Will Gavin Newsom’s Risky Recall Strategy Pay Off?

I asked Guy Marzorati, who covers politics for KQED in California, what are the odds that, one month from now, there will be a new governor in the state. “I think the odds are still in our current governor’s favor to keep his job, but at this point, the recall race is a whole lot closer than I think we ever thought it would be. Certainly closer than Gavin Newsom would like,” he said.

You might say Gov. Gavin Newsom has become the physical embodiment of that “How it started/How it’s going” meme. That’s because a little over a year ago, the headlines about the governor were glowing. The L.A. Times editorial board declared Newsom the “leader California needs”; the Guardian marveled at “how the coronavirus crisis gave Gavin Newsom his leadership moment.” But life comes at you fast. And now, after more than a million Californians signed a recall petition against him, he’s fighting for his political life—against 46 candidates. It’s a bit of a circus. “One of the leading contenders in the recall race was subpoenaed on stage at a debate this week,” Marzorati said.

Mostly, Californians are just feeling confused by this whole process. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Marzorati about whether this confusion will add up to a change in leadership for the Golden State. And if it does, who could be running things? Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: There are 19 states where a governor can be recalled by the voters themselves. But in California, it’s easier than almost anywhere else to get a recall started. Advocates need just 12 percent of the raw number of voters in the previous election from at least five counties to sign a petition in order to trigger a recall election. But that’s still no small task. More than 50 recalls have been initiated in California, but this is only the second time a recall has come to a vote.

Guy Marzorati: You’re talking about a massive state. Even getting the 1.5 million signatures is hard. And even in this campaign, without a four-month extension that this recall campaign got from a judge back in November, there’s no way they would have been able to collect that many signatures in time. Yes, California has a low bar compared to the rest of the country, but historically, it’s been rare. You could make an argument that might change in this era of hyperpartisanship. This could result in a situation where anytime there’s a Democratic governor under these current circumstances going forward, they might face a recall challenge like this.

Although Newsom’s approval rating in the state is in the 50s, the momentum is on the pro-recall side. In state polling, the “no” vote is only 4 points ahead of the “yes” vote to recall. That’s within the margin of error. Combine that with a pretty convoluted voting process and you have a recipe for an upset. Everyone’s being mailed a ballot, is that right?

That’s right. So voting is actually going on right now. The deadline to mail out ballots was the 16th. And voters now have their ballot in their hand. They can mail it back, they can drop it off in a drop box, and there still will be in-person voting. But the last day to vote is Sept. 14.

So what does the ballot look like?

It breaks down into two questions. The first one is the simple one: Should Newsom be removed from office, yes or no? And then the second question is, if Newsom is removed from office, who should then be governor? And you’re given a list of 46 candidates to choose from. Newsom is not on that second list. And there’s no real opportunity to write in a candidate. You can’t write in Newsom. You can’t write in another Democrat.

Because voters can’t cast a ballot for Newsom, the governor’s campaign has made this strategic choice: tell supporters to vote no on that first question about the recall. And then for that second question, where you can pick a replacement governor, Newsom is saying, leave that blank. Is that a good strategy?

I question it. No. 1, the reason he’s doing it is to simplify the messaging. All along, he wanted to make sure there was no Democrat who ran on that replacement ballot who might tempt voters to say, “Usually I would vote to keep Newsom as governor, but I really like fill-in-the-blank progressive and I’m going to vote to recall Newsom and pick this other guy.” Now, the question is: Will this just lead to more confusion from voters, or in the worst-case scenario, will it leave Democrats with no Plan B? If Newsom is recalled from office, there is no high-profile Democrat on the replacement ballot. All signs point to if Newsom gets removed from the governor’s office, it’ll be a Republican who takes over running the state. So in that sense, it might have been a risky strategy on the part of the Democrats to pursue this. And we’ll just have to see how it plays out.

I just keep thinking about Newsom’s position, which is so weird, because he has to turn out the vote right now—but for an election he doesn’t want to be in. And he’s asking people to kind of vote in the negative for him. It’s a weird thing to do.

It’s a really strange place to be. People use the catchphrase “An election’s not a referendum.” You know, a candidate can always turn the spotlight back on their opponent. And that’s a lot harder in a recall when it really is a referendum, when voters are being directly asked: Newsom, yes or no?

When do you even expect to have results?

If the 2003 recall is any indication, it could be pretty quickly. We had a picture of that on election night. And California is a big enough state that for a lot of these statewide results, we would have enough votes for the Associated Press or other news organizations to make a call that evening. But if it ends up that the replacement ballot is a lot closer than we expected, if Newsom’s recalled, there’s a possibility we don’t know exactly who has the most votes on the replacement ballot. My expectation would be that this is not a race that drags on and on and on. But if I’m wrong, you can play this back in late September.

Part of what I think is so hard about this election is that it’s kind of unprecedented. Even though there’s been a recall like this in the past—everyone remembers with Gray Davis being recalled and Arnold Schwarzenegger taking the helm—that election was so different, where Gray Davis’ approval ratings were way down and Arnold Schwarzenegger was a big star. Is it worth talking about that and how that’s playing in and factoring in to the Democratic response in particular as they try to figure out what they know and what they don’t know here?

This is shaping out very differently in that there is no candidate like Schwarzenegger. Newsom could get 49 percent of the vote and lose his job to someone who might only get 20 percent of the vote on the replacement ballot. That’s not what happened in 2003. The recall got 55 percent of the vote to toss Davis out of office. And Schwarzenegger ended up getting 48 or 49 percent of the vote on the replacement ballot. So he had a lot more of a mandate going into office. I think it’s likely if Newsom is removed in this election, there won’t be a candidate that can claim that. You’re going to see a candidate get maybe 20, 25, 30 percent of the vote on the replacement ballot, which I think does raise more questions of legitimacy around the entire process.

Let’s talk about the people who are running against Gavin Newsom. My understanding is that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are endorsing a candidate, which is interesting, because it creates this vast field with a lot of people vying for attention.

Well, it’s strange because there haven’t been endorsements, as you said. The Republican Party felt like let’s not anoint any specific candidate. Let’s let every candidate bring their constituency to the first question. And so the field has stayed wide open. There have been a few debates. Larry Elder, who’s been the leading candidate, a Republican, hasn’t showed up to any of the debates. And I think he feels like at this point he’s led every poll. He might feel like he doesn’t need to interact with the other candidates at this point.

Larry Elder is a longtime libertarian talk radio host from Los Angeles, known for inflammatory rhetoric about everything from reproductive rights to race. Elder is Black, by the way. He calls himself the “sage from South Central.” It’s important to note that front-runner is a loose term here. Elder is polling at only 19 percent of likely recall voters. But should Newsom lose the referendum, that would be enough to hand Elder the governorship.  

It’s been a static field since Elder got in. He had a remarkable rise. The moment he got in the race, he skyrocketed to the top. And he’s gotten a lot of support from grassroots Republican voters. I saw a figure that was fascinating: He’s only been in the race three or four weeks, and he’s already gotten more small-dollar donations than the last three Republicans who have run for governor in California combined. So he definitely has the grassroots Republican energy at this point. And I think he feels like he just has to run out the clock on these other candidates.

Larry Elder is on the record saying things like Roe v. Wade was “one of the worst decisions that the Supreme Court ever handed down” and that the dangers of secondhand smoke have been overblown by “professional victims.” More recently, serious allegations have come to light that he threatened an ex-fiancée with a gun, made her fear for her safety.

But he brought in a large following from his years on the air in Southern California and as a nationwide syndicated host. And he also has brought in more of the Trump feeling than many of these other candidates, who have tried to paint themselves as more moderate Republicans. Elder has questioned climate change. He’s said there should be a zero-dollar minimum wage. He’s definitely created the most controversy. And it’s been hard for any of the candidates to get their name out there ever since Elder got in this.

There are a lot of greatest hits from Larry Elder in terms of things he says that are spicy and get people talking. The thing about him is he seems like a cartoon villain of a Republican. And in some ways I look at him and I’m like, does this actually help Gavin Newsom? Because he can basically say, “You don’t want this guy, so vote for me. And it drives his base.

And that’s exactly the strategy the Newsom campaign has pivoted to in the last couple of weeks. They’re now running advertisements where you only see Larry Elder. You don’t see any of the other Republicans in the field. It’s a discussion of Newsom and the mandates that he’s pursuing around coronavirus prevention—vaccine mandates, mandates for kids to wear masks in school—and then immediately pivoting and saying, if I lose this recall, Larry Elder will be governor and he will take away the vaccine mandate and he will take away these mask mandates. And so it’s really making this one-on-one case, which I do think helps Newsom. It’s framing this as an either/or and not just a “do you like me or not?” question. It’s a lot better place for him to be.

If someone does end up beating Gavin Newsom, they’ll be up for reelection in just a year, right?

Right, the next primary is in June of 2022. It’s a top two primary, so the two candidates who get the most votes advance to the general election in November. So it’ll be a short period of time in which they’ll govern and they’ll be doing it with a Democratic supermajority in both the Assembly and the Senate.

I guess the argument among folks who are against Newsom but maybe a little wary of Larry Elder could be “How much harm could he do? It’s just a year.” What would you say to that?

I would say we’ve seen over the past year the amount that a governor can do just with executive power. Through large stretches of the pandemic, the Legislature was literally not in session, and Newsom was running the state’s pandemic response solo. And then there’s the big wild card, which is the Senate seat currently held by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who, if she, for one reason or another, cannot hold that seat, the governor of California would pick the replacement. And I think that’s kind of the break-glass argument you hear from Democrats, which is Larry Elder could be picking the state’s next U.S. senator if he’s the governor.

So what’s your strategy for the next month. You’ve got 46 candidates, 47 if you count the governor himself; you’ve got a crazy ballot. How do you even begin to cover it?

For the next month, the top thing is getting information out about how to vote. That is absolutely paramount. It’s important for us in a normal election year, but certainly in a year like this, when there just is so much confusion about how this ballot works. We’re getting calls from people saying they wrote in Gavin Newsom as the second choice or they are doing all types of things with their ballot that is not actually per the rules. So my real focus will just be trying to get out information about how to navigate this recall process, which might seem simple—it’s two questions. But it’s a really novel ballot for a lot of California voters and a really unique election.

Get more news from Mary Harris every weekday.