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Essential Politics: For Newsom’s critics, the easy part is over

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This is the April 5, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

The historic nature of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s victory in the 2018 election probably didn’t receive the plaudits it deserved — winning California’s top office with 62% of all votes cast, the largest margin of victory since Earl Warren’s epic wins in 1946 and 1950.

While a lot has changed in the last 29 months, one thing appears to be the same: Newsom’s hard-core opposition — voters who really don’t like him — is about the same size as it was when he was elected.

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Yes, some voters have soured a bit on the 53-year-old Democrat, and an effort to remove him from office is on the verge of qualifying for the statewide ballot.

But recall supporters shouldn’t celebrate just yet. Four statewide polls in the last two months found support for firing the governor in a special election at levels that are remarkably consistent with the percentage of votes won by Republican John Cox in the 2018 gubernatorial election.

Voters, for now, are sticking with Newsom

Newsom’s victory over Cox more than two years ago was resounding: 62% of voters chose the Democrat, while only 38% voted for the GOP businessman.

The latest of the recent statewide polls, released Tuesday by the Public Policy Institute of California, found that only 40% of likely voters said they would vote to recall Newsom in a special election — on par with those who voted against him in 2018. The week before that, a survey by Probolsky Research also found the level of support for the recall at 40% of voters surveyed. In mid-March, Emerson College’s poll set the mark at 38% of those surveyed who would vote to recall Newsom.

In late January, UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found that only 36% of registered voters surveyed would remove the governor in a special election. The four polls were all conducted a different times and under different circumstances but reached a strikingly similar conclusion: the core of Newsom’s opposition seems relatively unchanged from the 2018 election.

The polls suggest that backers of the recall, if they’re really serious about ousting Newsom and not just forcing an election, have their work cut out for them. That’s not to say that the governor has the recall beaten before it even qualifies for the ballot — each of the polls has found notable numbers of California voters who are undecided. In theory, those voters could be persuaded to jump on the recall bandwagon.

Mark Baldassare, the president and longtime pollster at PPIC, wrote last week that Newsom’s political viability is a key reason the 2021 recall election (which could become official by the end of this month) could be very different from the tidal wave that swept Gov. Gray Davis out of office in 2003. Most notable, he said, is this year’s much larger registration gap between Democrats and Republicans and the fact that Davis’ job approval numbers were dismal in 2003.

“By contrast, fewer than half have said they disapprove of Newsom in the 13 surveys we have conducted since he took office,” Baldassare wrote.

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For now, Newsom’s greatest challenge — managing the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic — may also be providing him the most benefit. The number of Californians in PPIC’s new poll who believe the worst of the pandemic is behind us stood at a robust 74%, and about half gave state officials high marks in distributing COVID-19 vaccines.

As Taryn Luna writes, vaccination efforts are likely to play a key role in Newsom’s political health.

“Every vaccination gets him a little bit closer to defeating the recall,” said Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist who teaches political communications at USC and UC Berkeley. “If people think about the pandemic in the past tense, then Newsom almost certainly survives the recall.”

The caveat, of course, is that anything can happen, and an election in the fall feels like a lifetime away. For Republicans — shut out of winning any statewide election for the past 15 years — the recall offers the best, perhaps only, chance at this point of breaking that streak.

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National lightning round

— The man who rammed a car into two officers Friday at a barricade outside the U.S. Capitol, killing one, before being shot to death by police, had been suffering from delusions, paranoia and suicidal thoughts, a U.S. official said Saturday.

— The new Capitol attack comes as lawmakers were eyeing a return to more normal security measures after the Jan. 6 riot.

— Vaccine passports being developed to verify COVID-19 immunization status and allow inoculated people to more freely travel, shop and dine have become the latest political flashpoint, with Republicans portraying them as a heavy-handed intrusion into personal freedom and private health choices.

— After weeks of tepid engagement, corporate America has plunged fully into the battle over ballot access, as business leaders scramble to take more forceful stances against a slew of voting restriction bills in statehouses across the country.

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President Biden‘s dilemma on the Iran nuclear deal: Go slow and risk war, or move fast even if it means an imperfect pact that hurts his domestic agenda.

— Biden has lifted sanctions that former President Trump imposed on top officials of the International Criminal Court, which investigates war crimes and genocide.

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Today’s essential California politics

— When Newsom voiced his support last year for a ban on hydraulic fracturing by oil and gas companies, he gave Democrats a green light to send him legislation to achieve that goal as they saw fit. He might be surprised by how expansive the proposal now under consideration has turned out to be.

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— A state judicial watchdog commission publicly admonished Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Patrick E. Connolly on Friday, his third time being disciplined, for inappropriate demeanor and remarks.

— There have been more than 260 requests for housing transfers in California prisons under a new law that gives transgender, intersex and non-binary inmates the right, regardless of anatomy, to be housed based on their gender identity.

— Democrat Christy Smith announced that she will challenge GOP Rep. Mike Garcia in the 2022 midterm elections for a seat representing northern Los Angeles County that could be key to determining which party controls Congress.

James R. Mills, a retired San Diego state legislator who rose through the ranks in Sacramento to become the leader of the state Senate, died last week at age 93.

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