Editorial: Send in the clowns: The recall circus is returning to California

A sign on a lawn says Save California! Recall Newsom
A sign to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom in San Diego.
(Karen Pearlman / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The circus is coming to California.

No, we don’t mean the big tent with filled with acrobats, trained animals and clowns. We’re talking about a political spectacle of the sort not seen here since 2003, when a handful of partisans used the state’s problematic recall system to initiate a distracting, expensive and undemocratic process to unseat a sitting governor.

Come to think of it, there probably will be clowns. There certainly were the last time around.

Though it’s not official yet, it seems clear that the conservative organizers of the latest attempt to remove Gov. Gavin Newsom have passed the first and largest hurdle. Wednesday was the deadline to submit signatures to county registrars, and organizers say they have submitted more than 2 million — many more than the nearly 1.5 million needed to trigger a statewide recall election. Considering that an early check found few bogus signatures on the petitions submitted by that point, and that organizers submitted a healthy cushion of extra signatures by Wednesday, it’s safe to assume that this election is on.


Newsom and his Democratic allies certainly are. The governor has gone on the offensive this week, launching an opposition campaign with national appearances on “The View” and CNN.

It may seem odd that Newsom would go out of state to launch a campaign to persuade Californians to let him finish his term, but the recall is about more than just one man. In some ways, it is another proxy fight between liberals and conservatives over the fate of the country, similar to the recent U.S. Senate races in Georgia. In fact, the recall got a boost from GOP figures such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Newsom is getting support from across the nation as well, including from Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

It gives us some hope that this recall isn’t a foregone conclusion, even if county officials find enough valid signatures by the April 29 deadline to trigger an election. (By the way, no matter what you hear from proponents, this is not some sort of new or unfair treatment. Anything that is put on the ballot via signatures gets checked, including ballot measures.) After the secretary of state verifies that there are enough valid signatures submitted to the counties to qualify, those who signed petitions will have 30 days to withdraw their names.

At that point, we hope that enough Californians would do so to stop the recall election. They made their point, registering their discontent with the governor over his fumbles during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we have said before, Newsom made mistakes in the last year as he’s led the state through an unprecedented public health crisis. And he should face the judgment of voters. But that should happen if seeks reelection in 2022, not in a farcical recall election driven by misplaced anger and unrealistic expectations.

Those who believe that a recall of Newsom will result in a Republican renaissance in deeply blue California are naive. Republicans may have captured the governorship in 2003, after they launched the first — and, so far, only — successful gubernatorial recall (removing Democratic Gov. Gray Davis). But a GOP win this time is far from certain. If a majority of voters endorse recalling Newsom, his replacement needs only a plurality to win; it could thus be a Republican, a Democrat or some other party member who finishes first, probably with no apparent mandate or broad statewide support. Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger for example, won with just 48.6% of the votes in 2003.

That’s not very democratic, and it makes the outcome this time impossible to predict. In fact, if Republican candidates end up splitting their voting bloc, it’s entirely possible that the state could end up with a replacement who is more liberal than Newsom. Also possible, and perhaps even likely, is that by the time the election is held in the fall, Californians will be vaccinated and back to work and school and less eager to dump their governor.

Though a recall election is not worth it, or even warranted, here we are. Heaven help us.