Many Democratic voters in a state that President Joe Biden won by nearly 30 points had not engaged or paid much attention as Newsom made an amorphous argument that the recall was an attempted Republican takeover by acolytes of former President Donald Trump and a symbol of the enduring hold of “Trumpism.”
Elder’s threat changed the Newsom strategy — and the trajectory of the race.
“There was a growing sense amongst political insiders that the anti-recall campaign’s focus on Donald Trump as the evil force we had to defeat was losing traction,” said Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, who is the publisher of the California Target Book, which tracks election and campaign finance data in the state. “Then his alter ego shows up in a state where Donald Trump got about a third of the vote. … Somebody smiled on Gavin Newsom and presented California voters with the opportunity to listen to Larry Elder.”
The Covid contrast
California Democrats were aghast once they began hearing Elder’s past remarks about women, his endorsement of pregnancy discrimination, his opposition to abortion rights and the minimum wage, and his skepticism of the climate crisis, among many other topics.
But Democrats recoiled most virulently from his views on Covid and his opposition to mask and vaccine mandates — positions that are sharply at odds with the majority of Californians, including many independents and some Republicans.
“After all the years of hardcore far-right things that Larry had said, that reinforced the threat of what he was saying about Covid,” said veteran California Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. “Everybody believed he meant it.”
Anne Dunsmore, the campaign manager for the pro-recall group known as Rescue California, said Newsom’s effort to villainize Elder halted some of the momentum that she had been seeing for the recall effort among voters of all political persuasions: “He was unsuccessful to that point painting the picture around a face — ‘Here’s the face of what you’re going to have if you don’t elect me,’ ” she said. But with Elder, she added, Newsom “cast major fear upon the electorate.”
Newsom acknowledged Saturday that Elder had helped galvanize and grab the attention of Democrats who might have otherwise skipped the election, calling him “extreme even by extreme standards.”
“So I think people certainly have woken up to that,” Newsom told reporters at a campaign event in Oakland. “Larry Elder certainly makes the contrast with this campaign, this candidacy, much easier to express.”
The talk radio host has suggested that Democrats and the press are using the controversies to distract from what he views as Newsom’s poor record as he blames the governor for steep job losses during the pandemic and the fact that many public school students could not attend class in person.
“This is about California losing business; this is about California losing jobs,” Elder said at a recent news conference. “It is about our poor government — schools where our kids were already behind a whole year, now they are behind another year, because Gavin Newsom ignored science and shut down schools even when the (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) said that people can go back to school.”
A bold agenda, but a tenuous connection with voters
For most of his career, Newsom, 53, had always been more tolerated than beloved by Democratic voters.
He had championed a bold and forward-leaning agenda on progressive priorities like the climate crisis, universal health care and LGBTQ rights — entering the national spotlight when he issued the first marriage licenses to same-sex couples as mayor of San Francisco in 2004.
But in interviews, voters often said they had difficulty relating to the impeccably coiffed scion of a politically connected San Francisco family who made millions by building an empire of wineries, restaurants and other businesses in partnership with philanthropist Gordon Getty.
But frustration was building among conservatives, business owners and some parents about what they viewed as Newsom’s ever-changing pandemic regulations and shutdowns. In November, recall proponents got a major boost when a judge extended the deadline by four months for them to collect enough signature petitions to qualify for the ballot.
That same month, Newsom attended an unmasked birthday dinner at the elite Napa Valley restaurant The French Laundry while urging Californians to stay home and avoid gatherings outside their households to stop the spread of Covid. The now-infamous misstep — for which Newsom has apologized — symbolized what many recall proponents disliked about the governor.
Dunsmore said that at that point “the spigots turned on” in both fundraising and signature collections for the pro-recall side. Newsom was their best asset, she said, because so many Californians were angry about what they perceived as his hypocrisy and shifting Covid regulations.
“There was a wave of discontent. He turned it into a tsunami,” she said. “We just channeled it.”
The recall qualified for the ballot in late April and, after many administrative steps, the lieutenant governor in July set the date for the fall election, kicking the recall campaign into high gear.
All of the state’s more than 22 million registered voters were mailed ballots this summer, and early in-person voting began as soon as September 4 in some areas of the state.
More than 8.4 million preelection ballots had been cast as of Monday, according to data from Edison Research, which is 47% of the total votes cast in the state in 2020. Despite some earlier concerns from Democrats about a lack of interest in the election among their voters, they appear to be coming to Newsom’s rescue, with 52% of the preelection ballots cast coming from registered Democratic voters and 25% from registered Republican voters, according to Edison’s data.
GOP strategists are counting on Republicans, some of whom have been skeptical of mail-in voting because of Trump’s false claims, voting in person on Election Day. But because Republicans are so outnumbered — making up just 24.1% of the state’s electorate to Democrats’ 46.5% — the GOP’s chances of ousting the governor hinge on a huge Republican turnout and meager Democratic participation once all the ballots are counted. That scenario has looked increasingly unlikely.
Newsom’s campaign advisers said that in the end, the anti-recall message could be distilled into one thought: that a “yes” vote for the recall meant electing “a pro-Trump, anti-vaccine Republican who was going to reverse the mandates on day one.”
It’s a reality Newsom’s team is well aware of. “The message that should be taken from this campaign is also a very simple message, which is: Don’t be timid on Covid,” said Newsom adviser Ace Smith. “The governor took bold action on mandates and masks, and the campaign seized on that and used it to literally create a simple decision for voters: ‘Do you want to be safe? Do you want your communities to be safe? Do you want your schools to stay open?’ “
“I believe on Election Day, you’re going to see a clear mandate not only against the recall, but for sanity on something as important as health,” Smith said.
Tuesday’s turnout — and the eventual results — will prove whether that theory holds.