing him much good these days. Among the Democratic Party’s rising stars before the pandemic struck, Newsom faces the very real prospect that voters will decide his fate in a recall effort backed by Trump’s Republican Party later this year.

Why a recall now? Voters are frustrated and fearful. On many levels, the pandemic is to blame, but Newsom has also made some public blunders — like joining friends for dinner in Napa Valley while telling the rest of us to avoid crowds and stay home.

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Mostly, though, this effort is being driven by Republicans who see a recall as a path back to relevancy. Trump hasn’t taken a stand on the Newsom recall, yet. But many of his acolytes, defenders and donors are fully engaged.

The Times has reported that recall backers include vaccine opponents, QAnon followers and other denizens of the far fringes of American politics. Those activists have provided much of the energy behind the recall movement. But more mainstream Republicans, hoping to make a recall palatable to the mass of Californians, are raising the money needed for a paid direct-mail signature-gathering effort to get the recall on the ballot.

On Feb. 4, one of Trump’s biggest sycophants, Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, chipped in $25,000 for the effort, campaign finance reports show. Huckabee also promoted the recall on his Fox News show. In December, another Trump loyalist, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, appeared on a fundraising call for the effort.

Harmeet Dhillon, a Republican national committeewoman and ardent Trump supporter, has been a lawyer for the recall effort. Dhillon was also one of the attorneys who sued the Newsom administration in the case that led to the Supreme Court’s decision last week limiting the governor’s restrictions on indoor church services.

To place the recall on the ballot, backers must deliver 1.5 million valid signatures of registered voters to election officials by March 17. To account for bad signatures, they will need roughly 2 million signatures. With more than a month to go, they seem likely to meet that target.

Unseating Newsom, however, will be far more difficult. The state GOP was on the ropes in 2016 when Trump was elected. Only 26% of the state’s voters were registered Republicans, and Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 4.2 million votes in California. Now, the state party’s registration has slid down to 24% and Joe Biden beat Trump by
5.1 million votes.

Still, a potential recall vote, being a special election sometime this fall, poses a threat to Newsom, so his campaign consultants are busily preparing for a battle. Although this is a heavily Democratic state, parts of California are as red as the most MAGA-embracing counties in the South. Indeed, Trump received more votes in California — 6 million — than in any other state.

The recall consultants are focusing on the red precincts that run down the Central Valley, through the Inland Empire and up through increasingly blue San Diego and Orange counties. They’re targeting households with at least one registered Republican, preferably two, or with a second voter without a party preference, said Dave Gilliard, a veteran consultant who is working on the recall and helped place the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis on the ballot.

Newsom is no Gray Davis, who was ousted by Arnold Schwarzenegger in that recall. A new poll shows a majority of Californians have a favorable view of Newsom despite the havoc wreaked by the pandemic on the economy and the lives of schoolchildren and their parents.

California is also not the place it was 18 years ago. Back then, 35% of registered voters were Republicans and there was a box office star waiting to run. Now, there are former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and John Cox, the wealthy San Diego businessman who got shellacked by Newsom in the governor’s race in 2018, 62% to 38%. Both Republicans are supporters of Trump, who is viewed favorably by only 32% of Californians.

Newsom would have the advantage over any Republican in a regularly scheduled gubernatorial race. “The chance of any Republican winning in 2022 is very slim,” Gilliard told me.

But, he points out, the odds could be better if a majority of voters are persuaded to support the recall. Then, the top vote-getter on the ballot would replace Newsom. Depending on the size of the field — 135 candidates ran in 2003 — that person could win with, say, 25% of the vote.

Voters are cranky now. That could change by the fall if people are vaccinated, kids are back in school and the economy is on the mend. If all that happens, Newsom could rightly take credit and emerge stronger politically. And in California, the party of Trump would continue its downward slide.

Dan Morain, a former Times staff writer, is author of “Kamala’s Way: An American Life.”


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