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Recall attempt fails, Newsom will stay in office

Polls taken in early summer indicated a tighter race, but in the end it likely came down to one thing: there just aren't enough Republicans in California anymore.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Governor Gavin Newsom has survived the second gubernatorial recall election in California history, sinking Republicans’ hopes of gaining control over the nation’s most populous and most liberal state in quick fashion.

The Democratic Party — which holds every statewide office and supermajorities in both legislative chambers — averted disaster as the underdog effort to replace Newsom ultimately stalled, with Democratic voters turning out in en masse to protect their first-term governor.

Minutes after the polls closed Tuesday, Decision Desk HQ called the race for Newsom, who was ahead 68% to 32% with 16% of precincts partially reporting and over 8.3 million votes counted. That margin is greater than Newsom's landslide victory in 2018. The early results align with most pundits’ predictions that Newsom would get off to a quick start due to the tendency of California Democrats to vote by mail, whereas Republicans typically vote in-person.

Newsom wasted little time in declaring victory, issuing a short victory speech less than an hour after polls closed.

"We said yes to science, we said yes to vaccines, we said yes to ending this pandemic and we said yes to people's right to vote without fear of fake fraud or voter suppression," Newsom said in downtown Sacramento. "Tonight I'm humbled, grateful but resolved in the spirit of my political hero Robert Kennedy to make more gentle the life of this world."

And with reports of long wait times late Tuesday at polling centers across the state, the pending batches of in-person votes are expected to trend Republican but not enough to significantly bite into Newsom's commanding lead. As of 10p.m. local time, the recall was behind 33-37% with over 8 million votes counted.

Newsom, who outgained his Republican opponent in 2018 by more than 3 million votes, had from the outset called the recall effort an attempt by the Republican Party to steal the highest office in the state.

The recall movement hatched in the rural part of the state was quickly adopted by the California Republican Party, which saw the recall as a prime opportunity to resurface and claim a statewide office in the deep-blue state for the first time since 2006.

But it wasn't an easy road for Newsom's critics. After failing nearly half a dozen times, they finally broke through in the winter of 2020. Aided by a friendly ruling from a state judge that allowed for an extended canvassing period, the recall proponents submitted nearly 1.7 million verified voter signatures and easily cleared the bar needed to trigger a statewide recall election.

Though the GOP declined to endorse one of the many Republicans running in the replacement pool, it fundraised and ran campaign ads encouraging support for the recall. The GOP and recall proponents tried to capitalize by tapping into the populist anger surrounding California’s myriad pandemic restrictions and accused Newsom of acting like a dictator throughout the pandemic. 

“Newsom’s lack of leadership has been the last straw. People are mad and willing to take extraordinary action to try and save a state that they love,” California GOP chair Jessica Millan Patterson predicted in an op-ed.

Support for the recall peaked this past July, after a Berkeley IGS Poll found 47% of most likely voters would support the recall. But in the subsequent months the recall backers were unable to significantly expand their right-wing base and convince California Democrats to break party lines. The final snapshots taken in the days before the election uniformly predicted the recall would fail.

To cover their bases, the Newsom campaign brought in a slate of national Democrats in the final days to spur turnout. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris stumped for Newsom in California as well as U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar.

The last-minute campaigning appears to have helped Newsom’s cause.

Recall backers for months have been hammering Newsom’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, calling his myriad executive orders and subsequent business lockdowns heavyhanded and totalitarian.

But new exit polls show the governor’s handling of the pandemic may have saved his job. 

Exit polling from CBS News found the coronavirus pandemic (31%) was the most important issue for recall voters, followed by homelessness (22%), the economy (16%), wildfires (14%) and crime (8%). In addition, over two-thirds of those who voted no on the recall told CBS Newsom’s Covid-19 policies were “about right," while 69% of those voting yes called the policies “too strict.” 

A separate exit poll from FiveThirtyEight found similarly good news for Newsom, with more than two-thirds responding the state’s pandemic situation is improving or staying the same. 

As for the second question, which has been made moot by Newsom's victory, with 51% of precincts partially reporting Elder leads the replacement candidate pool with 43% of the vote, followed by Democrat Kevin Paffrath (11%) and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer (9%). Other notable replacement candidates include Olympian Caitlyn Jenner (1%), 2018 gubernatorial candidate John Cox (5%) and Republican Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (3%).

University of Southern California professor Christian Grose says Elder, a Trump supporter known for his ultra-conservative political stances who rose to the top of the replacement field in recent months, was the "best gift for Newsom."

"Elder's rise allowed Newsom to turn the race into a 'vote no or get Elder as governor,' which certainly helped get Democrats to vote," Grose said Tuesday night.

Though Elder is on pace to secure more votes than any other replacement candidate, Grose downplayed the significance. Grose, who teaches public policy and political science at USC, noted that millions who voted on the recall simply left the second question blank as Newsom and the state Democratic Party advised.

Looking ahead to the 2022 gubernatorial election, Grose said the GOP should consider backing a more moderate candidate than the hard-right Elder.

During his brief victory speech in which he didn't take questions from reporters, Newsom hinted former President Donald Trump will factor again into the next race for California's top seat.

"We may have defeated Trump but Trumpism is not dead in this country," Newsom said. "It's a remarkable moment in our nation's history."

Follow Nick Cahill on Twitter

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