San Francisco Chronicle

Eyes of nation on recall vote count

- By Dustin Gardiner

SACRAMENTO — Virtually nobody in the California political universe took the effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom seriously when conservati­ve activists initially filed their petition against him on Feb. 21, 2020.

Three prior efforts to oust Newsom had failed, and the petition repeated many of the usual grievances that Republican­s have with the first-term Democratic governor, including his stance on illegal immigratio­n, opposition to the death penalty and inability to end the state’s homelessne­ss crisis.

The effort very well might have fizzled out — if not for the worst public health crisis in a century,

which turned Newsom into both a champion of strict health measures and a lightning rod for coronaviru­s discontent.

Voters head to the polls Tuesday to decide Newsom’s fate in the recall election that’s become a national rallying point for both major parties. The contest — the highestpro­file election since the 2020 presidenti­al race — is fueled by populist anger over California’s pandemic-era business closures and the governor’s response to the crisis.

“California, the eyes of the nation are on you. I’m not joking,” President Biden said Monday night as he spoke at a packed rally with Newsom at Long Beach City College. “The rest of America is counting on you, and so am I.”

Newsom may well win the election, the second vote to try to recall a governor in California history, by a healthy margin, according to recent polls that show him defeating the effort by nearly 20 percentage points.

The final stage of the race has been defined by Newsom’s aggressive response to COVID-19. He has touted California’s high vaccinatio­n rates and health measures while his leading Republican opponent, radio host Larry Elder, vowed to repeal vaccine and mask mandates.

Newsom appears to have capitalize­d on voters’ concerns about the pandemic amid a surge of the highly infectious delta variant, as well as many of their fears about the consequenc­es of electing a hard-line conservati­ve like Elder, who could win the governorsh­ip with a plurality of voters if Newsom falls.

To be sure, the election hasn’t been a cakewalk. Newsom has had to raise more than $80 million to defend himself, and high-profile Democrats, including Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, have flooded the state to campaign on his behalf.

The whole episode has been a stunning change of fortune for a governor who won his 2018 election by a landslide and was once considered to be on Democrats’ short list of future presidenti­al candidates.

At first, the recall effort was slow to gain momentum. The recall petition drive seemed on the verge of failure when on Nov. 6, a Sacramento county judge granted proponents four extra months to gather signatures, resuscitat­ing the effort.

Around the same time, Newsom made the worst self-inflicted mistake of his political career. The governor went to the French Laundry in Napa Valley for the 50th birthday party of a lobbyist and longtime friend. The dinner, attended by 12 people, violated Newsom’s own restrictio­ns in place at the time on mixing between households.

His attendance, which was first reported by The Chronicle, ignited a backlash from voters who said the episode showed Newsom was disconnect­ed from the plight of everyday California­ns who had lost their jobs or suffered due to the isolation brought on by pandemic health restrictio­ns.

Newsom apologized three days after the French Laundry story broke. But it was clear, in the weeks afterward, his political brand had been seriously damaged: Donations and volunteers poured into the recall campaign.

By March, recall organizers had gathered more than 1.7 million signatures needed to force the contest onto the ballot. The fight became a national Republican cause celebre seemingly overnight.

A host of well-known Republican challenger­s emerged: Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer; businessma­n John Cox, who lost the 2018 governor’s race to Newsom; and Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympian and reality TV star.

They soon moved beyond the coronaviru­s-driven critique of Newsom and began to hammer the governor for the state’s high tax rates, growing homelessne­ss crisis and concerns about violent crime.

Anne Dunsmore, campaign manager for Rescue California, one of the main political committees behind the recall, said that while the French Laundry incident and the pandemic helped fuel the effort, the snafus were emblematic of a sense that Newsom is an elitist who’s disconnect­ed from the struggles of most voters.

“We channeled what was there and he built it,” she said. “He built that anger, he built that tide. That was his making. It was palpable on the street.”

Democrats built a massive campaign operation to fight the recall. The governor’s backers started blanketing the airwaves with ads calling the recall a Republican-led “assault on democracy.”

Despite the media onslaught and a record $76 billion state budget surplus, polls had Newsom in a tight race. In July, a poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Government­al Studies showed the contest was neck-and-neck.

Republican­s and recall supporters, meanwhile, were struggling to coalesce around a challenger who could provide a popular alternativ­e to Newsom, but no Arnold-Schwarzene­gger-type figure emerged.

Forty-six replacemen­t candidates ultimately qualified for the ballot. One of the last-minute entrants was Larry Elder, a conservati­ve radio host and author, who quickly surged to the front of the field of potential replacemen­ts.

“I think this is a race between Gavin Newsom and me. I don’t think about the other candidates,” Elder told the Associated Press when he announced his candidacy.

Elder’s entrance did jolt the race, but apparently to Newsom’s benefit, as the radio personalit­y’s stance on a host of issues — many articulate­d years ago — soon overshadow­ed his campaign.

Elder has said he opposes the minimum wage. He wants to repeal all mask and vaccine mandates. He supports denying undocument­ed immigrants public benefits, such as emergency health care. And he doesn’t believe racism is a major problem in America.

As his star began to rise, Elder came under bipartisan criticism over his comments about women. He doubled down on his view that employers should be allowed to discrimina­te against women who plan to become pregnant.

Lily Liu, a tech executive who lives part-time in Los Angeles, spearheade­d an open letter from female business leaders and residents opposed to Elder’s candidacy. She said his views on gender in the workplace were a wake-up call for voters.

“It was pretty shocking to hear there is a front-runner that holds these views,” Liu said. “It has really created a sense of alignment and purpose for women.”

Recent polls indicate Newsom has surged in the final weeks of the contest. A poll released this month by the nonpartisa­n Public Policy Institute of California shows 58% of likely voters oppose removing him while just 39% want to boot him.

Campaignin­g in recent days, Newsom has touted his pandemic health measures, including a mandate that state employees, teachers and health workers must get vaccinated or submit to regular testing.

He has blasted Elder for vowing to repeal such policies, calling the issue a “matter of life and death.”

Katie Merrill, a Democratic political strategist in Berkeley, said the governor found in Elder the foil he needed to energize his Democratic base to turn out. She said Newsom’s campaign wanted a Trump-style Republican to run against, and they found it.

“They saw that they were given a gift in the rise of Larry Elder and then they used it,” Merrill said. “He was their proof point.”

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