Who Lost—and Who Lost Even Bigger—in the California Recall

From the California GOP to California taxpayers, we survey the damage of a doomed and really, really expensive attempt to oust Governor Gavin Newsom

Traditionally, the day after an election brings an assessment of winners and losers, with an examination of those whose victories portend a bright political future, and on the other side, a look at figures who might want to choose another line of work.

Yet just as the California Gubernatorial Recall Election was not a typical stroll to the ballot box, neither is the day-after assessment “normal.” For when sifting through the smoking aftermath, it is clear that, despite the celebration and spin last night in certain ballrooms, there really are no winners.

Instead, California recorded a set of figures who each suffered a different degree of loss. Here is a rundown.

Gov. Gavin Newsom

With a whopping 64 percent of voters rejecting the recall (that’s as of Wednesday morning with 68 percent of precincts reporting), the well-coiffed governor had a more-than-comfortable margin of victory. Still, Newsom hardly emerges as a shining diamond. The man who early in the pandemic was widely celebrated for his leadership had to struggle through a political gauntlet. Just a month ago polls said the race was too close to call.

The governor has seen his efforts to focus on homelessness, climate change, and other pressing issues be overwhelmed by the noise of an election that never should’ve been. If there were no recall, Newsom might be earning the spotlight for his attempts to better California. Instead, he’s been unable to escape the recall circus and constant reminders of the infamous French Laundry dinner.

Loserdom on a Scale of 1-10, with 10 being the biggest loser: 2

California Democratic Party

Just like Newsom, party chair Rusty Hicks and the rest of the leadership get to “celebrate” raising more than $70 million and sending the recall down to defeat. Losing the governor’s mansion to a Republican, even if only until the 2022 election, would have been a disaster.

But raising all that money and spending all that energy to extinguish the recall means there may not be as much available to help candidates in next year’s election cycle. Remember, a number of now-Blue Congressional seats were previously held by Republicans, and the state party must play a lead role in protecting those chairs. In an ideal world the latter part of 2021 would have been all about building the base for a strong performance in 2022. The recall meant expending political cash and capital on an epic distraction.

Loserdom on a Scale of 1-10: 3

john cox

Tag the Bear

Give John Cox credit: The republican businessman who got crushed Bambi Meets Godzilla-style in the 2018 gubernatorial election found an attention-generating gimmick when he brought out a 1,000-pound Kodiak bear at a campaign event. But the gimmick soon became even more tired than, well, Cox’s candidacy, and ultimately it was hard to determine which was the sadder sight: Cox acting as if he could win, or the beleaguered bear, whose name is Tag, being shuttled about for political purposes.

To little surprise, Cox had earned just 4.4 percent of the vote among those who filled out the second question on the ballot. Tag, fortunately, gets off the campaign trail, but we’ll never forget the uncomfortable image of the majestic ursine creature used as a political prop.

Loserdom on a Scale of 1-10: 4

Larry Elder

Will the self-styled “Sage of South Central” convince his ardent followers that he scored a kind of victory by leading the field of 45 people hoping to succeed Newsom? Absolutely. But ultimately the 47 percent of the vote he received on question two (as of Wednesday morning) nets him not the governorship, but what exactly? I dunno. Ratings? More book sales? Admiration from Donald Trump?

Maybe that’s all Elder ever wanted, but it’s hard to see where he goes politically from here. He probably bumped his head on his electoral ceiling, and it’s doubtful the state Republican party would invest much resources into a future Elder run, particularly if it’s a one-on-one contest against Newsom. Additionally, conducting a statewide campaign meant tossing his dirty laundry into the open, including claims by a former fiancé that Elder brandished a gun while high (he has denied it). A swath of politicians—including fellow Republicans—lambasted past comments he made about women. Sure, Elder generated a lot of attention, but at what cost to his reputation?

Loserdom on a Scale of 1-10: 5

California Republican Party

In hindsight, party leaders including chair Jessica Millan Patterson will have to ask themselves, was the recall worth it? Granted they never endorsed a candidate, but still, significant resources were spent on a failed attempt to bring down the governor.

The result raises another question: Would the party, already outnumbered 2 to 1 by Democrats on state voter rolls, be better positioned if the recall had never happened, and there was an upcoming traditional election where a less-divisive candidate than Elder were the face of the California GOP? An entire campaign could have been built around hammering Newsom and presenting an alternative with wider appeal. After this result, it’s hard to expect the party will find a credible figure who can mount a serious challenge against Newsom with the primary less than nine months away. This loss may have just ensured that Newsom rolls to re-election in 2022.

Loserdom on a Scale of 1-10: 6

Kevin Faulconer

In a regular gubernatorial election, the former San Diego mayor may be the most electable Republican in California. He’s moderate by GOP standards and there is political precedent—Pete Wilson started as mayor of San Diego and wound up as governor. One could foresee a scenario where, in a 2022 election not preceded by a fractious recall, Faulconer captures the party’s nomination and puts on a capable showing against a flawed Newsom. Victory would be a reach, but he likely could pull some votes from the governor’s base.

Yet Faulconer launched himself into the recall cauldron (the recauldron?!), and he may have irrevocably damaged his political future by earning just 8.6 percent of the vote as of Wednesday morning. During the campaign he came off bland, and was swamped by Elder.

Faulconer would have fared better by sitting this one out.

Loserdom on a Scale of 1-10: 7

caitlyn jenner
Caitlyn Jenner got a warmer welcome in Costa Mesa in June (Photo by Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Caitlyn Jenner

She won gold in the Olympic decathlon, but if there were a medal for her performance in the recall election, it’d be…rust? It’s not easy to earn as much media attention as Jenner did and perform so poorly. But like Michael Scott, somehow, she managed. Jenner may have once envisioned herself as an Arnold Schwarzenegger-style figure who could ride the cult of celebrity into the governor’s mansion. Instead, she crashed, looking like an amateur on the campaign trail and earning just 1.1 percent of the vote as of Wednesday morning.

Loserdom on a Scale of 1-10: 9

California Taxpayers

According to the state Department of Finance, the recall cost $276 million—all this for a clown car election that ultimately preserved the status quo, and when a regularly scheduled statewide election takes place in June. If you want to find the best way to waste public money, the recall was it.

Loserdom on a Scale of 1-10: 10

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