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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Pointless Newsom Recall Election Looking Likely

There’s always something unusual cooking in California politics, and I reported on the latest zaniness from the Golden State at New York:

Like other governors, California’s Gavin Newsom is surely pleased at the favorable trajectory of COVID-19 cases and prospects for a return to something like normalcy. But happier times may not arrive quite quickly enough for Newsom: He is on the very brink of the ultimate nightmare for California officeholders, a recall election. With 11 days left before the deadline, organizers of the drive to recall Newsom now claim they’ve collected nearly 2 million signatures on their petition. At the current rate of signature verification, that could be just enough to reach the goal of 1.5 million, trigging an election this summer or fall (though Republicans are hedging their bets via unsupported claims that Democrats will find a way to void recall petitions illegitimately).

Newsom is not (at this point) even close to being as unpopular as the last California governor to be recalled: Gray Davis, who was replaced in a 2003 recall election by none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. But while there is almost always low-level recall activity by some opposing party for any given governor of California, this time it’s been fed by various types of discontent with the state’s handling of the pandemic (particularly school closings and restrictions on churches and certain businesses). And for Newsom, specifically, the coup de grâce may have been his much-publicized attendance at an indoor dinner for a lobbyist friend last November at the ultraexclusive French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley — which violated Newsom’s own pandemic guidelines. Since then, the slow start to California’s vaccine rollout has only added more fuel to the fire.

“County elections officials must determine how many signatures are valid and report their signature counts by April 29, after which the Secretary of State’s office will have ten calendar days to determine if the effort met the nearly 1.5 million signature threshold. Then, people who signed the petition would have 30 business days to remove their signatures. Counties have 10 business days after that to report any signature removals to the Secretary of State. At that point, the California Department of Finance would have 30 business days to develop a cost estimate for the recall election, which the Legislature would have 30 days to review.”

And then Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis would have to schedule the recall election within 60 to 80 days. She, like every other statewide official and most of the county elected officials involved in the recall process, is a Democrat. So, too, are the legislative leaders who could amend the recall process to delay the election even further (Democrats have supermajorities in both state legislative chambers.) Assuming California rebounds from the pandemic doldrums, every delay could allow a boost for Newsom’s popularity. But more importantly the state’s heavily Democratic character makes Newsom a better bet to survive a recall than Davis was at a time when California Republicans were significantly stronger.

The way recall elections work complicates the dynamics. Voters will have two questions to resolve. First, they must decide whether to recall Newsom, (which is an up-or-down vote). Second, if they do decide to eject him from office, they must decide who will replace him. The incumbent in a recall cannot run to succeed himself. So the big strategic decision for Democrats is whether they successfully discourage any Democratic “replacement” candidates and just gamble on Newsom defeating the recall. If he fails, of course, California will have a Republican or possibly an independent governor. That’s assuming anyone can control the replacement field; thanks to very low qualifying requirements, you could have a vast number of contestants (there were 135 candidates on the ballot in 2003).

Let’s say for the sake of argument that no major Democrats run. There are currently three major Republicans mulling a replacement candidacy: 2018 gubernatorial nominee John Cox; former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer; and former Trump administration acting Director of National Intelligence Ric Grenell. Perhaps the GOP can cull their own field, but in theory, a Republican could become governor with a plurality that represents far fewer votes than Newsom would win against the recall. That possibility reinforces an anomaly in the recall process: Since California adopted a “top two” primary system in 2011, every victorious general election candidate has won a majority. That may not be the case this year if Newsom is recalled.

At present, the best bet is that a recall election will happen, and will amount to an off-year amusement at best and an enormous waste of time and campaign dollars at worst. In three polls taken in early February, Newsom’s job-approval rating ranged from a high of 52 percent to a low of 46 percent. If the pandemic does abate, Democrats don’t split, and Newsom doesn’t badly stumble going forward, he should win the recall vote, and then nobody will much care which Republican finishes first in a replacement vote that no longer means anything. Indeed, California Republicans may wind up deciding they would have been wiser to lay off Newsom for the moment and save their powder (and money) for 2022 elections when they could stand to benefit from a midterm wave.

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