Democratic big guns weigh in behind California governor in key recall vote
Californians voted yesterday on whether to keep Gavin Newsom in office in a recall election that left the state’s Democratic governor fighting for his political life, though leading in the polls.
The gubernatorial recall effort was only the second in California’s history to make it on to the ballot and a rare chance for Republicans to seize control in a deeply Democratic state.
Voters were asked two questions: should Newsom be removed from office, and, if he is recalled, who should take his place? Millions of Californians had already cast their ballots, either by mail or at early voting locations, in a special election that is costing the state $276m (£200m).
Newsom, who has been a broadly popular governor since he was elected in 2018, found himself in a peculiar position after a Republicanled recall effort gained steam amid the worst of the state’s pandemic.
The petition was introduced in February 2020, before the pandemic took hold in California, and included a list of rightwing grievances including Newsom’s policies on immigration, homelessness, property taxes and the death penalty. But it picked up momentum as the pandemic progressed, gathering the 1.495 million signatures required to trigger a recall election.
Newsom appeared confident heading into election day, spending Monday campaigning with Joe Biden. Polls that had signalled peril for him during the summer had recently given him a more comfortable lead.
Meanwhile, the leading Republican challenger, the rightwing radio host Larry Elder, began laying a groundwork of misinformation to falsely imply that the election, if he loses, was rigged against him.
If the results show more than 50% of voters opted to oust the governor, Elder or any other challenger with a majority could take office and upend politics in America’s most populous and economically productive state.
Democrats and Newsom’s campaign characterised the election as a referendum on Trumpism in California, one with “life or death” consequences. No major Democratic candidates ran against Newsom, who encouraged supporters to leave the question of his replacement blank on their ballots. Big-name Democrats, including Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar, the progressive representatives Barbara Lee and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Vice-President Kamala Harris all came to Newsom’s aid.
Elder has vowed to end mask and vaccine requirements, appealing to recall backers who protested against pandemic-control measures.
At campaign rallies, Newsom has emphasised that his early lockdowns and mask mandate for schools have saved lives. But he is still working to live down several missteps: under his watch, the state’s unemployment department struggled with major backlogs, while paying out an estimated $31bn in fraudulent claims. And the vaccine deployment was initially chaotic – leaving some vulnerable frontline workers behind.
An ill-timed, lobbyist-laden dinner at the Michelin-starred French Laundry restaurant, and the governor’s choice to send his children back to private school before many state schools had reopened, added to residents’ frustrations. Newsom has also attempted to quell concerns that he overstated wildfire prevention efforts.
Many voters who remained lukewarm on Newsom said they still saw him as the better of two evils. “I’m with a lot of people who might like to recall Gavin, but aren’t necessarily in favour of having Larry Elder in there,” said John Friedrich, a retiree. “Any governor would have a tough job.”