• Cole Whittington

Newsom Crushes California Recall Election

On September 14, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) survived a bid to remove him from office. This very rare situation raises many questions and the interpretation of the results of this election will steer the campaigns of both Republicans and Democrats heading into the 2022 midterm elections.

Photo Courtesy: Jim Wilson/ New York Times

How did we get here?

California is one of nineteen U.S. states that allow recall elections. Progressive Republicans enacted recall legislation in 1911 during the Progressive Era under Gov. Hiram Johnson (Progressive-CA) which led to direct democracy in the form of recall (Proposition 8). Any elected official in California is eligible for a recall and in October 2003, Governor Gary Davis (D-CA) was the second state governor in U.S. history — the only other being Governor Lynn Frazier (R-ND) in 1921— to be recalled.


However, when actor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) replaced Governor Davis, California politics looked very different. In 2003, registered Democrats barely outnumbered Republicans in the state of California and the rolling electricity blackouts had millions of Californians outraged. Today, Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 and Governor Newsom is managing a budget surplus from last year with a recovering post-pandemic economy. This made replacing Newsom with a Republican a very tough task. This was the first of six recall campaigns launched against Newsom since his election in November 2018, which garnered the minimum threshold of 1,495,709 signatures. This is because California state law requires recall ballot signatures to reach 12% of the votes casted in the previous election for that office.


Why recall Governor Newsom?

Prior to the pandemic, most of Newsom’s previous recall campaigns centered around his policies regarding immigration and taxes. Disappointed Californians pointed to what they saw as preferential treatment to non-U.S. citizens and the failure to enforce federal immigration laws. However, once the pandemic hit, and California’s government implemented harsh COVID-19 restrictions shutting down public beaches, schools, and even outdoor dining, many more residents became frustrated and recall campaigns grew in popularity. The anti-Newsom campaigns were still rooted in his policies but expanded to include the slow recovery after the pandemic by the Newsom administration. Newsom did not help his case when he was spotted defying his own COVID-19 restrictions at a restaurant party with a large maskless crowd in November 2020. This sparked criticism by people all over the state, as angered citizens witnessed their governor not following restrictions that he himself implemented. This was especially frustrating because of its proximity to Thanksgiving, where many residents travel to spend time with family.


The petition that was being voted on in September stated, “people in this state suffer the highest taxes in the nation, the highest homelessness rates and the lowest quality of life as a result.” In response to this accusation of poor leadership, Newsom stated that California was in great fiscal health despite the pandemic, which plunged millions across the state into economic crisis leading to the activation of government programs and initiatives, such as stimulus checks. He also warned against the costs required to conduct a recall election, saying that it was a partisan attack that would only waste money. To thwart removal efforts, Newsom’s campaign focused on presenting voters with a disastrous view that would result if a Republican were to replace him. By tying his opponents to former President Donald Trump, Newsom hoped to invoke a similar rejection of Trumpism that was seen in the 2020 Presidential election where President Joe Biden carried the state by 31 percentage points, just ten months prior.


Who ran to replace Governor Newsom?


In total, there were 46 replacement candidates on the ballot, 24 of which were Republicans. The leading candidate who drew the most attention during his campaign was conservative talk-show host Larry Elder. The controversial figure ran on a platform that praised President Trump and criticized Newsom’s handling of the pandemic. Other popular candidates were businessman John Cox, who lost a landslide to Newsom in 2018, former mayor of San Diego Kevin Faulconer, and former Olympian athlete turned activist Caitlyn Jenner.


How was the ballot constructed and what was the result?

The ballot consisted of two questions. First, it asked voters if they wanted to recall Governor Newsom and second, if he were to be recalled, who would you want to replace him. More than 50% of ballots needed to be in favor of a recall for Newsom to be removed. Without this, Newsom would prevail and remain in power.


In a resounding defeat, Newsom fended off replacement candidates and received 63.9% of the vote. Larry Elder received 48.3% of the votes for replacement candidates which totaled 37.1%, nearly five times the second place replacement candidate, YouTuber Kevin Paffrath. These results draw a stark parallel to the 2020 Presidential Election where 63.5% of California voters opted to oust incumbent President Trump in favor of President Biden with Trump receiving only 34.3% of the vote.


What implications did the election have on Democrats and Republicans?

This victory is reassuring to Democrats as a loss in the biggest blue state in the nation would’ve been an embarrassment. This shows that even nearly a year after the 2020 Presidential election, and with a sagging economy, voters in California, and most likely around the country are rejecting Trumpism.


On the other end of the spectrum, this is a disappointing but not surprising loss for Republicans in California and across the country. Defeating Newsom would’ve given them huge momentum heading into the 2022 midterms, which could’ve been capitalized to regain both the House of Representatives and Senate.


This historic election raises many questions about requirements surrounding the practice. California state officials estimate that the election cost between $215 million and $275 million, a hefty price tag for no change in power. Some experts are calling for a higher percentage of ballot signatures to be required before a recall is initiated. In Wisconsin, recall laws require the petition to have signatures equal to or more than 25% of the vote in the last election, more than double California’s requirement. With this standard, the state could’ve avoided wasting $275 million on a failed recall. However, with California’s immense size, this standard would be very tough to meet.