The Recall Poses a Real Threat to Governor Gavin Newsom, and No One Can Pretend Otherwise

The California recall election is coming up fast, and the biggest threat to the governor’s future isn’t another candidate—it’s voter apathy

To many people, the officially titled California Gubernatorial Recall Election is utterly bonkers. The San Diego Union-Tribune recently referred to it as a “ridiculous and ridiculously expensive election.” The Mercury News tabbed it “an opportunistic, partisan effort to thwart the will of the people.” About a zillion media outlets and observers have labeled it the “recall circus.”

It may be all those things, but it is also an existential threat to the political career of Governor Gavin Newsom, and could be a gut punch to the entire Democratic Party of California. What once seemed laughable is now anything but.

Election Day is September 14, but ballots have already landed in the mailboxes of 22 million California voters. With rhetoric rising and a tsunami of daily headlines, here is a rundown of where things stand.

Trouble with a Capital T

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by approximately two to one in the state, but the contest is apparently close. A FiveThirtyEight poll on August 18 gave the “Keep” option 48.8 percent, barely above the 47.6 percent pushing to “Remove.” A recent CBS News/YouGov poll among likely voters had 52 percent rejecting the recall and 48 percent supporting it.

“I think both Gavin Newsom and the Democratic party ought to take this threat very seriously,” said Darry Sragow, a Democratic party strategist and publisher of the California Target Book. “I wouldn’t necessarily use the word ‘worried,’ but they have everything at stake here, and they need to be paying attention and mounting all the resources needed and doing everything they can to make sure the recall does not become a reality.”

John Thomas, a local Republican strategist, thinks that worry is the appropriate response for the party in power.

“Newsom should be losing a substantial amount of sleep over this,” Thomas said. “The fact that every public survey shows that it’s basically within the margin of error tells you this thing could be close, and what happens over the course of the next couple weeks could tilt it either way.”

What’s clear is that Newsom has adopted a busy bee schedule—the guy is everywhere, seeking to drum up support with steps including touting coronavirus vaccination progress and dedicating $12 billion to fight homelessness in the state. The big guns are coming out, with figures including President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Senator Elizabeth Warren urging Californians to reject the recall.

The question is, what is resonating with voters? Sragow said he has heard worries that the activity may not be appropriately focused on the get-out-the-vote effort.

“The concern was they’ve raised a great deal of money but they’re putting it into TV ads when they need to put it into good old-fashioned arm twisting and the current equivalent of door-knocking efforts to make sure Democrats turn in their ballots,” Sragow said.

Thomas also thinks that motivation may be the decisive factor, particularly for low-propensity voters. “Advertising is effective at persuading people who are going to vote, but is not as effective at turning voters out, and that is what the Newsom team has to do,” he said.

The Mechanics

How California reached this stage is complicated. What happens next is simple. Voters answer just two questions: Query number one on the ballot reads, “Shall Gavin Newsom be recalled (removed) from the office of Governor?”

If a majority of voters pick “No,” then Newsom is safe, at least until the regularly scheduled election next year. But if more than 50 percent of respondents say “Yes,” then question number two is triggered: 46 people with gubernatorial dreams are on the ballot, and the one who pulls the most votes gets Newsom’s office.

This is where things get strange, because only a tiny number of voters may support the next governor. If the top finisher only receives, say 20 percent, then she or he still will take charge of a state of 40 million people.

Cast of Characters

In the 2003 recall, when voters bounced Governor Gray Davis, many Californians were comfortable replacing him with movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger. None of the people on question two of the current ballot boast that kind of cachet, and those with the type of resume that usually leads to a governorship are in short supply. The closest is former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a moderate Republican who the L.A. Times identified as the best “hold your nose” candidate.

After that, well, meh. Republican Kevin Kiley is a member of the state Assembly, but few were aware of him until the recall. Businessman John Cox is primarily known as the guy who drags a 1,000-pound bear around the state. Caitlyn Jenner’s abysmal campaign was lowlighted by leaving the state to shoot a reality show in Australia. Former Congressman Doug Ose dropped out last week after suffering a heart attack.

larry elder
Will a right-wing radio host who thinks workers don’t deserve a minimum wage be the next governor?

Greg Doherty/Getty Images

Which Brings Us to…

Larry Elder lacks experience in elected office, but has ascended to the top of the polls, likely due to the prominence gained from his nationally syndicated radio show. The conservative Republican has said he would repeal mask mandates and thinks the minimum wage should be exactly $0. His politics are anathema to Blue-blooded Californians, but he’s hitting the target for a portion of GOP voters, and his campaign rallies draw crowds.

“Larry is exciting a different portion of the Republican electorate, and maybe before they didn’t care for Newsom but wouldn’t vote for the recall,” said Thomas. “Now they have a reason to vote for the recall because they can get their guy Larry Elder in. If the recall succeeds, I think credit probably goes to Elder for flicking on the excitement in the home stretch and shifting turnout ever so slightly.”

Indeed, his candidacy is strong enough that other Republicans have begun to slag him. Newsom has said Elder is to the right of Donald Trump, which is political kryptonite in California.

It’s to the point that the opposition research is churning and the media is digging—Politico recently reported that Elder’s former fiancée and radio producer charged that he pulled a gun on her while high. Elder has denied the allegation.

One Basket, Every Egg

When Davis was under threat 18 years ago, another prominent Democrat, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, also appeared on the recall ballot. It didn’t save the day, as Republican Schwarzenegger rolled.

This time, Newsom and party leaders pressured every name Democrat into sitting out the race, believing an alternative candidate would undermine the governor. Some Democrats are on the ballot, but none from the party mainstream—the one who has gained the most attention is Kevin Paffrath, a 29-year-old real estate investor best known for his “Meet Kevin” YouTube channel.

Some observers now fret that the party’s decision to forego a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency candidate could drop California into the hands of a Republican. Even if that happens, Sragow urges a more-measured view—after all, there is a regularly scheduled election in 2022.

“What’s not at stake here is continued Democratic dominance of the electorate in California. That’s not what’s going on,” he said. “If the recall succeeds, would that count as a big political embarrassment? Sure. But it would not be a calamity for the Democratic party or the state.”

Bad News May Be Good News

For Newsom backers, the biggest threat is not another candidate, but rather a who-cares outlook. It seems the only way a Democrat can lose a statewide election is if voters don’t show up, and party strategists fear that factors including the oddity of voting in September could keep people from hitting the polls on Election Day or putting a stamp on their mail-in ballot. Other factors, including the infamous French Laundry dinner, could also undermine Newsom.

In reality, the weak polling might be the best thing possible for Team Newsom. There can now be no underplaying the threat, and the party’s ability to raise money provides every opportunity, and then some, to launch the most furious get-out-the-vote-drive ever. If Newsom loses, no one will be able to claim they were surprised.

We’ll know whether or not there is a surprise on September 15.

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