Mudslinging Intensifies in Newsom Recall

With the recall of California Governor Gavin Newsom expected to land on the ballot soon, Democrats are casting the backers as sour Trump voters and QAnon supporters, while the GOP contends Newsom brought the heat on himself.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Expecting the state to certify the recall petition of California Governor Gavin Newsom any day now, the parties fighting to end and extend the Democrat’s political future are fine-tuning their arguments. Though the presumed special election won’t take place until the fall, California voters are no doubt in for months of frenzied political hyperventilation.   

An official date has yet to be set but one thing is certain: both campaigns appear to be embracing the no-holds-barred approach of former President Donald Trump as the California recall explodes on the national scene.   

“A campaign being fueled by bigots, racists, haters, Proud Boys, QAnon conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers,” said Ace Smith, one of Newsom’s chief political strategists.

“This isn’t just about Covid; it’s going to be about rolling blackouts, mismanaging the power grid, wildfires, joblessness, homelessness and all the things that started this in the first place,” countered Anne Dunsmore, campaign manager for a group pushing the recall.

Smith and Dunsmore previewed their sides’ developing campaign strategies during a Sacramento Press Club political panel streamed live to Facebook on Wednesday.

Unlike the previous five attempts to recall Newsom — who is barely halfway into his first term — the latest is on the verge of qualifying for the statewide ballot and has begun garnering attention from both the national media and the two major parties.

After a court ruling gave them additional time to collect signatures due to the pandemic, recall sponsors submitted over two million signatures last month. The haul is well clear of the minimum amount needed and while county voting officials are in the final stages of weeding out invalid signatures, all indications point to the recall qualifying for the ballot. Elections officials have until late April to finish and if the final tally clears 1.5 million, an election will come 60-80 days after.

Recall attempts are far from uncommon, but successful ones at the state level are incredibly rare.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, just three governors have ever faced a recall election. Former Wisconsin Scott Walker staved off a recall most recently in 2012 while California voters swapped Democratic Governor Gray Davis for Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003.

If there is an election this fall, voters will be asked whether they want to remove Newsom and to choose his replacement from a list of eligible candidates. If a majority votes in favor of the recall, Newsom won’t be in the pool of candidates included in the second question. In addition, Newsom and the recall campaign will have unfettered ability to collect campaign donations as the special election would be treated like a ballot measure.

During Wednesday’s tetchy virtual debate, the speakers compared the political environment of the historic 2003 recall to the current tussle over Newsom’s job.

Democratic strategist Katie Merrill argued the state’s electorate has shifted enormously over the last two decades, noting the Democrats’ registration advantage is 10 percentage points higher than it was in 2003. In addition to a shrinking number of registered voters, she contends the California GOP’s once formidable moderate base evaporated under former President Donald Trump.

Merrill accused Dunsmore and the Republican backers of shielding the true inspiration for the recall and the language included on the official petition peddled to millions across the state.   

“All the stuff Ann mentioned as the reasons for the recall are actually not in the petition; what’s in the petition are super right-wing, extremist, Republican positions,” Merrill said.

California Democrats outnumber Republicans by a nearly 2-1 advantage, but Dunsmore says the recall campaign is confident it can pull votes from other places, like the state’s massive Latino base or a pool of over 5 million independent voters. Dunsmore predicted the GOP will overcome the registration disadvantage by capitalizing on momentum gained during the 2020 election, where the party flipped four House seats statewide.

“We started from a worse place at the same time of the campaign back then than we are now,” said Dunsmore, who helped craft the 2003 recall. “We’re actually ahead of the game.”

Throughout the hour-long event, Dunsmore criticized Newsom and his campaign for trying to link the recall to Trump supporters and fringe extremist groups. She said the recall’s success so far can be attributed to Newsom’s political mishaps, such as being caught on camera without a mask at a ritzy Napa dinner party or the struggle to reopen California schools.

“Your guy is the guy that keeps on giving, he’s not trustable,” Dunsmore said.

In spite of Dunsmore’s prognostications, recent polls suggest the recall group is still facing an uphill battle when it comes to the final step of convincing voters to dump Newsom.

Along with a 53% approval rating, only 40% of likely voters in a recent Public Policy Institute of California survey said they would remove Newsom if the recall was held today. The poll also found support for the recall in the heavily populated Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Area regions was minimal.   

Offering the lone moderate voice on the panel, Marty Wilson of the California Chamber of Commerce said much like in 2003, California businesses likely will be hesitant to embrace the recall effort and instead play a background role.  

“I think the business community is probably skeptical and trying to understand the sort of dynamic that’s going on,” said Wilson who worked on Schwarzenegger’s successful 2003 bid. “That’s the nature of businesspeople, they don’t particularly like politics.”

The pending recall has quickly snatched the attention of the country’s leading Democrats and Republicans.

The Biden administration on multiple occasions has publicly backed Newsom, while a collage of U.S. senators from Bernie Sanders to Cory Booker have committed to upending what they consider a “partisan GOP recall.” Meanwhile, former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee have endorsed the recall.

Smith, the Newsom strategist, agrees the recall is transcending California politics.  

“This will be a national debate about which is the direction California should go in,” Smith said. “Is it a direction where we are actually caring about our people, or the direction where we go toward the division and the hate we saw in the Trump years.”

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