Essential Politics: The recall isn’t just about California. It’s a preview of where 2022 might be heading

Photos of Larry Elder and Governor Gavin Newsom
The shadow of former President Trump and far-right groups hangs over California’s recall election. Above, challenger Larry Elder, left, and Gov. Gavin Newsom.
(Irfan Khan; Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

In less than a week, the final ballots will be cast in the recall election to unseat California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The results of the Republican-led effort — which culminates on Tuesday — has implications that reach across the country and into the 2022 midterm election.

For months, Times staffers have closely covered the recall election, and their reporting reveals four themes that explain how we got here and what might be coming next year.

The leading GOP candidate seems familiar

The recall’s leading Republican candidate is popular in conservative media and hosts his own radio show. He has eschewed the establishment and is relying on a grass-roots support system. He’s made dismissive comments about women, may not have properly disclosed his finances and fueled skepticism about climate change and vaccines.

Larry Elder certainly seems to be utilizing the Donald Trump playbook. The result is a broad coalition of support that includes new converts, evangelicals and former Trump supporters, Marisa Gerber writes. He’s not the only candidate doing so: California has a slew of pro-Trump recall candidates, Julia Wick reports. Across the country, Republican hopefuls are angling for Trump’s support base and seeking endorsements from Trump himself.

As for how Elder feels about Trump? In 2019, he called Trump’s election “divine intervention,” but has since scaled back his praise, trying to appeal to both Trump supporters and more moderate Republicans, James Rainey writes.


There could be danger in being seen as too moderate. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the most experienced Republican heading into the election, has an establishment past and what he admits are “vanilla” views, and he is struggling to break out of the pack, writes Laura J. Nelson.

The recall is being fueled, in part, by Trump’s lies

The epicenter of recall mania is Amador County in the Sierra foothills. About 1 in 5 registered voters signed recall petitions — the highest concentration in California.

The Times’ Hailey Branson-Potts spoke to voters there, reporting that conservatives deeply believe Trump’s falsehood-filled campaign that he won the 2020 election. By and large, she writes, these voters refuse to cast their ballots by mail, believing Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations that mail-in voting leads to rampant voter fraud. If Newsom prevails, many said they won’t believe the results.

Far-right groups and internet rhetoric played a role

In January, a Times investigation by Anita Chabria and Paige St. John found that recall campaign leaders sought to capitalize on Republican disappointment and allied with radical and extreme elements to help collect signatures. Some early recall backers were linked to QAnon, the Proud Boys, far-right militias and other extremist groups that share support for Trump, online organizing tactics and distrust of elections.

The recall effort soon picked up support from dissatisfied Republicans unaware that it was being driven by extremists, with organizers insisting the far-right groups don’t represent the values of the recall movement.

But inflammatory rhetoric has continued to show up, especially in social media campaign ads. As Maura Dolan wrote last week, internet advertising has pushed falsehoods and capitalized on emotions in less extreme ways, heightening recall tensions.


The recall has national implications

As my colleague Evan Halper writes, California has served for decades as an incubator for ideas that go on to influence the rest of the country, from climate change to housing. Experience in California politics can also propel elected leaders onto the national stage — think Vice President Kamala Harris and former President Reagan.

As Melanie Mason wrote last week, surviving a recall could offer Newsom a spotlight, as it did former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — who parlayed his survival into a presidential run. And, if you’ve been closely following our coverage, you know that many of the issues and talking points that colored 2020 have crept into the recall race — and they may very well shape the midterm elections next year.

It’s no wonder then that national Democratic figures are voicing support for Newsom ahead of next week’s election day.

As Noah Bierman wrote in this newsletter last week, Democrats are desperately working to maintain their slim leads in the House and Senate through the midterms. Maintaining the California governor’s seat is part of that strategy: the governor will have the power to fill the seat of Sen. Dianne Feinstein if she retires or falls ill.

So far, polls show a growing majority of Californians oppose recalling Newsom, and the state is heavily Democratic, giving the governor an edge. Early returns on mail ballots show more than twice as many Democrats have voted than Republicans and that liberal areas have the highest rates of return, Mason and Seema Mehta report.

But Democrats fear a low-turnout election could bolster Republican chances of taking control of the state. They are so nervous that Vice President Kamala Harris is campaigning with Newsom in the San Francisco Bay Area on Wednesday. Next week, President Biden is expected travel to California to stump for Newsom.

composite of photos of larry elder and gavin newsom
The shadow of former President Trump and far-right groups hangs over California’s recall election. Above, challenger Larry Elder, left, and Gov. Gavin Newsom.
(Irfan Khan; Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

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More on the recall election

— On Google and YouTube, Newsom and Elder are aiming for two different Californias, write Rahul Mukherjee and Vanessa Martínez.

— Vaccines, unemployment, housing, drought: Here’s where the top recall candidates stand on the issues.

— From Mehta and Mason: As the recall charges into its final days, Democrats’ midsummer panic has given way to cautious confidence that Newsom’s outlook has brightened, aided by healthy turnout so far, a towering advantage in money and the emergence of an ideal foil: Elder.

— The national cavalry has come to help Newsom. But the anti-recall effort is mostly a California fight, writes columnist Mark Z. Barabak.

— As candidates crisscross California, faith communities have become a central place for proselytizing to potential voters, Faith E. Pinho writes. The role of religion on the campaign trail has been amplified in recent weeks by lingering anger over California’s COVID-19 restrictions.

— A shaman, a rapper and a surgeon: Julia Wick has a rundown of the lesser-known names on your recall ballot.

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The view from Washington

— When Joe Biden was running for president, he promised to close a squalid border camp in Mexico where thousands of migrants had been left to await the outcome of their immigration cases by the Trump administration. He followed through — and a worse one emerged under his watch, reports Molly Hennessy-Fiske.

— From Tracy Wilkinson: As the Taliban prepares to announce a government in Afghanistan, the Biden administration is being forced to abruptly recalibrate its approach to a group long viewed in the U.S. as terrorists.

— Also from Wilkinson: Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Tuesday that charter flights carrying U.S. citizens and Afghans to safety from northern Afghanistan were being held up by concerns over security and knowing who’s on board, not because of Taliban extortion.

— The board of directors of Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ rights organization, has fired its president, saying he assisted former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration in responding to sexual harassment allegations that led to the governor’s resignation.

The view from California

— From Evan Halper: California is leading the world in confronting climate change. Yet the opaque carbon trading scheme that is a linchpin of the state’s climate efforts — California is leaning on it to meet as much as half of its greenhouse gas reductions — is under serious strain at home even as it is getting copied far beyond California.

— California is preparing for a first-in-the-nation experiment to move California’s health insurance program for low-income and disabled people beyond traditional doctor visits and hospital stays into the realm of social services. Over the next five years, the state will plow nearly $6 billion in state and federal money into the plan.

— Ten months after California voters rejected a state law eliminating cash bail for many offenses, Patrick McGreevy reports on a new fight brewing in the Legislature over an alternative plan that would slash the amount arrestees must pay to get out of jail.

— Also from McGreevy: California law enforcement officers could be stripped of their license to carry a badge if they engage in serious misconduct, including excessive force, racial bias and dishonesty, under legislation approved Friday by the state Assembly.

Sign up early for our California Politics newsletter, coming in August, to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting, including full coverage of the recall election and the latest action in Sacramento.

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