The California Callback

Nate Anderson

Governor Gavin Newsom of California will be facing a recall attempt on September 14, only the second recall in the state’s history and the fourth in the country’s history. For those unaware, recall election is where the voters have the opportunity to cut the incumbent’s term short, and such an election is called when 12% of the number of people who voted in the last governor election sign a petition to recall the governor. These petitions have existed for every governor in the state’s history since 1960.

Governor Newsom was not facing any particular threat from a recall petition for the first two years of his term, but that all changed with the Coronavirus. California was one of the states hit hardest by the pandemic due to high populations being packed in tightly-knit urban areas, leading to a strict lockdown. A stay-at-home order was put into place for nearly a year starting in March 2020 and ended in January 2021. Newsom also pushed for a statewide mask mandate in June of 2020, requiring citizens to wear masks in a vast majority of indoor public areas.

In November of 2020, Newsom attended a private party with his wife at The French Laundry with friends and lobbyists, specifically the ones that wanted him to put into place these strict COVID rules, but the party was indoors and no one was wearing masks. Once pictures were released Newsom stated that it was an outdoor gathering, but pictures soon emerged of himself indoors, with no restrictions at all. He apologized for lying about it.

Before the “French Laundry Party”, the petition had less than 60,000 signatures, but one month later it jumped up to half a million. By the March deadline, the petition had over two million signatures, well more than the 12% needed, still having enough when the court only could verify 1.7 million. This officially initiated the recall, and the Lt. Governor scheduled the election on September 14, 2021.

Republicans are obviously facing an uphill battle, California is the third most liberal state in the country behind Hawaii and Vermont, and Trump only got 34% of the vote in 2020 compared to Biden’s 63% (although a Californian was his VP). But they do have some things going for them, since President Biden took office Republicans have been gaining in the 2021 special elections. In a Connecticut State Senate district a couple weeks ago, Biden won that district by 20% in 2020, but the Republican candidate won the seat in 2021. Biden’s approval rating has also been tanking since the Afghanistan pullout, only 45% of likely or registered voters approve of his job, 50% disapprove. Association with the President or national Democrats will not be aiding Newsom much here. Not even Vice President Kamala Harris, a Californian, may help them much with an approval rating down at 42%.

So, how likely is the recall to succeed? Polls initially had Newsom winning by about 57-43, but the polls tightened in the summer to 52-48, within the margin of error. But in mid-August, Newsom began to bounce back and is now hovering around 54%. This was surprising due to the President’s rapidly declining poll numbers, and many assumed Democratic governors in the 2021 elections would falter due to the unpopular Afghanistan pullout. The national Democratic Party was very reluctant to help Newsom earlier in the campaign, gambling on the state’s loyalty to the party. But as the race tightened and the Newsom campaign revealed an internal poll that had them ahead by just two points, the party decided to spend resources in the state.

Out of the over 45 candidates running against Newsom, there are only two serious competitors. The first is Republican Larry Elder, a Black talk radio host who many see as the face of the recall effort. He previously stated that he never wanted to run for office, but was so furious at Newsom for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that he decided to run for Governor. The second major contender is Democrat Kevin Paffrath, who is fairly interesting due to how conservative he is for a Democrat. He’s pro-gun, anti-lockdown, pro-police funding, many opinions that are void in the mainstream Democratic Party. So whoever of the two wins, California will have a more conservative Governor if the recall passes.

Since California has supermajorities in both of the chambers of the state legislature, some question what Elder or Paffrath could even do if he gets into office. When asked what he will be able to do as Governor without the legislature blocking him, Elder responded, “[I] have the ability to declare a statewide emergency which I intend to do regarding water, regarding housing, I have the ability to have a line veto and as you know the commissioners in California are very very powerful… like the Costal Commission like the Public Utilities Commission, I’m going to appoint people that are far more sensible. I have the power to declare a legislative special session, so if you deal with just one issue at a time and of course I have the billy pulpit. So you add all those things up you can really reverse some bad things here in California.” They can definitely make major changes in the state that don’t involve the legislature, even if they only have about a year.

No matter if the Republicans win the race or not, you could argue that this could be a victory for Republicans either way. If they win the recall that gives the party a chance to improve their image in the country’s biggest state, and if Elder does a good job as Governor it could make California more competitive for future elections, it would also demoralizing the Democrats ahead of 2022. If they don’t win, the national Republican Party has spent a tenth of the money that the Democrats have spent, which is at least $36 million. That is $36 million that could’ve been spent in next years’ Senate elections in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire, et cetera, but they were instead forced to spend it on an election in California.

As of September 13th, one day out from the recall, 33% of voters have turned in their ballots. 39% of Democrats returned, 27% of Independents returned, and 36% Republicans returned. This totals up to the Democrats having 52% of the vote, Independents at 23%, and Republicans having 25%. The Democrats voting early is not unusual, in 2020 over 60% of Democrats stated they planned to vote early while less than 30% of Republicans did, preferring to vote on election day. If that tradition is kept expect to see a spike in Republican votes on September 14th. It is also important to not assume every Democrat will vote against the recall. The recall campaign said that a third of petition signers were independents and Democrats, which sets this up to be incredibly close.

“It just seems like a tossup,” band student Gigi Turpin said. “The polling data says that Newsom should win but bigger political upsets have happened. Let’s not forget Trump won Wisconsin and Michigan in 2016 when polls had him down by eight. If Republicans turn out big on the 14th, they could snatch the country’s most influential state.”

The recall will be the first major barometer for how 2022 will go, winning California has been a dream for Republicans since Schwarzenegger left office 10 years ago and now they have their chance. If the Republicans flip California red, flipping Texas blue needs to be bottom of the Democrats’ priority list.