Opinion: The California Recall Was Stupid, but Democrats Can Still Learn from It

Even though the long-shot attempt to oust a Democratic governor in a Blue state was a miserable failure, there are plenty of takeaways

Was there ever one second of one day when anyone not named Caitlyn Jenner thought Caitlyn Jenner could be governor of California?

Did she even believe it?

My guess is no, because the campaign she ran was the second dumbest thing I’ve seen non-Trump Republicans do this year. The first was having a recall in the first place.

It cost about $280 million, introduced more division and dangerous conspiracy theories into our public discourse, embarrassed a lot of embarrassing people, and Gavin Newsom is still governor—by a landslide.

But as pointless as it all seems, there are some lessons Democrats can take away from the Republican’s latest exercise in futility.

The first is to deliver for the people. Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison talked about this at length at a Monday night rally in Long Beach with Newsom and President Joe Biden, repeating his constant message that “the D stands for Deliver.”

Newsom didn’t spend the last month trying to win an election based on his great hair and smile. No, he repeatedly talked through a laundry list of actual concrete changes and resources he has delivered to the state. When asked what he had done for Black or Hispanic voters, he gave long, detailed answers. He certainly hasn’t been perfect and California has more than its share of problems, but Newsom’s administration has done a lot for the state and that gave him a good reason to ask voters to stick with him.

But so did COVID-19.

Whereas Californians might have been tempted to do something Californian and go with a jacked movie star or a former Olympian or a YouTuber as their governor in simpler, less body-count-y times, the emergence of the Delta variant kept people focused on the serious problems facing the state.

The stubborn pandemic and Republican efforts to potentially prolong it by ditching simple safety measures it were powerful reminders that despite his controversial excursion to the French Laundry restaurant, Newsom was working hard to keep California safe while governors in Red states were letting the morgues fill up to delight Fox News viewers and protect their would-be presidential campaigns.

But good policy isn’t always enough to be good politics, and the Newsom campaign did a good job of identifying, boosting, and then defining a fringe-right opponent who terrified and energized Democratic voters who might have otherwise slept through this race or voted for Gary Coleman’s ghost on a whim (RIP).

Republican frontrunner Larry Elder was an opposition researcher’s dream come true. He spent countless hours on the radio and on television, and he seemed to have been saying something shocking or offensive every time he got near a microphone.

Instead of assuming voters would hear about his many, many shocking remarks, Newsom talked about them. A lot. He even got the president of the United States doing it.

At the Long Beach rally, Biden and Newsom went through Elder’s greatest hits—being opposed to minimum wage, thinking men are smarter than women, proposing that slaveholders were owed reparations—and they used the comments to tie Elder to the Great Democratic Motivator himself, Donald J. Trump.

“All of you know last year I got to run against the real Donald Trump,” Biden said. “Well this year the leading Republican running for governor is the closest thing to a Trump clone that I’ve ever seen in your state. He’s leading the other team. He’s the clone of Donald Trump. Can you imagine him being governor of this state? You can’t let that happen. There’s too much at stake.”

All too often we see Democratic candidates acting like they have to choose between focusing on pocketbook issues and fighting an increasingly right-wing Republican Party on the cultural battlefield. Gavin Newsom and his campaign reminded us that it can be beneficial to do both.

The last and maybe the most important lesson to take away from the California recall election is that Republicans are done trying to win, they are done trying to lose, and they seem to be committed to subverting American democracy instead.

In the days leading up to the recall as polls showed Newsom’s margin of victory growing, Elder, Fox News, and Trump all started whining about how they were going to be cheated out of victory in a solidly Blue State that Biden won less than a year ago by 30 points.

Putting aside for a second how dumb it is to tell your own voters that an election will be rigged (thanks again for Georgia, Donnie), this has gone from dangerous trend to active threat to our country. Republicans are trying to destroy faith in our elections, making the kind of unthinkable carnage we saw in Washington, D.C. on January 6 seem all the more reasonable to an increasingly angry segment of the electorate.

Every single thing the Republican Party has done since the last election has made clear that they are planning to cry, lie, and just generally wreck any election they compete in going forward. What Elder and his friends are doing in California probably won’t work because it’s California. Can we say the same for Georgia? Or Arizona? Or Pennsylvania?

But Dems should already know what the playbook is. Now we know we have a powerful combination of strategies that will help push back.

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