ENCINITAS, Calif. — On a sleepy August evening in this perpetually laid-back Southern California surf town, a freight truck meandering on a local road carried a succinct political attack ad scrawled in its dirty white side: “Save Our Children: Recall Newsom.”
The message and its delivery couldn’t have been more rudimentary — nothing like the flashy yard signs popping up along that same route for and against the upcoming referendum on California’s sitting Democratic governor. Even so, it was a telling sign of the precarious place Gavin Newsom finds himself just one month before voters decide whether to send him packing from Sacramento.
For months Newsom has tried to label the effort to oust him as a MAGA-inspired partisan movement full of QAnon conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, and anti-vaxxers as a way to mobilize Democrats against it. Yet, recent polls show Democratic voters aren’t enthusiastically rallying to Newsom’s side, and nearly half of independents and two-thirds of those representing other parties back the recall. Joining forces with highly energized Republicans, independents could hand Newsom and his party an embarrassing defeat in a solidly blue state.
The question now is whether Democrats here in California and in Washington have the political power to save Newsom. Political allies and special interests across the Golden State have shown they are willing to pony up for his survival, including Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, George Soros, the California Teachers Association, Realtors, and several big unions. Newsom’s $45 million fundraising haul has allowed him to dominate the airwaves this summer. Campaign finance records show he has spent nearly $12 million on radio and television ads since mid-June.
Yet, the promotional flurry hasn’t moved the needle in Newsom’s favor over the last month. In fact, since the ads, some featuring Sen. Elizabeth Warren blaming the recall on “Trump Republicans,” began airing, polls show the race tightening even more. The latest CBS poll, released Sunday, shows the recall effort trailing only by four percentage points, within the margin of error, with 48% of likely voters saying they want to remove Newsom while 52% support keeping him.
The dead-heat polls are encouraging recall organizers even as they get grossly outspent.
“[Newsom’s] spending campaign money like he’s spending taxpayer money, and it’s actually making things worse,” Anne Hyde Dunsmore, president of Rescue California, one of the main groups working to unseat the governor, tells RealClearPolitics. “He keeps saying, ‘We’re going to outspend them four to one.’ Okay, ask Meg Whitman how that worked out.”
Whitman unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2010 despite spending $178 million on the race — $144 million of it her own money. California is even bluer now than it was then, but Democrats are starting to kick themselves for some missteps and early moves that now appear to be backfiring. For one thing, Newsom’s campaign forgot to include the governor’s party affiliation on the ballot, a mistake it unsuccessfully tried to undo. He also opted for an earlier recall election date of Sept. 14 rather than the typical first Tuesday in November when voters typically expect to go the polls. Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis set the date after a push by her follow Democrats to try to ensure that Newsom could retain a significant 16-point edge he held in late spring.
But that seemingly comfortable margin has dissolved over the last six weeks as a coronavirus variant has spurred new worries about lockdowns, school shutdowns and COVID quarantines this fall and as firefighters battle the second largest blaze in California history in Northern California’s Plumas and Lassen countries.
Newsom’s campaign promises of a roaring California comeback also have failed to materialize as the state’s unemployment rate remains stuck at 7.7%, one of the highest in the country. Last week, as recall ballots started arriving in Californians’ mailboxes, President Biden responded to Newsom’s entreaties. The embattled governor had implored national Democrats to wake up and consider what his ouster in the solidly Democratic state would mean for the 2022 midterms and Democrats’ green agenda, which Newsom has wholeheartedly embraced.
Biden on Thursday issued a statement backing Newsom’s efforts to stay in office, calling the California governor “key” to advancing the administration’s “Build Back Better” agenda. “He knows how to get the job done because he’s been doing it,” Biden said. Newsom also announced that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris would visit the state on his behalf in the coming weeks. Prior to the president’s decision to jump into campaign, top Democratic strategists in California were growing increasingly frustrated.
“You know, Democrats need a slap in the face to snap out of it, get interested in the recall,” Steve Maviglio told RCP last week. Maviglio served as the press secretary for former Gov. Gray Davis, who in 2003 became the state’s second top executive to be recalled.
Normally, in a non-COVID environment, Democrats would be mobilizing armies of union members and other supporters to go door to door and “light a fire under Democrats to return their ballots,” he said. But Maviglio acknowledges that the hot summer months, along with delta variant fears, have forced Democrats to rely on texts reminders and advertisements more than hands-on canvassing.
“It’s not a regular election, and it’s difficult motivating people in the middle of August to knock on doors when it’s 110 degrees in Riverside,” Maviglio said. Others say the pandemic has divided blue-collar households, with so many experiencing job losses that Newsom can no longer count on organized labor’s usually monolithic Democratic support in the state.
“Union members were disproportionately affected by shutdown orders, and their kids had difficulty in school, and daycare has been an issue, so they won’t be voting in lockstep against the recall,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican campaign consultant who served as deputy chief of staff for Arnold Schwarzenegger, the winner of the recall effort to replace Davis.
Having the president and vice president stump for Newsom is designed to raise awareness about the recall among registered Democrats, but how much it will help is unclear. Biden is popular in the heavily Democratic state, though his job approval rating among Californians has dipped slightly among voters here as he struggles to deal with inflation, the delta variant spikes and vaccine hesitancy, as well as his disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. Having Biden and Harris in the state on Newsom’s behalf could actually boomerang by motivating even more Republicans to turn in their ballots.
Andrew Acosta, a veteran Democratic strategist, says Newsom’s notorious French Laundry dinner with lobbyists that defied his own lockdown rules last fall, along with a recent spate of negative news stories, including one showing Newsom misled the public about his wildfire prevention efforts, may depress Democratic voter turnout.
“I always look to the top of the ticket to spark interest in a campaign, but in this case, [Newsom] is the top of the ticket and he’s having difficulty generating energy,” Acosta told RCP. “At this point, I don’t think there’s a magic messenger that you can just get an ad from — Kamala Harris or Biden or [former California Gov.] Jerry Brown and get everybody super excited,” Acosta added. “I don’t know if we have that energy today.”
A more effective strategy for Newsom, Democratic strategists suggest, has been his attacks on Larry Elder, a talk radio host and conservative columnist who became the GOP frontrunner after entering the race just a month ago. Pointing to Elder’s past statements on climate change and women’s rights, Newsom argues that the candidate is out of sync with the state’s voters. “I could go down a list,” Newsom said at a campaign stop last week. “He’s to the right of Donald Trump.”
Newsom has warned about what would happen if Elder became governor and had the power to appoint someone to the U.S. Senate. It’s a concern for national Democrats, who worry that the Senate majority would be in peril if California’s long-serving, 88-year-old Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein were to step down, which has been the source of increasing speculation.
Newsom has sharpened his attacks against Elder in recent days as the challenger has become his most formidable opponent, garnering 23% of recall proponents’ support.
“The best thing that has happened for Newsom is Larry Elder jumping into the race and rising up to the top of the boil,” said Garry South, a longtime Democratic strategist who ran Davis’ political campaigns.
Newsom has largely tried to ignore another top GOP contender, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a GOP centrist with the most executive experience among the Republican field. The Bakersfield Californian newspaper endorsed Faulconer over the weekend, while the Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times published opinion pieces describing him as the best choice on the ballot to replace Newsom if he is recalled.
Still, Faulconer has only managed to attract single-digit support, as have Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, perennial GOP candidate John Cox, and 1976 Olympian and reality television star Caitlyn Jenner. The ballots, arriving in mailboxes over the next week or so, ask two questions: whether Newsom should be recalled, and, if so, who should replace him.
With the distinct possibility dawning of a conservative Republican replacing Newsom, Democrats are desperately trying to rewrite the recall rules late in the game. Two California voters filed a lawsuit arguing that the state’s recall provision violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution by allowing sitting governors to be replaced by candidates who receive fewer votes. The plaintiffs are seeking a court order either prohibiting the recall or adding Newsom’s name to the replacement candidate list. Election officials have already sent out millions of ballots without that change.
Some California Democrats, like former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, have suggested Newsom’s framing of the recall as a GOP power grab has been a mistake. “I’m not sure traditional politics works here,” Panetta told Politico last week. Instead of blaming Republicans and relying on surrogates, Democratic political strategists argue Newsom needs to make a direct appeal to voters to back his leadership.
“Gavin Newsom needs to look squarely in the camera and explain why he should not be recalled – and that is not an easy thing for him to do, but he needs to do it,” Maviglio said.
Other Democratic consultants acknowledge their party’s enthusiasm gap, though they point to a positive sign for the first-term governor. Despite polls showing the race tightening, Newsom still maintains a 57% overall approval rating, according to the CBS News poll.
“That was not the case in 2003 when Democrats were, in fact, down on Davis,” said South. “That’s why we had the lowest turnout in 2002 of any recorded gubernatorial race in the history of California.”
South also argues that the electoral math simply does not add up. Even if Republicans are highly motivated and punch above their weight, they make up a maximum 33% of the recall voters. So if 95% of them vote in favor of the recall, the electorate will still be roughly 42% Democratic voters and 90% of them will likely vote against the recall. When you add a nearly evenly split independent vote, the pro-recall forces will have a hard time mustering a majority to remove Newsom, South asserts.
That being said, few Democrats expected the race to be this close with just one month to go and little time for Newsom to try to solve the state’s most vexing problems.
“The issues that are clearly resonating with voters are crime and homelessness, and now you have the drought and wildfires that are creeping in, depending on where you live,” Acosta said. “There’s nothing the governor can do in the next 30 days to make all those issues go away. You can’t make it rain.”