When voters replaced Democrat Gray Davis with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor in 2003, it was the first time in the state’s 153-year history (at that point) it had recalled a governor. A growing exasperation with the current occupant of the office suggests Californians might not wait that long before they try again.
Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, elected in 2018 with 62% of the vote, appears to be in trouble. Several recall efforts have failed, but one is still active, and it has until March 17 to collect the 1,495,709 signatures needed before a recall election can be placed on the ballot. Already more than 900,000 have been gathered.
Newsom’s and Davis’ circumstances are not that different. PRI’s Tim Anaya, who has worked in a governor’s office – he was a speechwriter for Schwarzenegger – says “there are quite a lot of similarities between the two.”
“Both Newsom and Davis inherited rosy state budgets with large surpluses amid an era of economic prosperity and roaring tax revenues being generated for the state.” Then, “almost overnight, each experienced a severe economic downturn that turned surpluses into massive deficits in the blink of an eye.”
Newsom and Davis also stumbled into unusual and unexpected – though this is arguable – political thickets. Among other troubles, Davis was overcome by a solvable energy crisis he declined to correct. Newsom has the coronavirus pandemic, his own energy problems and wildfires pulling him down. Davis’ responses did not inspire confidence among voters. Neither has the behavior of Newsom, who fueled recall fever with his visit to the French Laundry, where he attended an indoor birthday party with an unmasked group while nagging everyday Californians to stay home until, well, whenever he says it’s OK to go out again.
Despite the similarities, it seems unlikely history will repeat itself, with Newsom being replaced with a Republican as Davis was. As blue as California was in 2003, it’s even bluer in 2021. Only the wildest imagination could visualize a Democratic governor being turned out of office for a Republican. It’s almost inconceivable that voters in California, where Democratic Party registrations outnumber GOP registrations by 22 percentage points, would send a Republican to the governor’s mansion.
Put another way, by Hoover Institution fellow Bill Whalen, “a successful recall effort is like a three-legged stool – it requires an unpopular governor, unpopular policies, and, finally, a popular alternative. In present-day California, it’s that last leg that’s missing: a credible replacement for Newsom.”
Should the long shot materialize, though, expect arguments to emerge that the GOP has returned as a relevant political party in California.
But maybe the more material point would be what a Newsom loss would mean for the Democratic Party in California.
Former Republican congressman Tom Campbell recently wrote in the Orange County Register that Republicans “shouldn’t pretend” the GOP is resurgent in California just because three Republicans took Democrats’ congressional seats in the 2020 election. He’s probably right. Even if Democrats lost ground due to the rough politics of a recall election, the GOP isn’t necessarily in line to make gains.
Nearly 30% of Californians have no party preference by registration or are identified as “other” by the secretary of state’s office. Merely getting a recall on the ballot is likely to have some impact on that 30%. They might not suddenly become registered Republicans, or even vote GOP. But after a bruising recall campaign and all the damage done, they could stay at home in future elections, dissatisfied by Democrats, uninspired by Republicans. A significant portion of the 46% registered as Democrats might even be turned off as they learn more about Newsom’s conduct and policy missteps, which would be magnified by a recall election.
There are no “ifs” or “could be’s” about the heat being turned up on Newsom, however. On New Year’s Day, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the recall campaign is drawing large contributors. “The effort,” it said, “has received a jolt of seriousness in the form of big-dollar donors.” CNN has noted that the recall is gaining momentum. Based on the letters it’s receiving from readers, the Los Angeles Times is warning Newsom to “watch out” because “voters are angry and primed for a recall.”
No matter how it all turns out, it’s safe to say Newsom’s presidential aspirations will have been severely injured if not buried. A California politician who has lost the confidence of so many of his constituents would have little chance with voters in the rest of the country, despite how smooth he appears on screen.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.