A Republican-led bid to recall Governor Gavin Newsom of California ended in defeat, as Democrats in the nation’s most populous state closed ranks against a small grass-roots movement that accelerated with the spread of Covid-19. Voters affirmed their support for Governor Newsom, whose lead grew insurmountable as the count continued in Los Angeles County and other large Democratic strongholds after the polls had closed. Larry Elder, a conservative talk radio host, and Donald Trump accolade led 46 challengers hoping to become the next governor. The vote spoke to the power liberal voters wield in California, as no Republican has held statewide office in California since Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger left office in 2010. Additionally, the vote also reflected the state’s recent progress against the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 67,000 lives in California. California has one of the nation’s highest vaccination rates and one of its lowest rates of new virus cases, which Governor Newsom tirelessly argued to voters were the results of his vaccine and mask requirements.
The Associated Press called the race for Governor Gavin Newsom, who had won in a 62 percent landslide in 2018, less than an hour after the polls closed on Tuesday. About 66 percent of the eight million ballots counted by 10 p.m. Pacific time said the governor should stay in office. “It appears that we are enjoying an overwhelmingly ‘no’ vote tonight here in the state of California, but ‘no’ is not the only thing that was expressed tonight,” Governor Newsom told reporters. “We said yes to science. We said yes to vaccines. We said yes to ending this pandemic. We said yes to people’s right to vote without fear of fake fraud and voter suppression. We said yes to women’s fundamental constitutional right to decide for herself what she does with her body, her fate, her future. We said yes to diversity. In Orange County, Larry Elder spoke to a packed ballroom of supporters and conceded the race. “Let’s be gracious in defeat,” Elder said, adding, “We may have lost the battle, but we are going to win the war.”
Considered a bellwether for the 2022 midterm elections, the recall outcome came as a relief to Democrats nationally. Though polls showed that the recall was consistently opposed by some 60 percent of Californians, surveys over the summer suggested that likely voters were unenthusiastic about Gavin Newsom. As the election deadline approached, however, his base mobilized. President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota traveled to California to campaign for Governor Newsom, while Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former President Barack Obama appeared in his commercials. Some $70 million in contributions to his campaign poured in from Democratic donors, tribal and business groups, and organized labor. The governor charged that far-right extremists and supporters of former President Donald Trump were attempting a hostile takeover in a state where they could never hope to attain majority support in a regular election. He also contrasted California’s low rates of coronavirus infection with the large numbers of deaths and hospitalizations in Republican-run states like Florida and Texas. Electoral math did the rest: Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one in California, and pandemic voting rules encouraged high turnout, allowing ballots to be mailed to each of the state’s 22 million registered, active voters with prepaid postage. More than 40 percent of those Californians voted early.
Initiated by a retired Republican sheriff’s sergeant in Northern California, Orrin Heatlie, the recall was one of six conservative-led petitions that began circulating within months of Gavin Newsom’s inauguration. Recall attempts are common in California, where direct democracy has long been part of the political culture. For example, Governors Culbert Olson, Pat Brown, and Ronald Reagan were subject to failed recall attempts in 1939, 1960, and 1967 respectively. But only one other attempt against a governor has qualified for the ballot, in 2003, when Californians recalled Governor Gray Davis on the heels of the 9/11 attacks, the dot-com bust and rolling electricity blackouts. They elected Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace Davis as governor, substituting a centrist Republican for a centrist Democrat. Initially, Heatlie’s petition had difficulty gaining traction. But it gathered steam as the pandemic swept California and Governor Newsom struggled to contain it. Californians who at first were supportive of the governor’s health orders wearied of shutdowns in businesses and classrooms, and public dissatisfaction boiled over in November when Newsom was spotted mask-free at the French Laundry, an exclusive wine country restaurant, after urging the public to avoid gatherings.
As the outcome in the recall election became apparent, Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist and publisher of California Target Book, a nonpartisan political almanac, said the governor held off “a Republican mugging” and “could come out of this stronger than ever, depending on his margin.” Recall backers also claimed a measure of victory “We were David against Goliath, we were the Alamo,” said Mike Netter, one of a handful of Tea Party Republican activists whose anger at Governor Gavin Newsom’s opposition to the death penalty, his embrace of undocumented workers and his deep establishment roots helped inspire the attempted ouster.
Other Republicans, however, called the recall a grave political miscalculation. About one-quarter of the state’s registered voters are Republicans, and their numbers have been dwindling since the 1990s, a trend that recall proponents believed might be reversed if they could somehow flip the nation’s biggest state. The recall’s defeat, in a special election that cost the state an estimated $276 million, instead marked “another nail in the coffin,” said Mike Madrid, a California Republican strategist who has been deeply critical of the party under Donald Trump, charging in particular that the Republican. has driven away Latino voters. Madrid said the recall signified that, even in California, Trump’s party had become part of “an increasingly radical, exercised and shrinking Republican base, lashing out in different ways in different parts of the country.” He took note of the voter fraud accusations that some in his party began to make well before the polls closed, echoing Trump, who claimed without evidence that Democrats had “rigged” the recall election. Despite the yawning gap in support, for example, Mr. Elder demanded this week, before the voting was finished, that a special legislative session be called “to investigate and ameliorate the twisted results.” He said there had been “instances of undocumented ballots” but provided no examples.
The election results capped a nearly yearlong push by Governor Gavin Newsom to persuade voters to see beyond that darkness. Since early this year, when it became clear that the recall would have the money and time to qualify for the ballot, Governor Newsom has campaigned relentlessly. Taking advantage of a huge state surplus, a result of higher-than-expected gains in income and stock prices for affluent Californians, the governor moved aggressively to demonstrate that the state could both protect its economy and curb the virus. In recent months, he has rolled out vaccinations, cleaned up trash in neighborhoods neglected by pandemic-worn Californians, thrown motel rooms open to homeless Californians, announced stimulus checks and rent assistance for poor and middle-class Californians, and stood repeatedly in front of a gold lamé curtain to host one of the nation’s largest vaccine lotteries. As in 2003, when he ran against a popular progressive for mayor of San Francisco, Newsom framed the race not as a referendum on him but as a choice between himself and a potentially catastrophic alternative, in this case, Larry Elder, whose name recognition quickly vaulted him to the top of the list of challengers. Noting that Elder had built a career bashing liberal causes, the governor painted him as a Trump clone who would foist far-right policies on a state that has been a bastion of liberal thinking. “Vote no and go,” the governor told voters, suggesting that they stick to voting against recalling him and not even dignify the second question on the ballot, which asked who should replace Newsom if the recall succeeds.