In this case, the polls had it right. As the recall election came closer and closer, California’s electorate reverted more and more back to its blue-state norm. The result? As of the moment with 67% of precincts reporting, nearly two-thirds of the vote rejected the recall of Gavin Newsom as governor, allowing him to finish the final year-plus of his term.
Ah, what could have been …
California Gov. Gavin Newsom survived a historic recall election Tuesday, winning a major vote of confidence during a COVID-19 pandemic that has shattered families and livelihoods and tested his ability to lead the state through the largest worldwide health crisis in modern times.
The recall offered Republicans their best chance in more than a decade to take the helm of the largest state in the union. But the effort was undercut when Newsom and the nation’s leading Democrats, aided by visits to California by President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, portrayed the campaign to oust the governor as a “life and death” battle against “Trumpism” and far-right anti-vaccine activists.
Conservative talk show host Larry Elder led the 46 candidates on the second question on the ballot hoping to become governor, but that became meaningless after a majority of California voters decided to keep Newsom in office.
Newsom cast the 64/36 results as a vote of confidence in his administration:
Appearing resolute, Newsom cast the rejection of the recall as a vote in support “of all those things we hold dear as Californians.” His victory, he said, was a victory for science-based COVID-19 vaccines to end the pandemic and abortion rights for women, as well as economic and racial justice.
“I’m humbled and grateful to the millions and millions of Californians that exercised their fundamental right to vote and express themselves so overwhelmingly by rejecting the division, by rejecting the cynicism, rejecting so much of the negativity that’s defined our politics in this country over the course of so many years,” Newsom said.
Han Solo’s advice applies here: Don’t get cocky. Newsom didn’t survive because he suddenly became a lot more popular. He survived because the alternative became a strong conservative in Larry Elder, who far outstripped the other eleventy-seven candidates on the second question in the recall ballot. Newsom won’t come out and say this for obvious reasons, but the bad polling in this recall up until the end has made it clear that California voters aren’t impressed with his leadership.
In the end, though, California is a deep-blue progressive state, and even an incompetent and hypocritical boob like Newsom is preferable to such voters than a strong conservative who knows what he’s doing. In 2003, before California took its harder turn to the Left, Gray Davis would likely have survived his recall election had Arnold Schwarzenegger not jumped into the race and bigfooted Tom McClintock. Schwarzenegger ran as a Republican, but his A-lister Hollywood celebrity and his ties to the Kennedys made him a safe and likable alternative. Had McClintock ended up as the alternative, the conservative legislator would have pushed Democratic voters back to Davis, avoiding the 55.4% loss.
Larry Elder changed the inflection of the race with his emergence as the certain alternative. He ended up with almost half of the vote on the second question (46.6%), with Democrat Kevin Paffrath far behind in second place at 9.9% of the vote (at the moment). Larry likely energized turnout on both sides of the recall question, but he certainly succeeded at galvanizing Newsom’s opposition. But galvanization has its costs, and the result is an almost perfect reversion to the partisan status quo. Joe Biden won California last year in a similar 64/35 split, don’t forget.
So was there ever any hope of unseating Newsom? It appears not, at least not without an A-list Hollywood celebrity on hand to deliver the coup de grace. But Newsom and his party should remember the last several months as a warning that even Californians can get restive when hypocritical, incompetent boobs run amok in Sacramento, and that perhaps a better option should be exercised in 2022.