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Newsom, GOP make final push in California recall election

Polls and pundits predict California Governor Gavin Newsom will survive the recall. But they agree Republicans have mounted a legitimate challenge to the Democrats' stranglehold over state politics.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California Governor Gavin Newsom’s political fate is officially in the hands of over 22 million California voters who have the rare opportunity to recall a sitting governor. 

Despite claiming more votes than any previous Democrat during his landslide 2018 victory, the first-term governor and the state’s majority party are being forced to win a statewide election for the second time in under three years. Republicans hope the grassroots effort that started in rural California and caught fire toward the end of 2020 can make the party relevant in state politics for the first time in more than a decade.

The genuine challenge to the Democrats’ grip over the executive branch kicks off amid yet another pandemic wave, a bitter statewide drought and the return of wildfires to the Golden State.  

“I think it’s a lot closer than it should be for a Democratic governor in a very Democratic state,” said University of Southern California professor Christian Grose. “The idea that Newsom who won so overwhelmingly just three years ago but is facing a serious threat of recall is a pretty big deal.”

Recall rules and ballot

California’s recall rules are an artifact from the early 20th century and the direct democracy system established during the state’s Progressive Era. Then Gov. Hiram Johnson and his supporters took control of the Legislature and enacted a slate of reforms intended to quell the railroad industry’s long held dominance over state politics.

The Progressive’s concept still allows disgruntled constituents to try and remove elected officials if they can gather a total of valid signatures that equals 12% of the total voters in the last election for the office. In this case, Newsom’s critics submitted nearly 1.7 million verified signatures, well clear of the required 1.49 million.  

California voters have recalled just one governor when they removed Democrat Gray Davis in 2003 for Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

The ballots that have now reached the mailboxes of California’s over 22 million registered voters contain just two questions: "Should Newsom be removed from office?” and “If yes, who should take his place?”  If a majority votes no, the recall is defeated.

If a simple majority answers yes to the recall, the candidate receiving the most votes on the second question will finish out Newsom’s term which ends on Jan. 2, 2023 — and the incumbent is not listed on the replacement question. California’s system allows for a scenario in which a replacement candidate can win the election without gaining a majority of the votes.  

Like the 2020 presidential election, each registered voter will receive a mail ballot whether they want one or not. Voters in all counties will also have the option to vote in person. Lawmakers and Newsom approved universal mail ballots last year due to the pandemic for all elections through 2021, but there is pending legislation that would make the change permanent.

The candidates

As the incumbent, Newsom boasts a bag of advantages over the dozens of candidates on the replacement ballot, namely in the fundraising department.

Incumbents aren’t subject to the same campaign contribution rules as the replacement field, so Newsom’s campaign has been able to fundraise as if the recall were a typical ballot proposition. The loophole combined with the governor’s well-established donor network have swelled his coffers to the $70 million mark, smashing the total raised by the next closest Republican challenger Larry Elder who has raised around $13 million.

At campaign stops and in advertisements, Newsom is blasting the recall as a movement led by Donald Trump supporters, conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers.

“What's at stake in the Sept. 14 recall? It's a matter of life and death," a recent Newsom ad warns.


Along with local and state officials, Newsom has enlisted high-profile Democrats like President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to help keep him in office.

“Governor Newsom is leading California through unprecedented crises. He is a key partner in fighting the pandemic and delivering economic relief to working families and helping us build our economy back better than ever,” Biden said last month.

With the state Democratic Party deciding not to run a backup, the main challengers in the replacement pool are all Republican.

Recent polls have pinned Elder, a talk radio host and ardent Trump supporter, as the choicest replacement candidate and the only one consistently garnering double-digit support. Elder has largely shunned the California press corps, even “revoking press access” for the Sacramento Bee, in favor of townhalls throughout the state.

The so-called “Sage of South-Central” refers to Newsom as “arrogant, smug and corrupt” and says he’s the best bet to replace the Democrat in Sacramento.

“Newsom and his cohorts are destroying a state that was once a beacon of hope and prosperity,” Elder claims on his campaign website

Grose, who teaches public policy and political science at USC, isn’t bullish on the recall succeeding but says Elder is more equipped to prevail in a recall as opposed to a general election.

“Elder’s got a chance here because he has distinguished himself,” Grose said.

Polls and electorate

While Newsom and the state’s leading Democrats have acknowledged publicly and in fundraising emails the race is closer than they’d like, the math and polls remain in their favor a week from Election Day.

According to the latest registration update, Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by nearly 2-1. Worse for the recall proponents, the Democrats’ voter registration advantage has grown since the last gubernatorial race. The majority party’s share of the electorate has increased from 44.8% in 2017 to 46.5%, while the Republican Party’s registration has dropped from 25.9% to 24.1%.

Perhaps the most damning bit of recent news for the recall backers was a survey from one of the state’s most reputable polling organizations that found lukewarm support for removing Newsom.  

Released last week, the Public Policy Institute of California poll pegged support for the recall among likely voters at just 39%. Going back to March, the highest level of recall support found by PPIC pollsters is just 40%.

The PPIC poll reveals the luster of the recall may have worn out just in time for Newsom, says Wesley Hussey, associate professor of government at California State University, Sacramento.  

“I think there was this brief moment where everyone, including the Newsom campaign, panicked. But the state’s so blue,” Hussey said.

Other polls have however pinned the race as much closer, including a statewide survey conducted last July. The Berkeley IGS Poll found 47% of most likely voters will vote yes to the recall, with 50% responding no. Support for the recall drops to just 36% however when the question was asked to all registered voters.  

Hussey expects the final tally to closely align with the PPIC poll, barring some sort of major mistake by Newsom in the final days. He says the recall proponents are basically praying for another version of the French Laundry scandal — where Newsom attended a dinner party at the famed Napa-area restaurant with numerous unmasked guests at the height of the pandemic even as other restaurants struggled under capacity restrictions — which helped jumpstart their signature gathering last fall.

“There’s things that are complicated with the fires, the delta variant and school reopenings, but there’s not been a second level French Laundry type mistake to turn momentum,” he added.

The final push

The metrics give no reason to suggest the recall will end up a success next week, but Newsom isn’t taking any chances.

A variety of high-profile Democrats such as Senator Warren of Massachusetts and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar have appeared with Newsom in recent weeks, while President Biden and Vice President Harris are also expected to rally voters.

On the Republican side, Elder spent the holiday weekend holding a rally at a Sacramento-area Christian church and stopping for a photo-op on top of the nation’s tallest dam in Oroville, California.

The state GOP, which declined to formally endorse Elder or any of the Republican candidates, has just one message for voters: Anyone but Newsom.

“We are squarely focused on putting California back on track by recalling the worst governor in California history. Gavin Newsom is arrogant, incompetent and a desperate politician who has failed Californians in every way possible,” the party said in a statement.

California polls officially close at 8 p.m. on Sept. 14 but county-by-county results could come in quicker than previous elections as most are expected to vote by mail. According to Political Data Inc., which provides voter information to campaigns and pollsters, 26% of the 22.2 million ballots mailed across the state have already been returned.

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