California Gov. Gavin Newsom meets with people at a union hall in San Francisco on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. California voters will decide whether to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday, concluding an idiosyncratic election that has been held in the middle of a pandemic and closely watched as one of the first big indicators of the country’s political direction since President Biden took office. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A Republican-led bid to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom of California ended in defeat late Tuesday, as Democrats in the nation’s most populous state closed ranks against a small grassroots movement that accelerated with the spread of COVID-19.

Voters affirmed their support for Newsom, whose lead grew insurmountable as the count continued in Los Angeles County and other large Democratic strongholds after the polls had closed. Larry Elder, a conservative talk radio host, led 46 challengers hoping to become the next governor.

The vote also spoke to the power liberal voters wield in California: No Republican has held statewide office in more than a decade.

But it also reflected the state’s recent progress against the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 67,000 lives in California. The state has one of the nation’s highest vaccination rates and one of its lowest rates of new virus cases — which the governor tirelessly argued to voters were the results of his vaccine and mask requirements.

Although Newsom’s critics had started the recall because they opposed his stances on the death penalty and immigration, it was the politicization of the pandemic that propelled it onto the ballot as Californians became impatient with shutdowns of businesses and classrooms. In polls, Californians said no issue was more pressing than the virus.

“As a health care worker, it was important to me to have a governor who follows science,” said Marc Martino, 26, who was dressed in blue scrubs as he dropped off his ballot in Irvine.

The Associated Press called the race for Newsom, who had won in a 62% landslide in 2018, less than an hour after the polls closed Tuesday. About 66% of the 8 million ballots counted by 10 p.m. Pacific time said the governor should stay in office.

“It appears that we are enjoying an overwhelmingly ‘no’ vote tonight here in the state of California, but ‘no’ is not the only thing that was expressed tonight,” Newsom told reporters late Tuesday.

“We said yes to science. We said yes to vaccines. We said yes to ending this pandemic. We said yes to people’s right to vote without fear of fake fraud and voter suppression. We said yes to women’s fundamental constitutional right to decide for herself what she does with her body, her fate, her future. We said yes to diversity.”

In Orange County, Elder spoke to a packed ballroom of supporters and conceded the race.

“Let’s be gracious in defeat,” he said, adding, “We may have lost the battle, but we are going to win the war.”

Considered a bellwether for the 2022 midterm elections, the recall outcome came as a relief to Democrats nationally. Although polls showed that the recall was consistently opposed by some 60% of Californians, surveys over the summer suggested that likely voters were unenthusiastic about Newsom. As the election deadline approached, however, his base mobilized.

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota traveled to California to campaign for Newsom, while Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former President Barack Obama appeared in his commercials. Some $70 million in contributions to his campaign poured in from Democratic donors, tribal and business groups and organized labor.

The governor charged that far-right extremists and supporters of former President Donald Trump were attempting a hostile takeover in a state where they could never hope to attain majority support in a regular election. He also contrasted California’s low rates of coronavirus infection with the large numbers of deaths and hospitalizations in Republican-run states like Florida and Texas.

Electoral math did the rest: Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1 in California, and pandemic voting rules encouraged high turnout, allowing ballots to be mailed to each of the state’s 22 million registered, active voters with prepaid postage. More than 40% of those Californians voted early.

Initiated by a retired Republican sheriff’s sergeant in Northern California, Orrin Heatlie, the recall was one of six conservative-led petitions that began circulating within months of Newsom’s inauguration.

Recall attempts are common in California, where direct democracy has long been part of the political culture. But only one other attempt against a governor has qualified for the ballot — in 2003, when Californians recalled Gov. Gray Davis on the heels of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the dot-com bust and rolling electricity blackouts. They elected Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace Davis as governor, substituting a centrist Republican for a centrist Democrat.

Initially, Heatlie’s petition had difficulty gaining traction. But it gathered steam as the pandemic swept California and Newsom struggled to contain it. Californians who at first were supportive of the governor’s health orders wearied of shutdowns in businesses and classrooms, and public dissatisfaction boiled over in November when Newsom was spotted mask-free at the French Laundry, an exclusive wine country restaurant, after urging the public to avoid gatherings.

A court order extending the deadline for signature gathering because of pandemic shutdowns allowed recall proponents to capitalize on the outrage and unease.

As the outcome in Tuesday’s recall election became apparent, Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist and publisher of California Target Book, a nonpartisan political almanac, said the governor held off “a Republican mugging” and “could come out of this stronger than ever, depending on his margin.”

Recall backers also claimed a measure of victory.

“We were David against Goliath — we were the Alamo,” said Mike Netter, one of a handful of Tea Party Republican activists whose anger at Newsom’s opposition to the death penalty, his embrace of workers in the country illegally and his deep establishment roots helped inspire the attempted ouster.

Just gathering the nearly 1.5 million signatures necessary to trigger the special election was “a historic accomplishment,” Heatlie said.

The recall campaign, the two men said, had expanded the small cadre that began the effort into a statewide coalition of 400,000 members who are already helping to push ballot proposals to fund school vouchers, forbid vaccine mandates in schools, and abolish public employee unions, which have been a long-standing Democratic force in California.

Other Republicans, however, called the recall a grave political miscalculation. About a quarter of the state’s registered voters are Republicans, and their numbers have been dwindling since the 1990s, a trend that recall proponents believed might be reversed if they could somehow flip the nation’s biggest state.

Tuesday’s defeat — in a special election that cost the state an estimated $276 million — instead marked “another nail in the coffin,” said Mike Madrid, a California Republican strategist who has been deeply critical of the party under Trump, charging in particular that the GOP has driven away Latino voters.

Some Democratic observers were circumspect, warning that the disruption caused by the recall effort hinted at deeper problems.

“This recall was a canary in the coal mine,” said Sragow, a veteran Democratic strategist who cited the state’s income disparities, housing shortages and climate crises. “And until the issues that created it get dealt with, people in power are in trouble. There’s a lot of anger and fear and frustration out there.”

Tuesday’s vote capped a nearly yearlong push by the governor to persuade voters to see beyond that darkness. Since early this year, when it became clear that the recall would have the money and time to qualify for the ballot, Newsom has campaigned relentlessly.

Taking advantage of a huge state surplus — a result of higher-than-expected gains in income and stock prices for affluent Californians — the governor moved aggressively to demonstrate that the state could both protect its economy and curb the virus. In recent months, he has rolled out vaccinations, cleaned up trash in neighborhoods neglected by pandemic-worn Californians, thrown motel rooms open to homeless Californians, announced stimulus checks and rent assistance for poor and middle-class Californians and stood repeatedly in front of a gold lamé curtain to host one of the nation’s largest vaccine lotteries.

Past recall efforts informed his political strategy. Unlike Davis, whose lieutenant governor ran as a Democratic alternative in the 2003 recall, effectively giving partisans permission to oust Davis, Newsom and his team quickly cleared the field of potential Democratic alternatives.

Like Scott Walker, the former governor of Wisconsin and the only previous governor to prevail in a recall election, Newsom painted the recall effort in national, partisan terms and rejected a defensive posture. His strategy galvanized major donors and his base.

As in 2003, when he ran against a popular progressive for mayor of San Francisco, Newsom framed the race not as a referendum on him but as a choice between himself and a potentially catastrophic alternative — in this case, Elder, whose name recognition quickly vaulted him to the top of the list of challengers.

Noting that Elder had built a career bashing liberal causes, the governor painted him as a Trump clone who would foist far-right policies on a state that has been a bastion of liberal thinking.

“Vote no and go,” the governor told voters, suggesting that they stick to voting against recalling him and not even dignify the second question on the ballot, which asked who should replace Newsom if the recall succeeds.

Millions of voters chose not to answer the ballot’s second question, with Elder receiving about 44% of the vote from those who did. Kevin Paffrath, a Democrat, and Kevin Faulconer, a Republican and former mayor of San Diego, each had about 10% of the vote as of 10 p.m. Pacific time.

Republican support and money failed to come anywhere close to matching Newsom’s large operation and war chest.

California has no limits on donations to committees for and against recalls, but the state caps contributions to candidates from individual donors. Newsom capitalized on the rules, raising more than $50 million just in donations of more than $100,000 to oppose the recall. Elder raised about $15 million, with even less raised by committees promoting the recall.

Many major Republican donors said it seemed futile to try to recall a Democratic governor in such an overwhelmingly liberal state.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Copyright 2021 The New York Times Company

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