Newsom faced the first recall election in California in 18 years. At one point, weeks before the election, he appeared to be in serious enough jeopardy that Democrats decided to dispatch President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to campaign for him.
Republicans sought a replay of 2003, when actor Arnold Schwarzenegger attracted support across ideological lines and voters decided to boot then-Gov. Gray Davis. This time, though, the party’s leading candidate, talk radio host Larry Elder, stuck much closer to conservative orthodoxy — making it difficult to attract the sort of broad bipartisan support that it takes for a GOP candidate to win in deep-blue California.
And his long history of incendiary comments — combined with the odd recall system that virtually guaranteed Elder would become governor if Newsom was recalled — to energize those who had largely tuned the election out and might not have cast their ballots.
Strict pandemic policy gets a big win
Newsom’s aggressive actions to slow the spread of the coronavirus — the same restrictions that helped spur the recall election — got a significant boost on Tuesday night, proving to Democrats across the country that strict pandemic policy can be good politics.
Newsom nodded to this in his election night remarks to reporters, stating that while people voted “no,” that vote meant they said, “yes to science, yes to vaccines … yes to ending this pandemic.”
This, more than any lesson coming out of California, is the most likely to permeate other elections later this year and in 2022 — helping back up Democrats who have pushed strict coronavirus measures to curb the ongoing spread of the Delta variant in the face of a small but vocal opposition.
Newsom staked his campaign on his stringent Covid measures, using them to attack Elder as lax on the pandemic, contrasting himself with Republican governors in Texas and Florida and running fully alongside the new vaccine requirements that Biden announced just days before Election Day.
“We saw the Delta surge as a real inflection moment in this campaign,” said Sean Clegg, Newsom’s top strategist. “What Delta brought into clear, clear focus was what the stakes are in this election when one party has basically become an anti-science, anti-vaccine, anti-public health party.”
A 2022 Newsom vs. Elder race?
In the same breath that he acknowledged Newsom’s defeat of the recall on stage Tuesday night, Elder hinted at another run next year, in California’s normally scheduled governor’s race.
“We may have lost the battle, but we are going to win the war,” Elder said.
That might be a headache for California Republicans.
The party had other options — including former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer — who could have been less objectionable to moderate and Democratic voters. But conservatives in the state rallied around Elder, the talk radio host with a long record of incendiary comments that Newsom seized on. His campaign framed the race as a choice between two candidates, one of whom was far out of step with California’s overwhelming Democratic majority, rather than a simple up-or-down referendum on the governor.
Still, Elder, who if elected would be California’s first Black governor, has galvanized conservatives in a state where Republicans are all but powerless. He could be a prominent voice in the GOP in the coming midterm elections.
“As a former radio host, let me just say this: Stay tuned,” Elder said Tuesday night.
Lessons from California are limited
Many of the lessons Democrats across the country can take away from the defeat of the recall are far less definitive — complicated both by the fact that that state, with its nearly 2-1 registration advantage for Democrats, looks little like most key races in 2022 and that recall elections, by nature, create unique electoral conditions.
Newsom’s advisers were quick to argue that national Democrats would be wise to follow their lead — urging them to tie their opponents to Trump, like the governor did, and to nationalize races to ratchet up the stakes.
“Larry Elder is on the ballot here on the recall, but a version of Larry Elder is going to be on the ballot all over the country,” said Juan Rodriguez, Newsom’s campaign manager. “And that’s an important lesson for Democrats and how they kind of lean into the message that we have done.”
Democrats tasked with winning key races in 2021 and 2022 were less certain that California provided them with a roadmap, given the state’s unique political make up.
“It’s very hard to see any real inferences that could be made from the California results,” said a top Democrat in Virginia, where Terry McAuliffe is currently running for a second term as governor, “hold for some of the broader messaging points as it pertains to Covid response and the Republican brand.”
No talk of fraud from Elder
California had looked poised to become the latest addition to former President Donald Trump’s “Big Lie,” with Republicans showing signs of denying the reality of the outcome of the recall election.
Elder had warned of “shenanigans” in the voting process. His campaign had launched a website for those who experienced problems voting or saw evidence of fraud to submit affidavits. And on stage Tuesday night, before Elder spoke, speakers cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election process.
“Some TV stations are saying that it’s coming to an end — it’s way too early. It’s way too early. They’ve just counted the mail ballots. They’ve still got to count the real ballots; the working people who go to the polls on a daily basis,” Republican former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado said.
Instead, it appears the chatter about election fraud was simply a way of energizing conservative voters who have bought into Trump’s lies.
Elder appeared to put an end to that talk on stage. He made no mention of election fraud. And he interrupted supporters who were booing Newsom. “Let’s be gracious in defeat,” he said.
Recall’s huge cost prompts calls for reform
The price tag for California’s recall election was $276 million, according to the state’s Department of Finance.
Ultimately, the state’s odd laws allowed for an election that wasn’t close to be held, at enormous expense, just 14 months before Newsom would have been on the ballot for reelection anyway.
Along the way, it prompted calls to reform the recall process — which can be triggered through a petition signed by 12% of the voter turnout of the state’s last gubernatorial election, for any reason.
“A $276 million waste just to reaffirm 2018’s results with an election coming in 2022,” California Assembly Speaker Pro Temp Kevin Mullin tweeted Tuesday night.
Mullin said reforms should include elevating the lieutenant governor to the state’s chief executive position if a governor is successfully recalled, rather than having voters choose a replacement on the same ballot.
Newsom’s campaign urged voters to vote “no” on whether to recall him, and then leave the second question — who should replace him if he was to be recalled — blank. That strategy appeared problematic when polls showed a close race with no viable Democratic candidate if Newsom was recalled. But it ultimately helped Newsom’s campaign turn the contest into a head-to-head with Elder.