California has long been regarded as a bellwether state, a window into the social, economic, and political trends that are about to extend across the land. In 2018, Golden State voters elected Gavin Newsom as governor with 62 percent of the vote. What, then, does the ongoing recall effort of Newsom suggest about what lies ahead?
For more than a year, efforts to recall Newsom felt futile. The Democratic governor had weathered the French Laundry scandal, in which he attended a birthday party held at a swanky Napa Valley restaurant while wearing no mask and mingling closely with a group of other maskless guests—thereby contravening masking orders that he set down for others. Even when the recall push gathered enough signatures to force an election months ago, removing him from office seemed a longshot. After all, party registrations in California favor Democrats over Republicans 46 percent to 24 percent. Recall supporters would be no match for the Democrats’ sheer numbers.
Suddenly, though, the governor doesn’t look as safe. A University of California, Berkeley poll reported at the end of July that among likely voters, 50 percent said they would keep Newsom in the September 14 election, while 47 percent said they would recall him. The most recent Inside California Politics/Emerson College poll shows an even closer race: 48 percent of likely voters say they want to keep Newsom, while 46 percent say he should go.
Both polls followed the entry of radio talk-show host Larry Elder into the recall election. Elder’s presence has shaken up the race. Surveys show that, so far, Elder leads all recall candidates; Inside California Politics/Emerson College ranks him as the only candidate among the nearly 50 running to replace Newsom who has double-digit numbers. His top challengers, Republicans John Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, and Kevin Faulconer, lag far behind.
So does the recall effort herald major changes? Lane Scott, a small-farm owner in California’s gold country, believes a “dissident California right” stands at the edge of a national movement that hasn’t caught up yet. Following decades of left-wing dominance, “no honest person in the state can be ignorant of the actual political system and its objective anymore,” she writes. Scott is careful to distinguish “the right” from Republicans—the first group, one infers, made up of a not-necessarily-partisan opposition to the state’s current path. Just last week, an essay in The Atlantic noted that an increase in GOP turnout in California’s 2020 elections “led to victories in four competitive House races with large Latino populations.” Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Inside California Politics/Emerson College poll shows 54 percent of Hispanics saying that they support recalling the governor.
California Democrats do possess structural advantages, but Newsom suffers from a lack of enthusiasm among voters in his own party. A “real possibility” exists, says Politico, “that the governor could be ousted by the confluence of high Republican turnout and low Democratic participation.” Maybe Democrats are simply not paying attention, confident that Newsom is secure in the bluest of blue states. Indeed, likely voters who support the governor’s removal are more engaged with news about the recall. Maybe the simple answer is that lockdown fatigue is erupting after a year and a half, though efforts to recall the governor precede the pandemic.
Whatever the case, these are interesting times in California; one of the two camps currently dueling over the state’s future is going to regret the experience.