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Fighting the recall, Gov. Newsom sets a path Biden may follow

Gov. Gavin Newsom campaigns against the recall at Culver City High School on Saturday.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

For months, President Biden and his aides stepped gingerly when asked about vaccine mandates. They hoped to persuade the hesitant, they said, not further politicize the issue by using the blunt force of federal power.

Thursday, such reticence went out the window as Biden announced executive actions that would effectively put vaccine or testing mandates in place for about two-thirds of American workers — federal employees and contractors, staff at healthcare facilities plus all those working for private-sector companies that employ more than 100 people.

“Many of us are frustrated with the nearly 80 million Americans who are still not vaccinated,” Biden declared.

A lot led to that shift: The spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus frightened many Americans, slowing the economy and driving down Biden’s standing; the political nature of vaccine resistance meant refusal to take the shots was becoming increasingly a Republican position; and the uptick in vaccination rates in the past month has left the unvaccinated as a smaller minority.

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Then there’s the California recall.

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven the recall campaign from its inception. Lockdowns and school closures enraged conservative voters. In November, Gov. Gavin Newsom‘s much-discussed dinner at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, flouting his own COVID-19 restrictions, provided the spark that lit the flame.

But in the campaign’s closing weeks, the politics of the pandemic have turned Newsom’s way. He has pounded away at his opponents, warning that the recall could saddle California with an “anti-vax Republican governor.”

Judging by a raft of new polls — plus preemptive mutterings from former President Trump and other recall supporters about a rigged election — Newsom’s strategy of centering his campaign around vaccine requirements is working. And it has provided a lesson for Democrats, including Biden, who is scheduled to campaign with the governor on Monday.

Scared voters may reward action

Much like Biden, Newsom started out this year stressing a positive message. The state was bouncing back from a difficult winter of pandemic deaths, he said, his budget would provide payments to millions of households, and under his policies, California had a rosy future.

But as the Delta variant spread, that optimism clashed with an increasingly grumpy mood among voters.

Just over six weeks ago, a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll conducted for the Los Angeles Times showed the governor at serious risk of losing the recall. The problem, the poll found, was widespread Democratic apathy toward the election.

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Berkeley’s final pre-election poll, released Friday, finds Newsom winning among likely voters 60% to 39%.

California voters didn’t suddenly fall in love with the governor. The poll found, for example, that well over half of likely voters — including nearly one-third of those voting against the recall — think Newsom is a hypocrite.

Newsom’s actions “demonstrated that the strict policies and behaviors that he wants others to follow during the pandemic don’t apply to him,” voters agreed.

But they appear willing to overlook that for larger concerns.

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Nearly two-thirds said that “if a conservative Republican were to become governor as a result of the recall election, it would threaten many of the state’s well-established policies on issues like climate change, immigration, healthcare and abortion.”

Even more striking, given the role the pandemic played in getting the recall started, almost half of likely voters said the state’s response to the coronavirus have been “about right” and another 18% said the state was doing “too little.”

Only about one-third of likely voters said that under Newsom the state was going too far in its efforts to combat the pandemic. That one-third essentially comprises the people voting for the recall, with relatively few others joining them.

Over the past 18 months, in California and nationally, conservative protests against lockdowns and vaccine mandates have generated a lot of headlines and attention. What they haven’t done is generate majorities.

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Libertarians will decry the loss of freedom, but when public health is threatened by a contagious illness, people willingly accept expanded government to keep themselves and their children healthy. That was true a century ago when Massachusetts, like roughly a dozen other states, passed a law requiring all residents to be vaccinated against smallpox — a step upheld by the Supreme Court — and it remains true now.

Last month, as White House officials began debating whether to toughen vaccine requirements, Unite the Country, the big pro-Biden super PAC, polled voters in Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — the five states that flipped from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020. The poll asked voters whether big companies should require workers to get vaccinated or wear masks and be frequently tested, essentially the policy that under Biden’s new plan the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will now require.

Large majorities in all five states, ranging from 61% to 68%, favored the plan, according to the PAC’s director, Steve Schale. In Arizona and Wisconsin — both states in which Republican lawmakers have actively campaigned against mandates — nearly half of voters said they would “strongly favor” such a requirement, the group found.

Newsom has provided campaign-tested evidence to back up such polling.

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Newsom has had two big advantages in his effort. One of them — California’s strong Democratic tilt — isn’t replicable nationwide. The other big plus, however, has been the GOP’s willingness to supply him a foil.

In Newsom’s case, that would be Larry Elder, the radio talk show host who has emerged as the Republican recall front-runner. The more Elder talks about repealing vaccine and masking requirements “before my first cup of tea,” as he said at a recent rally in Fresno, the more Newsom has prospered.

Unlike Newsom, Biden doesn’t have to face voters for more than three years, assuming he runs again at the age of 81. But his party does face a challenging midterm election, and the Newsom playbook of portraying Republicans as a threat to public health is one that Democrats are likely to continue to deploy, whether against Trump, if he becomes actively engaged in the midterm races, or against candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“There are elected officials actively working to undermine the fight against COVID-19. Instead of encouraging people to get vaccinated and mask up, they’re ordering morgues for the unvaccinated dying from COVID in their communities. This is totally unacceptable,” Biden said Thursday.

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History continues to favor Republican victories next year. The party in the White House almost always loses seats at midterm.

But in recent years, Republicans have often punted away elections they should have won by nominating candidates who were out of step with the electorate. On vaccines and mask mandates, that’s the history Biden and his party hope will repeat itself.

If it does, Gavin Newsom may have pointed the way.

Recall campaign’s final days

As I mentioned, the final UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll, conducted for The Times, is out. Phil Willon has all the details.

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Even before the poll, Democrats were increasingly optimistic, while Republicans have been divided over Elder, their front-runner, Melanie Mason and Seema Mehta reported.

As Robin Estrin and Sarah Parvini reported, both major parties have ballot collection campaigns for the recall, but they don’t like to talk about it. Ballot collection, also known as ballot harvesting, is legal under California law, although illegal in some other states. It involves having party operatives or their allies from outside groups collect ballots from voters and deliver them to polling places. Supporters say such efforts make voting easier, but each side has accused the other of skirting the rules in ways that could allow fraud.

As national Democrats pitch in to help Newsom — and position themselves to claim some credit for an increasingly likely victory — Vice President Kamala Harris campaigned with the governor Wednesday in the East Bay city of San Leandro. As Taryn Luna reported, Harris joined a parade of Democrats coming to campaign for Newsom that has included Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Former President Obama has also done an ad for Newsom.

As Noah Bierman wrote, Harris and Newsom, both of whom rose through the Democratic ranks in the Bay Area, haven’t always been allies, but they need each other now.

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George Skelton took aim at the early signs of Republicans claiming that a Newsom victory would be tainted by election fraud. It’s a fake issue, he wrote: “There have been many investigations of alleged voter fraud in recent years. They’ve turned up dry holes.”

Times staff writers also compiled a look at how a Republican victory might change California policies on key issues.

Despite Newsom’s support for existing vaccine and masking requirements, efforts in the Legislature to impose broader mandates on businesses fell apart in the session’s final days, Melody Gutierrez reported. Supporters said their late-starting effort ran out of time to negotiate an agreement.

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20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks

As the country looks back at the deadliest terror incident in U.S. history, Mason and Janet Hook talked with a range of political leaders about how the attack affected their lives and careers. Pete Buttigieg, now the secretary of Transportation, was in his Harvard dorm room when the attack happened. Joni Ernst, now a U.S. senator, was planning her toddler’s birthday party in their new home in Red Oak, Iowa. Asa Hutchinson, the governor of Arkansas who was then head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, was scheduled to board a commercial flight to Washington, D.C. — and ended up on a military jet instead.

The attacks put Rep. Adam B. Schiff, then in his first term as a congressman from Burbank, on the path that, two decades later, has made him one of the most visible Democrats in Congress. Hilda Solis, also a member of Congress at the time and now an L.A. County Supervisor, recalled the brief moment of national unity that came in the aftermath of the attacks.

Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said the attacks launched him into a career in public service. Rep. Val Demmings of Florida watched the events as a police officer in Orlando, Fla., her hometown. And Keith Ellison, now the attorney general of Minnesota, talked of how in the aftermath of the attacks, political opponents tried to use his Muslim faith against him.

The Sept. 11 attacks were also one factor that contributed to a decades-long logjam on immigration reform, Meena Venkataramanan wrote.

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The latest from Washington

The Justice Department has sued Texas over its anti-abortion law as the Biden administration steps up its efforts on abortion rights.

A key legal issue in the case is that the Texas law allows private citizens, rather than government officials, to enforce the law’s ban on abortions after about the sixth week of a pregnancy. The law’s sponsors hope the unusual enforcement scheme will shield it from court challenges, and earlier this month the Supreme Court turned aside an early effort by abortion rights advocates to block the law.

But as David Savage and Del Wilber reported, the federal suit contends that private parties seeking to enforce the law should be considered agents of the state. In making that argument, the Justice Department is relying on a 1948 Supreme Court ruling that invalidated deed covenants barring the sale of private homes to Black buyers. The high court in that case said that private parties who used such covenants were “state actors” enforcing an unconstitutional policy.

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House Democrats also have a bill prepared that would aim to protect abortion rights nationwide. As Jennifer Haberkorn reports, supporters say they have just enough votes to pass the House, but there’s no chance currently to get it through the Senate.

Former Sen. Barbara Boxer has retired, but she’s hardly retiring. In an interview with Mark Barabak, the California Democrat delivered tart opinions on Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, her former colleague Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Texas abortion law and a host of other topics.

If the polls are correct, we’ll likely know the result of the recall late Tuesday night. In either case, I’ll be back on Wednesday with a post-election analysis edition of the Essential Politics newsletter.

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