On Tuesday, Sept. 14, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) will face a recall election — the biggest challenge yet to his power over the nation’s most populous state.
The roots of this recall lie with Orinn Heatlie, a former police sergeant from Yolo, Calif. Heatlie is the leader of a group called the California Patriot Coalition, and he filed a petition to remove Newsom from office in February 2020. As reported by The New York Times, Heatlie and other CPC organizers took issue with Newsom’s reluctance to enforce federal immigration laws under then-President Donald Trump.
When COVID-19 ravaged California and the rest of the United States a month later, the CPC’s recall effort seemed destined to become a footnote of history.
But then came Newsom’s handling of the outbreak, which was characterized by some of the country’s most restrictive and unpopular lockdowns. There was also the dreaded French Laundry scandal, in which a maskless Newsom was spotted attending a high-end dinner party… during one of the indoor dining bans he imposed upon the other 39 million people in his state.
Recall organizers, including the CPC, ran with the story of Newsom’s apparent hypocrisy last November, and their effort took off. California’s slow vaccine rollout over the winter did little to help the governor’s standing with the public, and the organizers easily obtained the necessary 1.5 million signatures by March 17 to force a special election.
At said special election, California voters must answer two questions: (1) Should Newsom be recalled? and (2) If “yes,” who should replace Newsom?
The five debates held in the last month-and-a-half provided a glimpse into a few of Newsom’s Republican challengers. Among them: businessman and 2018 GOP gubernatorial nominee John Cox, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and young state legislator Kevin Kiley. Former U.S. Representative Doug Ose also participated in multiple debates, but dropped out of the race after suffering a heart attack on Aug. 17.
Even as most polls showed the race tightening during the first half of August, it was clear that none of these candidates were currying much favor with the recall effort’s strongest backers. Instead, the anti-Newsom hardliners have favored Larry Elder, a former radio host who was absent from all five debates.
Elder is best known for the catchphrase “we’ve got a country to save,” and he adopted this catchphrase to “we’ve got a state to save” for his gubernatorial campaign. Despite his consistently right-leaning positions, Elder lost some ground in MAGA World last month after he said that President Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election. He’s also been called the “Black face on White supremacy” by several progressive opponents.
There is also Kevin Paffrath, a conservative Democrat, real estate investor and influencer most known for his “Meet Kevin” financial YouTube channel. During the Aug. 25 debate, Paffrath called on Cox, Faulconer and Kiley to step down and endorse his campaign, arguing that California’s majority-Democratic state legislature will not work with any Republican who replaces Newsom.
Essentially, voters have three choices in this recall: Elder on the right, Newsom on the left and Paffrath in the middle. And by “voters,” I mean those who did not already cast their ballots — mail-in voting began on Aug. 16, nearly a full month before the in-person recall election. Just as the mail-in ballots swung heavily for Biden last November, I expect Newsom to greatly benefit from more accessible voting measures in a time when public enthusiasm is more strongly against him than for him.
The fact that Republicans, who comprise just 24 percent of California’s electorate, managed to spring a legitimate recall campaign in such a deep-blue state is a testament to their enthusiasm. Such a campaign should alarm Democrats across the country, and make them rethink just how unpopular issues like COVID-19 school closures have become with American voters.
But, of course, the issues that outrage conservatives do not translate into electoral victories in a state like California. Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) recently said that this recall election looks “exactly the same” as the recall he won in 2003.
A month ago, I felt inclined to agree with Schwarzenegger’s optimism. While it may be tough for hosts of “The Celebrity Apprentice” to understand, one man’s brute force is rarely able to uproot a state or nationwide political establishment.
As strong as their messaging might seem, the campaigns of Elder, Paffrath and everyone else in this race have only succeeded in confusing California’s electorate. The incumbent governor, on the other hand, has weak but reliable support, including from California’s own Vice President Kamala Harris, that will prop him up until he faces re-election next November.
In the spirit of Schwarzenegger, I do not expect Newsom to be “terminated” by Tuesday’s recall election.