Essential Politics: California’s recall fight will extend into 2022

A poll worker peeled off stickers to hand out to voters showing at a San Diego polling station on Election Day in 2018.
There will be two elections for governor of California in just 16 months’ time.
(John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

This is the July 19, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

We now have a semiofficial field of candidates for the second gubernatorial recall election in California history, compiled by state elections officials and soon on its way to ballot designers and printers. Election day is now 57 days away.

But this is more than just the official beginning to a quick campaign deciding the political fate of Gov. Gavin Newsom. It’s the first round of a campaign cycle that will run for 16 months, culminating with the election on Nov. 8, 2022.


It’s also one reason I’ll be writing a new newsletter, California Politics, for The Times beginning in August. More details on that are below, but for now, sign up early here.

We’ve got (at least) 41 candidates

Friday marked the registration deadline for candidates seeking to replace Newsom. The semiofficial tally: 41 hopefuls, an assortment of activists and average Joes dominated by Republicans and less than one-third the size of the field of candidates in 2003 when voters ousted then-Gov. Gray Davis.

As expected, the list is led by a Republican quintet: former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer; 2018 candidate John Cox; Assemblyman Kevin Kiley; reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner; and former Rep. Doug Ose. Sixteen other GOP candidates will be listed on the ballot along with eight Democrats, two Green Party members, one Libertarian and nine independent candidates listed as having “no party preference.”

A reminder that it will only take a plurality of votes for someone to win on the ballot’s second question if Newsom loses on the first question. In 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected with less than 49% of the vote.

State officials released the list of candidates on Saturday night. The only real drama was the absence of L.A. conservative talk show host Larry Elder from the list, who insisted that he completed all the necessary steps to run, and a threatened lawsuit by YouTube entrepreneur Kevin Paffrath to be called “Meet Kevin” on the ballot.

Jenner, meanwhile, begins the official campaign season in Australia where she’s appearing on a reality TV show that she called a prior “work commitment.” Her quest to become governor has been a disappointment to some in the LGBTQ community, as my colleague Julia Wick reported last week.

Newsom’s supporters were undoubtedly relieved not to see any high-profile Democrats on the list. Although the governor’s team fumbled his chance to be listed as a Democrat on the ballot, most voters won’t instantly recognize those who will have the party designation.

One closely watched Democrat, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, issued a clear but curious statement Friday in opposing Newsom’s recall.

“I respect the fact the recall qualified — I also recognize that many people disagree with the Governor and some of his decisions — including me — but California is facing incredible challenges and the Governor deserves a chance to finish the job,” Villaraigosa posted on Twitter.

It’s worth watching how, or if, Newsom chooses to address the implicit message that some Democrats think he could be doing better. The party faithful may not abandon him in September, but the campaign won’t end there.

From 2021 to 2022

Win or lose, it’s hard to see either Newsom or his most prominent recall opponents stepping aside in the campaign to win a full four-year term in 2022. Faulconer, Jenner and Kiley have all made it clear they plan to keep going should they come up short eight weeks from now.


And Newsom has ample resources, with some $50 million in political cash between the committees set up to fight the recall and the one to reelect him in 16 months.

Recall 2003 vs. Recall 2021

The back-to-back elections are one huge difference from the Davis recall of 2003. Schwarzenegger was elected to serve out more than two years left on Davis’ second term before seeking reelection in 2006. This time, the recall will take place less than 10 months before a gubernatorial primary.

On Sunday, I posted a Twitter thread that sought to briefly examine the different political landscape of this recall compared to the historic election held 18 years ago this October. The differences might offer a glimpse of what lies ahead.

Most notable is that Newsom likely will strive to keep the replacement candidates bundled together in the minds of voters as an unserious bunch, running in an unjustified election and unqualified to hold the office.

Davis also tried that strategy but the first-tier candidates of 2003 defied such an easy characterization.

Beyond Schwarzenegger — who already had his eyes on the 2006 race and championed a 2002 ballot measure that drew praise from Democrats and independents — there was Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the second-highest-ranking Democrat; Tom McClintock, a conservative firebrand in the California Legislature for decades; Peter Camejo, a Green Party member whose 2002 gubernatorial run denied Davis a majority-vote win; Peter Ueberroth, fresh off his job as commissioner of Major League Baseball and still with some luster for his leadership of the 1984 L.A. Olympics; and Arianna Huffington, who went on to promote progressive causes through her eponymous website.

Most of this year’s hopefuls don’t arrive with the same kind of bona fides. And they’re challenging a governor whose poll numbers appear to be less than disastrous and an electorate mostly made up of Democrats.

The 2021 candidates also face a media landscape that’s decidedly more fragmented than in 2003, one where a candidate can generate intensity but may struggle, without a lot of cash and party backing, to expand their support to what’s needed to win.

One other big difference: when the votes will be cast. Elections officials will mail every registered voter a ballot for this election beginning in mid-August. 14. By comparison, more than 70% of votes in the 2003 recall were cast on election day. That makes the campaign season even shorter and a better chance for Newsom to control the narrative ... provided he makes no major missteps over the next month.

About those tax returns

Largely overlooked over the past few weeks has been the decision by Secretary of State Shirley Weber to require that candidates abide by a 2019 state law requiring disclosure of the past five years of personal income tax returns.

The documents were posted Sunday afternoon without any public notice by Weber’s office. It will take some time to examine how the candidates make their money and account for it.

Many will remember the law was written by Democrats and signed by Newsom in 2019 largely as a poke in the eye of then-President Trump, mandating that he hand over tax returns to win a spot on the state’s 2020 ballot. But a federal judge and the California Supreme Court both struck down that provision, leaving in place only the law’s provision to hold gubernatorial candidates to the same standard.

The question is whether it should apply in the recall, as the statute says tax documents must be submitted for the “primary.” Newsom, who disclosed his 2019 tax returns in May, could have to produce additional documents to comply with the law.

One question briefly buzzing around social media in recent days was whether Weber’s decision led some aspiring recall candidates to change their minds. That was one of the arguments against running made by Marey Carey, the adult film actress who ran in 2003.

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A new California politics newsletter

Beginning next month, we’ll be making some changes to the way you get the latest political news from The Times. Instead of landing in your email inbox on Monday, I’ll be hosting a new analysis of California politics that will serve more as an end-of-the-week roundup of events and issues.

The California Politics newsletter will continue to offer glimpses at what’s happening both on the campaign trail and in the halls of state government in Sacramento. We’ll largely focus on two big topics in the coming weeks: the Newsom recall election and the end of the California Legislature’s yearlong session. From there, it’s on to the high-stakes process of redistricting and then the 2022 statewide elections.

You’ll still be getting the latest from my colleagues David Lauter, Noah Bierman and Laura Blasey in Washington. And we’ll have more information next week, in my final edition of the Essential Politics newsletter from Sacramento.

Get ready. The coming weeks and months are sure to be a wild ride. And be sure to sign up for the California Politics newsletter here.

National lightning round

— A proposal to strengthen IRS enforcement to crack down on tax scofflaws and help fund a nearly $1-trillion bipartisan infrastructure spending bill is officially off the table, Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said Sunday.

President Biden said Saturday that the Justice Department intends to appeal a federal judge’s ruling deeming illegal an Obama-era program that has protected hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation.

— Texas’ Brooks County and the Rio Grande Valley have been popular smuggling routes for decades. Six months into 2021, deaths in the county had already reached 55, up from 34 last year.

— The Delta variant and widespread vaccine hesitancy in red states have stalled progress on Biden’s battle against COVID-19 and threaten the economy’s revival.

— Arizona county election officials have identified fewer than 200 cases of potential voter fraud out of more than 3 million ballots cast in last year’s presidential election, undercutting Trump’s claims of a stolen election.

Today’s essential California politics

— As injured patients and consumer rights groups fight for tougher penalties on grossly negligent doctors, California’s powerful physicians’ lobby is working hard behind the scenes to water down any proposed reforms.

— California lawmakers on Thursday approved the first state-funded guaranteed income plan in the U.S., committing $35 million for monthly cash payments to qualifying expectant mothers and young adults.

— California will spend a record amount on homelessness. Here’s where it’s going.

— In a survey conducted by The Times, 12 members of the California Legislature refused to disclose their COVID-19 vaccination status. Eleven of the lawmakers are Republicans, comprising almost 40% of all GOP members.

— Rep. Katie Porter raised nearly $4.9 million in the first six months of this year, giving her $12.9 million in cash on hand, a war chest that could potentially help fund a Senate run.

— California’s citizen redistricting commission will ask the state’s Supreme Court to give the panel two extra weeks to draw political maps this fall and winter, saying that a delay from the federal government in providing new census data will otherwise limit public participation in the once-a-decade process.

Stay in touch

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