California Governor Gavin Newsom faces a political test as new stay-at-home orders are issued, a test that could cost him his position in 2022.
(CN) — In a grocery store parking lot in Capitola, California, Steve Krill — a new resident of the Santa Cruz County town — loaded his purchases into his vehicle. He also had some choice words for Governor Gavin Newsom.
“I don’t think he has the people’s interest at heart,” Krill, who declined to give his real last name so as not to offend his new neighbors, said. “He’s out for himself only while he manages a controlled collapse of the economy.”
He expressed particular frustration about the latest round of stay-at-home orders — which have not yet been implemented in Santa Cruz County — and the closure of outdoor spaces from al fresco dining to children’s playgrounds (the state quietly changed its provision playgrounds Wednesday).
He’s not alone.
People up and down the state have complained the new orders punish businesses and families, while those who are and are not exempt appears largely arbitrary.
Angela Marsden, the owner of the Pineapple Hill Saloon & Grill in the Los Angeles County city of Sherman Oaks posted a viral video showing her closed-up outdoor dining area next to an expansive outdoor dining area for an active film shoot.
“How can you tell me that this is dangerous, but right next to me … that’s safe?” Marsden said in the Facebook video. “Mayor Garcetti and Gavin Newsom is responsible for every single person that doesn’t have unemployment, that doesn’t have a job, and all the businesses that are going under.”
Small businesses aren’t the only ones feeling the pain and lashing out.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who tussled with Alameda County public health officials this past May regarding the reopening of his auto manufacturing plant, threatened to leave California. He made good on the threat this week, officially announcing he had moved to Texas.
He had a parting shot for California and its officials.
“If a team is winning for too long, they tend to get complacent,” Musk said. “California has been winning for a long time, and I think they’re taking it for granted.”
Political experts believe the coronavirus crisis has left Newsom vulnerable, halfway through his first term as governor.
“Many people aren’t happy about the extent of the shutdown orders and that is an ongoing vulnerability for Newsom,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.
Pitney said Newsom was fortunate he did not face a well-financed and widely known gubernatorial candidate in 2018, even as he benefitted from California voters’ deep dislike of President Donald Trump and a Republican Party that facilitated his rise.
But those factors could change in 2022, Pitney said, as outgoing San Diego Mayor Kevin Falconer, a moderate Republican, has indicated he is ready and willing to run against Newsom. Pitney said many in the GOP think Falconer’s candidacy could be viable.
Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, agreed.
“When you are running for governor or Senate there is always an opportunity to break through the national noise,” Kousser said. “In California, a Republican governor could always be viable.”
It’s happened before.
The last time California gave its electoral votes to a Republican president was 1988, when George H.W. Bush earned the votes of its then-47 electors (the state now has 54).
But California has elected a Republican governor four times since then, including Pete Wilson twice in the 1990 and Arnold Schwarzenegger twice in the 2000s. Critics of Newsom point to the French Laundry scandal, where Newsom was photographed eating dinner at the famed Napa Valley eatery with a collection of members from other households, including prominent lobbyists from California’s medical industry.
“A Republican governor could happen in California if Newsom keeps throwing interceptions like he did at French Laundry,” Pitney said.
Several California officials, most notably some its sheriffs, have lashed out at Newsom and the implementation of the new orders since they were announced last week.
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said his department will not enforce the stay-at-home orders and lashed out at Newsom for hypocrisy and being “dictatorial” in threatening to reallocate state funding away from counties that defy the order.
“Ironically, it wasn’t that long ago that our same governor loudly and publicly argued how wrong it was for the president of the United States to withhold federal funding from states not complying with federal laws,” Bianco said in a Youtube video posted Dec. 4. “The dictatorial attitude toward California residents while dining in luxury, traveling, keeping his business open and sending his kids to in-person private schools is very telling about his attitude toward California residents, his feelings about the virus, and it is extremely hypocritical.”
But others contend talk of Newsom’s political demise is overblown. While he faces a recall effort, it’s the sixth one since he was elected in 2018 and the previous five fizzled. Those leading the current effort have until March 17 to collect approximately 1.4 million signatures, or 12% of the vote for governor in 2018.
Most pundits do not give the effort much chance of succeeding.
Santa Cruz resident Steve Tietz said he believes Newsom will come through the difficult circumstances posed by the pandemic just fine.
“It’s too liberal a state,” he said. “There’s no way he’s in trouble.”
Tietz doesn’t like the outdoor closures, saying the policy doesn’t match the latest science, but he is giving Newsom a pass because of everything he said the governor did well at the beginning of the pandemic.
Garrett Smart said he feels similarly.
“Newsom has done a great job,” he said while putting away his groceries. “He’s made mistakes but let he who hasn’t made any mistakes cast the first stone.”
Smart said the stay-at-home orders wouldn’t be necessary if more citizens did their part by wearing face coverings and following physical distancing recommendations.
“I think we need to work together,” Smart said.
The few polls that have been done so far also bolster the theory Newsom’s support is holding despite some loud critical voices.
In September, when coronavirus was on the wane after spikes in the summer, the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies released a poll on Newsom’s performance that put his approval rating at a record 64%.
“Newsom receives his highest marks from voters for the very high visibility role he has been taking in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic,” said Mark DiCamillo, the director of the Berkeley IGS Poll, at the time.
A poll released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California found 58% of adults polled believe Newsom is doing an effective job of handling the economy. The poll didn’t ask about the pandemic or overall job performance, but the number indicates Newsom’s fundamental support in the state remains strong.
“Majorities of Californians across income groups approve of Governor Newsom’s handling of jobs and the economy,” said Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO, in a Wednesday statement.
Democrats are particularly bullish, with 85% of those polled approving of Newsom. Republicans are less impressed, with only 14% expressing support. A slender majority of independents (54%) expressed approval — indicating Newsom continues to successfully navigate treacherous political terrain.
But if the independents flee or support from the Democrats dwindles, the political troubles Newsom has faced over the past few weeks could be a preview rather than an aberration.