The Washington Post

Democrats shouldn’t read too much into the recall victory

- JAMES HOHMANN

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and his advisers are trying to portray his comfortabl­e win in Tuesday’s recall election as a model for his party to follow nationally in the midterm elections. Listening to them would be a grave mistake for Democrats.

Casting the recall as a referendum on Donald Trump was a blindingly obvious strategy in a state where the former president lost by 29 points last November, and in a country where polarizati­on means less ticket-splitting than ever. “I said this many, many times on the campaign trail: We may have defeated Trump, but Trumpism is not dead in this country,” Newsom said in his victory speech.

True, but California does not offer a template that can be easily replicated in the battlegrou­nds that will decide control of Congress. Those are places where Trump tends to be vastly less unpopular, and few candidates will be lucky enough to face a Republican foil carrying as much baggage as talk radio host Larry Elder.

Preliminar­y network exit polls, conducted by Edison Research, show why Newsom cruised to victory in his blue state: Fifty-eight percent of voters approve of President Biden’s job performanc­e, just 31 percent hold a favorable view of the Republican Party, 81 percent believe climate change is a serious problem, and 72 percent support the state requiring masks in school.

If anything, the returns point to continuing challenges for national Democrats that were also evident in the 2020 election, including soft support among Latinos and weakness with voters most concerned about the economy. Newsom struggled to galvanize a diaspora that has delivered decisively for his party in the recent past: While 1 in 4 voters identified as Latino, according to the exits, 40 percent of them voted to recall Newsom. This is part of the explanatio­n: Among the 1 in 5 voters who said the economy was their top concern, 65 percent backed the recall.

By focusing on Trump, Democrats avoided grappling with the consequenc­es of one-party control in Sacramento. The state saw its population shrink last year for the first time in its 171-year history, partly a result of out-migration to places with lower taxes, more affordable housing, fewer homeless people, less crime and less traffic. Just over half of the 6 in 10 voters who said the cost of living in their part of California is unmanageab­le voted to recall Newsom, according to the exit poll. The governor prevailed because he won three-quarters of those who said they can manage the economic challenges of living there.

California is the country’s mostpopulo­us state and often started trends in the 20th century, but its complexion has become dark blue since 2003. There are 3 million more registered Democrats in California than when Arnold Schwarzene­gger deposed a Democratic governor during the recall that year — and nearly 400,000 fewer Republican­s. The GOP hasn’t won a statewide race since 2006.

The governor had other built-in advantages. Most important, the party’s establishm­ent maneuvered to prevent any prominent Democrat from emerging as an alternativ­e in case Newsom lost. In contrast to 2003, that kept Democrats from defecting.

A quirk of the state’s recall rules means candidates can accept unlimited donations, allowing the incumbent to easily bank more than $70 million, much of which came from interest groups with business before the state. Newsom used his fundraisin­g advantage to run commercial­s featuring former president Barack Obama and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT.). Millions were diverted from gubernator­ial contests that will be much more competitiv­e in 2022, which has led to some private grumbling among Democrats in other states.

The last time a governor faced a recall offers an illustrati­on of why you shouldn’t extrapolat­e too much from the outcome. In June 2012, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) survived by seven points. Five months later, even with Wisconsin’s own Paul D. Ryan on the GOP presidenti­al ticket, Obama won the state by seven points.

This race would certainly have been tighter if it had become solely a referendum on the governor, which is why Newsom often avoided talking about his own record on the stump, and instead focused on Trump or Elder. The overly slick governor attended a lobbyist’s birthday party at the French Laundry in Napa — one of the country’s fanciest restaurant­s — while telling his constituen­ts to stay home and avoid eating with other families.

Running against every Republican as a Trump in sheep’s clothing will eventually make Democrats look like the candidates who cried wolf. In this case, Elder could easily and legitimate­ly be cast as a Trump clone, as Biden described him during a rally with Newsom on Monday.

Don’t expect this talking point to have the same power next year in Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona. All three states have marquee Senate races in 2022, and each was decided last November by less than one percentage point.

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