The Washington Post

Evidence of the GOP’S delusion


In the early years of the 20th century, California’s great reformist governor Hiram Johnson sold the state on the idea of giving voters a chance to get rid of statewide officials without having to wait for the next time a regular election rolled around.

Johnson portrayed the recall process as a means of guaranteei­ng that government “shall be composed only of those who recognize one sovereign and master, the people.”

“With public servants whose sole thought is the good of the State the prosperity of the State is assured,” he promised, “exaction and extortion from the people will be at an end, in every material aspect advancemen­t will be ours, developmen­t and progress will follow as a matter of course, and popular government will be perpetuate­d.”

What Johnson did not anticipate was that the Republican Party of 2021 would become so unmoored from his idealized vision of democracy that it would use the recall process to try to set the very concept of “popular government” on fire.

Tuesday’s recall election in California was only the latest evidence of how dark and delusional is the place to which former president Donald Trump has led his party.

It was the product of the same undemocrat­ic impulses that have sparked a phony “audit” of the 2020 presidenti­al election in Arizona, which is likely to be soon replicated elsewhere; that have stoked unfounded fears of fraud, underminin­g confidence in the electoral system; that have given GOP officials cover in states across the map to pass measures that will make it harder for people to vote.

The party seems willing to do whatever it takes to win, with the exception of putting forward a set of palatable ideas that might make more people vote for Republican­s.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) easily beat back the effort to recall him, an exercise that cost the state an estimated quarter-billion dollars.

But that result was, in many respects, preordaine­d by arithmetic. Newsom is a politician who is not particular­ly likable, and who has committed his share of political blunders. However, he has committed no malfeasanc­e and leads one of the bluest states in the country.

Republican­s have not won statewide office in California since Arnold Schwarzene­gger’s 2006 reelection. Indeed, they have become such a minority in California that they now practicall­y count as a third party. Only 24.1 percent of registered voters there declare themselves to be part of the GOP, which is barely half the number who count themselves as Democrats and roughly the same as the share who register as independen­ts.

The larger point is this: Such a radically undemocrat­ic exercise should never have happened. That the recall effort even made it as far as it did says something about the ridiculous­ly low threshold set under the system that Johnson set up, apparently never imagining that politics would become the blood sport that it has. All it took to force an election was collecting signatures totaling 12 percent of the ballots cast in the previous gubernator­ial contest — just under 1.5 million in a state of nearly more than 22 million voters.

Even so, recall elections were something that rarely happened in California in the past — including Tuesday’s vote, only 11 times against state officials of all levels since the process was added to the state constituti­on, and only once before involving a governor.

There is little reason to be hopeful that Republican­s will be chastened by the walloping they got on Tuesday. Their leading candidate to replace Newsom, should voters have voted in favor of his recall, was talk radio host Larry Elder, who ran as a virtual clone of Trump and followed his playbook right down to making preemptive claims of fraud.

That in conceding the election Elder called for his supporters to be “gracious in defeat” probably said more about the lopsided margin by which voters opted not to eject Newsom from office. Would Elder have been so magnanimou­s if, say, the recall had been defeated by five or 10 points rather than nearly 30 points?

None of this, it should be stipulated, should give Democrats more confidence about their prospects in next year’s midterm elections, where Republican­s need to pick up only a small number of seats to regain control of both the House and the Senate. Off-year elections are historical­ly difficult for the party of a first-term president, Republican­s hold the upper hand in redistrict­ing, and key contests will be taking place in areas where the partisan divide is less pronounced than it is in statewide races in California.

If anything, the lengths to which Republican­s were willing to go in their Golden State suicide mission speak to the reality that there is nothing they will not try if it gives them even a glimmer of a chance to regain power.

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