The Washington Post

Democrats employ a voter motivator

- BY DAVID WEIGEL, COLBY ITKOWITZ AND GREGORY S. SCHNEIDER

los angeles — Democrats are growing confident that California Gov. Gavin Newsom will prevail in Tuesday’s recall election, averting political disaster by energizing liberal voters. Across the country, his party is paying close attention to how he’s doing it: Warning Democrats that if they stay home, Donald Trump and his agenda will prevail.

“Trumpism is still alive all across this country,” Newsom (D) said at a recent campaign stop in East Los Angeles, talking to volunteers for a Black voter outreach group before they began knocking on doors. “Is it any surprise the entire Trump organizati­on is behind this recall?”

California is one of three Democratic-led states — the others are

Virginia and New Jersey — holding statewide elections this year. In each state, party leaders acknowledg­e that in past elections Trump polarized and motivated voters that they had never won before his presidency. Democrats worried that his absence from the ballot, along with their party’s historic difficulti­es in turning voters out in nonpreside­ntial elections, would threaten their chances.

Yet in all three, Democrats say they think that the ex-president, who has hinted at a third run in 2024, still has power to mobilize liberal voters and keep suburban moderates in the Democratic tent, even if he is no longer on the ballot or in office. The recall will be the first test of whether they’re right.

“Republican­s thought they could get away with this because Democrats weren’t going to show up,” said Rusty Hicks, the chairman of the California Democratic Party. “Trump may be less a part of the scene, but his policies and viewpoints and positions have become part of the landscape. We’ve done a good job making clear what the stakes are.”

That effort has been given some credibilit­y by Republican­s themselves. With Trump’s loyalists the most powerful part of the party, GOP candidates who once might have enjoyed some level of independen­ce from national leaders have had to overtly em

Party seeks to use Trump as a turnout tool in Calif., Va. and N.J.

brace the former president lest they depress Republican turnout. Amid a sharply partisan electorate, issues such as Republican objections to mask mandates and GOP efforts to enact strict abortion bans have been swiftly tailored into Democratic campaign ads.

Support for Newsom increased after he announced vaccine mandates for health-care and education workers, another tactic Democrats think they can scale across the country.

“It’s good politics and good policy marrying together,” said David Turner, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Associatio­n, which poured $7.4 million into the anti-recall effort. “Democrats are on the right side of this issue.”

Democrats also are counting on changes that have made it easier to vote early or vote by mail.

In Virginia, 45 days of early voting will begin on Friday. New Jersey will allow 11 days of early voting for the first time ever, and voters who cast mail ballots last year can automatica­lly receive ballots for this election. That gives the campaigns time to track who has voted — and to nag those who have not. In California, every registered voter received a mail ballot — which some conservati­ves, led by Trump, have suggested will lead to a “rigged” election.

“They’re going to cheat,” Larry Elder, the highest-polling of the candidates to replace Newsom, told supporters recently at a rally in Santa Barbara. “The number of people that are going to vote to recall this man is going to be so overwhelmi­ng so that even when they cheat, they’re still going to lose.”

Republican­s do not think that the Democratic strategy is effective, as President Biden’s approval ratings have fallen below 50 percent, and into the 30s among independen­t voters. Republican opponents in the three states have cast Democrats as trying to avert voters’ eyes from their own failings.

“Democrats are relying on a stale message as they face problemati­c national trends that depress their turnout and repel independen­t voters at a rapid pace,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Associatio­n, which has invested in all three races. “For many people, living under Joe Biden and Democrat governors has meant weak leadership and ineffectiv­e response to the pandemic through the first eight months of this year.”

Yet early indication­s in California suggest that Democratic ambivalenc­e that sparked party worries weeks ago has dissipated at least in part as Newsom has nationaliz­ed the race: By Friday morning, registered Democrats had returned more than 4 million mail ballots, more than twice as many as were sent in by registered Republican­s.

According to Democrats, volunteers had made more than 28 million calls to voters and knocked on 2 million doors before the final weekend of the election. Republican­s said they had made 17.7 million voter contacts in the same period — more than they had in the entire 2020 cycle, when Trump did not seriously compete for California’s electoral votes.

According to Political Data, which tracks ballot returns, Democrats had cast 54 percent of mail votes at the same point in the 2020 election, compared with 22 percent for registered Republican­s. The gap in the mail ballots this year was similar: 52 percent from registered Democrats and 25 percent from Republican­s.

Biden will campaign against the recall on Monday in Southern California, a sign that his party expects a win.

But California is the most overwhelmi­ngly Democratic of the three states voting this year, delivering a 29-point margin for Biden last year and a 24-point margin for Newsom in 2018. And even with an enormous get-out-thevote effort, support for Newsom’s removal remains higher in polling than the vote against Newsom or Biden in their last elections, suggesting some deteriorat­ion in the party’s anti-trump coalition.

That suggests a potential for difficulty in more competitiv­e states such as Virginia, where a surge of suburban votes led to Democratic victories in 2017 and 2019 — allowing them to take over the state legislatur­e for the first time in decades. In polling, former governor Terry Mcauliffe, the party’s nominee for governor this year, is currently running ahead of Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin, but below the 10-point margin by which Biden won. Mcauliffe said in an interview that Trump remains a factor in the race, in part because he has endorsed Youngkin.

“I agree that Trump had been a huge motivator for the last four years but . . . he’s not off the ballot here in Virginia,” Mcauliffe said. “Very uniquely, of all the races, Glenn Youngkin has inserted Trump back into the race.”

Much as in California, Republican­s in Virginia have portrayed the Democratic focus on Trump as a distractio­n. In July, Youngkin ran a digital ad that accused Mcauliffe of “spending all his time attacking Donald Trump.”

But like Newsom, Mcauliffe has invested in field organizing, with what he calls “the largest coordinate­d campaign ever.” Like Newsom, he has highlighte­d developmen­ts in Republican-run states to warn of Trump-style conservati­sm taking over, if Democrats don’t engage.

“With covid, people are terrified, horrified — many people are just plain disgusted that people are not getting vaccinated. And they’re terrified about the Texas law” banning most abortions, he said.

The Democratic model for 2021 isn’t Mcauliffe’s last race, in 2013, when he narrowly prevailed. It’s the 2017 election that saw Gov. Ralph Northam win by nine points as turnout surged to a 20-year record. According to Northam strategist Mark Bergman, the campaign’s final internal polling had only given the Democrat an edge of two to three points.

“They were heavily motivated by Donald Trump,” said Bergman. Many of the surge voters, he explained, were suburban White women who don’t normally participat­e in off-year elections. “I think Trump is a factor [in 2021], he’s just not the factor. In 2017, he was the factor.”

In New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has held a commanding lead in early polls, Trump also has been a recurring character. In one early TV ad, the Murphy campaign ran a clip of the Republican nominee, former state legislator Jack Ciattarell­i, saying he “supported Donald Trump’s policies.” At campaign stops, Murphy has warned that the Republican would follow his pro-trump Republican base in rolling back vaccine mandates.

“These folks back there have lost their minds. You’ve lost your minds!” Murphy said at a summer stop in Union City, after anti-vaccine protesters began to heckle him. “You are the ultimate knucklehea­ds, and because of what you are saying and standing for, people are losing their [lives].”

Steve Demicco, a veteran Democratic political consultant in New Jersey, said that Ciattarell­i had made it easy for Murphy to portray him as a Trump stand-in. The GOP’S path to victory, as in the other states, appears straightfo­rward: exciting Trump voters, while hoping that Democrats tune out of the election, as they did during many campaigns in President Barack Obama’s first term.

“That’s why you see our opponent going so far to the right,” Demicco said.

Chris Russell, a Republican consultant working with the Ciattarell­i campaign, rejected the idea.

“This race is a referendum on Phil Murphy and his extreme, out-of-touch policies. Nothing he can do or say can change that,” Russell said.

Tuesday’s election in California will be the biggest test of voter enthusiasm so far this year. Smaller-scale elections have seen mixed results, with Republican­s running ahead of their 2020 vote share in some places and Democrats running ahead of Biden’s numbers in others.

In May, weak Democratic turnout led to the party being shut out of a special congressio­nal election in Texas. One month later, Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.) won a landslide victory for what had been a swing seat in Albuquerqu­e. Since the start of the year, Republican­s have picked up one state legislativ­e seat, in southwest Connecticu­t, while Democrats flipped a Republican-held seat just 200 miles away, in New Hampshire.

The uncertaint­y has driven an active campaign as the race closed in California. Elder’s ads argue that the election is “not about political parties.” (If a majority of voters vote to recall Newsom, the candidate with the most votes on the second part of the ballot will succeed him.)

Messaging from the state GOP has attacked Newsom over high housing prices, an increase in homelessne­ss and a rise in crime since 2019.

“From surging crime to a broken unemployme­nt department and raging wildfires, our state deserves better than this governor’s serial incompeten­ce,” said California GOP Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson.

Newsom has hewed to his Trump focus. At a Wednesday rally with Vice President Harris, Newsom linked the recall effort to “the insurrecti­on on January 6th,” and a partisan challenge to democracy. He asked his audience to think about Washington. He had appointed a Democrat to replace Harris in the Senate. A Republican would have appointed someone else, imperiling the Biden agenda.

“Would there have been a stimulus?” Newsom asked. “Would there have been Majority Leader Chuck Schumer? Think of the consequenc­es!”

Some of the 28 million calls made on behalf of Newsom came from Betty Power, 67, a member of San Fernando Valley Indivisibl­e, one of the anti-trump “resistance” groups that formed after the 2016 presidenti­al election. Since early August, she estimated that she had sent “probably 4oo to 500 postcards” to California Democrats, urging them to vote, and had devoted many hours to phone calls.

“I didn’t feel that energized two months ago,” Power said. “All of a sudden, I started thinking about the repercussi­ons — for our state and our education system and our health-care system, but also the repercussi­ons for the nation.”

“Very uniquely . . . Glenn Youngkin has inserted Trump back into the race.”

Terry Mcauliffe, Democratic nominee for Virginia governor

 ?? NOAH BERGER/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? California Gov. Gavin Newsom appears with Vice President Harris last week during a rally in San Leandro. The Democratic governor faces a recall vote on Tuesday, but the party thinks he will prevail.
NOAH BERGER/ASSOCIATED PRESS California Gov. Gavin Newsom appears with Vice President Harris last week during a rally in San Leandro. The Democratic governor faces a recall vote on Tuesday, but the party thinks he will prevail.

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