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Op-Ed: Newsom survived recall by getting back to his bold self

Gavin Newsom wears a mask at a campaign event.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has never won by playing it safe.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shockingly comfortable victory over the recall attempt marks the national political comeback of a governor who, according to this summer’s polling, looked like California’s most endangered politician. Gavin’s got his groove back.

But before planning his presidency, let’s understand how he retained his governorship. The clear lesson is that Newsom has rewritten his political future by returning to the governing approach of his past.

Back when he was mayor of San Francisco, Newsom earned his reputation across the state and the nation by taking big risks and standing on the right side of history. In 2004, he issued marriage licenses to more than 4,000 same-sex couples long before marriage equality was the law. While it is hard now to remember what a revolutionary act that was, it shocked voters and infuriated Democratic Party leaders. He was stopped by state courts, but nine years later, the Supreme Court allowed these marriages, and Newsom looked like a trailblazer.

As lieutenant governor, he took another risk by backing and becoming the face of the marijuana legalization initiative, Proposition 64. A similar measure had failed badly just a few years before, but Proposition 64, and thus Newsom, won big.

These bold political moves — his “Profiles in Courage” moments — elevated his prominence and, more important, showed him to be a swashbuckler rather than a calculating politician.

Yet none of that characterized the opening years of his governorship. On issue after issue, Gov. Newsom sat on the fence.

In 2019, in the waning days of the legislative session, he shifted positions on a controversial bill to require basic childhood vaccinations for schoolchildren, leaving “supporters and critics … baffled by Newsom’s sudden changes.”

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In January 2020, he devoted his State of the State address to the housing crisis but then declined to take a position on the major bill introduced in the Legislature to tackle it, meaning he bore some of the blame for the legislation’s failure.

Later that fall, when he signed a few modest police reform bills but vetoed the boldest moves, Newsom said, politically: “None of these bills are easy … so many constituencies, so many nuances.”

As he ascended up the political ladder, it seemed, Newsom traded courage for calculation, moral clarity for nuance.

That changed when the recall election made him fight for his political life.

The key strategic move that Newsom made was the choice to reach back to patterns of his past by staking a bold policy stance. This time his target was COVID-19, making pandemic response the centerpiece of his campaign against the recall effort. Just over a month ago, he put in place vaccination mandates for teachers across the state and for healthcare workers — a courageous position with no political cover.

When his Republican opponents took the bait by attacking vaccine and mask mandates, Newsom drew this as the primary line of distinction between himself and his opponents. He could have said “so many constituencies, so many nuances.” But instead he doubled down with campaign ads trumpeting his measures, calling the recall vote a “matter of life and death.”

In the afterglow of Newsom’s victory, it’s hard to remember just how much of a risk this was. The recall race was deadlocked at that time, according to some leading polls. The pandemic, along with the response to it that Newsom led, had been primary drivers of the “Yes on the Recall” campaign for months. It was not just the French Laundry dinner but the uneven pandemic policies that it seemed to symbolize that put Newsom in jeopardy. Did the governor really want to own this issue?

He did, and that built his political revival. After taking firm stands and drawing a political battle line, Newsom headed into the last month of the campaign on surer footing, with a clearer message. He steadily rose in the polls, then delivered the knockout on election night.

According to exit polls, COVID was the most important issue in the race to voters. It was the primary concern for 40% of Democrats but only 20% of Republicans, indicating that Newsom’s focus on the pandemic drew his base back to his corner. He cast the election as a referendum not on himself but on California’s approach to COVID.

Newsom’s history shows that the riskiest strategy is being timid. Facing potential recall, the governor went back to his old ways: He gambled and won.

Thad Kousser is a professor of political science and co-director of the Yankelovich Center for Social Science Research at UC San Diego.


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