California recall: How worried should Gavin Newsom be?

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What’s remarkable is that the recall may never even get to the point where any of those 41 will get votes. It’s a two-step process: Voters are first asked whether Newsom should be recalled and then, if a majority say “yes,” they vote for who they want to replace him.

Below is our conversation — conducted via email and lightly edited for flow.

Cillizza: We now know what the field for the CA-recall looks like. What’s your main takeaway (or two)?

Barabak: This ain’t 2003, with apologies to all the English teachers and grammarians out there.

The tentative lineup includes about 40 candidates, which certainly offers no lack of options, but is a far cry from the 135 candidates who appeared on the ballot in 2003, when Democratic Gov. Gray Davis faced a recall. (And was ousted, making him just the second governor unseated in our country’s history.)

Some of those 135 were, with all due respect, fundamentally un-serious candidates with no chance of winning. There was a pornographic movie actress, Mary Carey (who considered but opted against running a second time; a porn purveyor, the late Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt; Arianna Huffington; former child actor Gary Coleman, and a great big bunch of people no one had ever heard of (except close family and friends) before or since.

And of course, there was an Austrian immigrant-turned bodybuilding champion-turned actor by the name of Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Given the sophistication of your audience, I’m gather most of them know he won and replaced Davis.)

This time the top candidates include Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego; John Cox, a serial office-seeker who ran, and lost badly, to Gavin Newsom in 2016; former Sacramento-area Rep. Doug Ose and Kevin Kiley, an Assemblyman who represents the Sacramento suburbs. Talk radio host Larry Elder said he was running, but there’s some question whether he filed the needed paperwork to make the September 14 ballot. That one will probably wind up in court.

Oh, and Olympic athlete-turned-reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner. Although as I wrote in a recent column, her main purpose in running seems to be mainlining publicity, which is her drug of choice, and selling merchandise. When last seen, Jenner was in Australia to film “Celebrity Big Brother” and, presumably, court the all-important New South Wales vote.

The 2003 recall didn’t exactly draw a field of world-beaters, though on the Democratic side you did have the state’s lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, who ran as a kind of “insurance policy” — “No on the recall, Yes on Bustamante” was his slogan. In the end, folks said “Yes” to the recall and “No” to Bustamante, who many Democrats blame for muddling the anti-recall message.

In a victory for Newsom, no major Democratic candidate has stepped forward to offer voters an alternative — which is a gamble of sorts. If the recall should pass, we’re almost certain to have our first Republican governor since Schwarzenegger left office in January 2011.

Cillizza: How big a deal is all of this to the average California voter? Are they even aware it’s all happening? (Your paper suggests they are not.)

Barabak: I recently did an interview for a podcast (with CNN!) and the first question I was asked was to give a single word to describe the 2003 recall. After thinking long and hard (for at least 20 to 30 seconds!) the word I came up with was “captivating.”

The 2003 recall captured folks’ imaginations like nothing I’ve seen in the 40-plus years I’ve covered California politics, before or since. News outlets from around the world came to cover the recall, along with every major media outlet in the US you could imagine.

There was the novelty to that election and the kooky-California appeal to outsiders who never tire of writing that story. But there was also a deep sense of grievance with Davis that isn’t there for Newsom and a real feeling of empowerment, which is to say people rising up and slapping back at politicians and the political establishment, which many found exhilarating.

This recall is very much what I’ve described as a revolt of red-state California. That’s not to say folks are head-over-heels in love with Newsom. But he has a solid approval rating — and is far more popular than Davis was — and a lot of the effort is being driven by the small but vocal minority of conservatives who’ve pushed for things like secession (breaking off a chunk of the far-north state and merging with parts of southern Oregon to create the state of Jefferson) for decades now.

That’s nowhere near enough support to push Newsom from office. A lot of folks seem to assume that’s the case, so why pay much attention?

Cillizza: Comparisons to the Gray Davis recall in the early 2000s are rampant. How fair or unfair is that comparison — and why?

Barabak: Well, both are taking place in California and involve attempts to recall the governor with the same two-part question: Do you want to recall the governor? If so, who should replace him? But beyond that, there aren’t a great many similarities.

For starters, California is a vastly different place than it was in 2003. And this recall — like just about everything else these days — is very much dividing folks along partisan lines.

Also, the political circumstances of Newsom and Davis are far different.


Newsom has yet to complete his first term. He was elected in a landslide. Davis, by comparison eked out a narrow win for reelection over one of the hapless candidates I’ve ever covered: Bill Simon Jr.

(Here’s a Yogi Berra-ism for your readers; I’ve long thought the race wouldn’t have been so close if it wasn’t a blowout. Meaning a lot of folks ended up staying home or voting third-party because they didn’t like Davis and figured he’d win anyway.)

The result was a less-than-impressive 47% to 42% victory for Davis. And that low turnout proved hugely significant.

California is the most permissive of 19 states that allow for gubernatorial recall, requiring signatures reflecting just 12% of the ballots cast in the last election. And proponents are given a lengthy period to collect those signatures, 160 days.

That depressed turnout made a low qualifying threshold even lower and allowed proponents to make the ballot. (Here it should be noted that recall efforts are a constant of California politics. Every governor going back more than half a century has faced one. This was the sixth attempt to qualify a Newsom recall petition. You never hear about most attempts because they invariably come up short.)

This time recall proponents caught a break when a judge gave them extra time to gather signatures as a result of Covid-19 restrictions. Which brings us Newsom’s infamous dinner, unmasked, with a lobbyist pal, at Napa Valley’s ritzy-schmitzy French Laundry restaurant while he was telling Californians to stay home and avoid such gatherings. D’oh!!!

One other difference between today and 2003 has be mentioned: Donald Trump. Newsom forces are doing everything they can to tie the recall back to Trump — who is hugely unpopular in California — and the Republican Party in his thrall. If recall proponents are hoping to make this a referendum on Newsom, Newsom and his allies want to make this a referendum on Trump and the Q-Anon-insurrectionist wing of the GOP.

Cillizza: Gavin Newsom has long been seen as a national candidate for Democrats. How much or little does this recall affect those sort of plans?

Barabak: I wrote one time that the governor’s office in California comes with a limousine and driver, tickets to the Oscar ball and a place on the list of every presidential mentioner from the Golden Gate to the US Capitol. So, naturally, there’s been speculation about Newsom’s place on the national ticket.

While he may harbor those ambitions, there is a Californian already in the White House by the name of Vice President Kamala Harris. You never know in life, but I would think her presence forestalls any national ambitions Newsom may have for the foreseeable future.

A more pertinent consideration may be the outcome of the recall. I recently wrote a column on how a failed 1983 attempt to recall then-San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein turned her from an accident of history (she became mayor when her predecessor, George Moscone, was assassinated) into one of the most widely known and respected female politicians in the country.

If Newsom beats the recall by even a decent margin, you have to make him an overwhelming favorite to be reelected in 2022, when the regularly scheduled gubernatorial election is set to take place.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The BIG story on September 15 will be ____________.” Now, explain.

Barabak: “The BIG story on September 15 will be whatever [Ohio Republican Sen.] Rob Portman had to say that day about the ongoing effort to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill.”

Ha ha! How’s that for a dodge?

I make no predictions. I left that business in November 2016.

All signs point to Newsom beating the recall: his job approval, the overwhelming Democratic lean of the state, the failure to capture the imagination or interest of many voters. The fact the economy is coming back strong and Covid-19, at least pre-Delta variant, seemed to be tamed.

But it’s not impossible to see Newsom being ousted. How? The economy could abruptly tank amid a statewide Covid-related shutdown. Our Wildfire Season From Hell could grow worse and widespread blackouts could have voters sweating in their homes amid the stink of rotting, unrefrigerated food. (Though history shows voters tend not to punish our governor for natural disasters.)

The most likely scenario involves motivation. Polls have shown the greatest intensity is on the side of those supporting the recall. So if you had a scenario where they turned out in significant number and Democrats, either apathetic or complacent, didn’t bother voting, the recall passes and hello Gov. Faulconer or some other Republican.

Then we do this all over again in a few months.

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