Will the Democrats force Newsom out to keep the governorship?

Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat via AP, Pool

When it comes to Democratic Governors who appear to be in danger of hitting the unemployment lines, most of the attention this week has been focused on Andrew Cuomo. But he’s not the only top blue state official who is teetering on the brink of disaster. Out in California, Gavin Newsom can also see the vultures circling above his office and some members of his party are already quietly side-stepping away from him. As recently as last week, polling showed that a slim majority of Californians now support removing him from office in the upcoming recall election. But even in a reliably blue state like California, this could turn into a dicey proposition for the Democrats. Cutting Newsom loose wouldn’t be that big of a deal for the party if the writing is on the wall, but that’s only true if they get to name one of their own to replace him. As John Fund points out at National Review, even though another poll shows Newsom narrowly squeaking by, that’s no longer a sure thing. Depending on how the cards play out, Newsom’s collapse could actually turn the governor’s mansion over to the Republicans, so they’re discussing ways to avoid that scenario.

The latest Emerson College survey shows the recall failing among likely voters by only 46 percent to 48 percent. Even one out of ten who oppose the recall say it’s time for “someone new” in the governor’s office, so if he does survive the recall, his reelection chances in 2022 could be dicey.

A recent Public Opinion Strategies poll found that 57 percent of voters give Newsom a D or an F on homelessness, and 49 percent give him the same low grades on controlling the state’s cost of living.

While it’s still far from a sure thing, if Newsom manages to lose the recall, there’s a non-zero chance that he could wind up being replaced by Republican radio host (and Salem Media star) Larry Elder. He’s already taken the lead in fundraising which is always a good sign. Media outlets from both ends of the spectrum, including the Wall Street Journal and CNN, spent part of the weekend asking if this improbable scenario could actually become a reality. And Newsom is taking the threat seriously enough that he’s been attacking Elder in recent speeches.

Such an outcome would basically be the worst-case scenario for the California Democratic Party. If Elder takes office, it’s going to be a quite different situation than when The Governator took over after the state’s last recall. Arnold Schwarzenegger won while running as a Republican, but let’s be honest. He was never more than a Republican by convenience. He governed from the left on most issues and was barely distinguishable from his Democratic opponents. Elder is a serious conservative who would end up holding a veto pen at the ready for much of the state legislature’s liberal landmines.

So what can the Democrats do about it? If the recall election moves forward and Elder wins, the answer is basically nothing. But there is an alternative. If his party has a significantly serious case of cold feet and can convince Newsom to step down, the recall election will be canceled. At that point, Deputy Governor Eleni Kounalakis would be sworn in and could safely be expected to finish the term. What happens in the next cycle is anyone’s guess, but given the Democrats’ overwhelming generic ballot advantage, one of them would end up in office. A fractured recall election field may be the only situation where a Republican could win in the Golden State at this point.

But would Newsom do it? He can’t be forced out unless the Democrats decided to impeach him and I seriously doubt they have the stomach for it. And even if they did, there are barely five weeks left until the recall election. I can’t see them pulling it off in that amount of time. Given the shrinking timeframe available, if Newsom is going to step down he would need to do it soon. I don’t believe there is any legal basis for challenging a governor’s decision to resign, but if one could be found the Republicans might give it a try just to keep the recall vote on track. The problem is, we have yet to hear from any credible source on the record saying that Newsome is even talking about resigning, to say nothing of leaning in that direction. Break out the popcorn, folks. This could wind up being highly entertaining, though not for the Democrats.