Two events last week had the potential for injecting some excitement into the lackluster campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Both fizzled, which may, in a perverse way, help the pro-recall campaign.
The first event was a “debate” among four Republican contenders to succeed Democrat Newsom, should he be recalled, the quotation marks implying that it wasn’t a debate in any rational sense of the word. The four didn’t challenge each other in any meaningful way, but rather took turns criticizing Newsom, sometimes fairly, sometimes not.
It was also a non-event because the man who leads most polls to replace Newsom, talk show host Larry Elder, wasn’t there.
The second event was a virtual meeting of Republican leaders to decide whether to endorse one of the would-be successors, but that ended in minutes with an almost unanimous decision not to endorse anyone.
Lack of Endorsement Helps Recall Candidates
The endorsement option was originally promoted by party leaders to, it was widely believed, help former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the most moderate of the major GOP contenders. However, Elder’s late entry, and his immediate lead in the polls, undermined that intent.
Instead, party leaders concluded that endorsing anyone, particularly a moderate, could alienate anti-Newsom conservatives and in a last-minute letter to delegates called for a non-endorsement. “We cannot afford to discourage voters who are passionate about a particular candidate,” Republican National Committee members Harmeet Dhillon and Shawn Steel said of the non-action.
So with ballots soon to appear in voters’ mailboxes for the September 14 election, how do these non-happenings help the recall campaign?
Newsom Opponents More Likely to Vote Than Supporters
While polls tell us that a strong majority of California’s registered voters oppose the recall, they also reveal that among likely voters, it’s a virtual tie. That’s because those who dislike Newsom are much more likely to vote than those who support him and anything that raises the excitement level could increase the turnout of pro-Newsom voters.
Newsom, who has tens of millions of dollars in his campaign treasury, is trying to motivate supportive voters by labeling the recall as a right-wing coup d’é·tat devised by fans of former President Donald Trump. Newsom fought a court battle to include that theme in his ballot pamphlet appeal and is running ads featuring Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a favorite of progressive voters, to drive home the point.
Meanwhile, with Elder leading other potential successors in the polls, pro-Newsom operatives are busily trying to persuade the political media to write unflattering stories about Elder, an unabashed conservative with libertarian tendencies.
Unfortunately for Newsom, real world events are working against him.
COVID and Environmental Issues Still Loom
He had hoped to spend the summer trumpeting that California is “roaring back” from the COVID-19 pandemic and the severe recession triggered by his orders restricting personal and economic activity to fight the infection. He wanted to tout the new benefits, including cash payments and rent relief, that he and the Legislature authorized in the state budget.
However, Californians’ consciousness is currently dominated by negativity — a new surge of COVID-19 that’s hitting the state hard, a slow and perhaps stalled economic recovery, a very severe drought, and a nonstop series of uber-destructive wildfires.
Fairly or unfairly, when voters believe that their lives are on the wrong track, they often will turn against current officeholders.
A sour mood makes it difficult for Newsom to argue that they should vote for him to keep California moving in the same direction and explains why his anti-recall campaign has gone on the attack.
However, a negative atmosphere motivates those already predisposed to dislike him.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.