California Governor Gavin Newsom deftly fended off an attempt to recall Republicans on Tuesday, changing the stakes in the contest from a referendum on his own performance to a partisan fight against Trumpism and the coronavirus.
Here are five takeaways from Newsom’s victory:
COVID PRECAUTIONS CAN HELP DEMOCRATS
Republicans wanted the recall to be a referendum on Democratic rule in California and the homelessness, crime, high housing costs and energy issues that came with it. But in a bit of political ju-jitsu – and with the help of the spreading delta variant – Newsom made it a referendum on Republicans’ opposition to coronavirus precautions.
Republicans who ran in to replace Newsom opposed the mask and vaccine warrants, and the California governor was happy to point out. Newsom ran an ad calling the recall “a matter of life and death” and accusing the leading Republican candidate, radio host Larry Elder, of “peddling deadly conspiracy theories.”
Ironically, the recall gained momentum after Newsom was surprised in November at a lobbyist’s birthday party at a posh Napa Valley restaurant – unmasked and in a big party that violated his own orders to social distancing. But his strategists have argued for weeks that his leadership during the pandemic is a plus for him – and that other Democrats shouldn’t be afraid to lead the issue.
In his remarks after his victory, Newsom highlighted the virus. “I want to focus on what we said yes to as a state: we said ‘yes’ to science, we said ‘yes’ to vaccines, we said ‘yes’ to the end of this pandemic “, the governor told reporters.
GOP RETURNS SUBSTANTIAL FRAUD ALLEGATIONS
The baseless allegations of Republican election fraud aren’t going away anytime soon.
Even while the ballots were still in progress, Republicans claimed the election had been “rigged.” It was a baseless claim – and odd given that Republicans performed relatively well under the same California electoral system in November, winning four seats in Congress.
But former President Donald Trump’s false rhetoric of electoral fraud quickly became embedded in Republican politics. The former president enthusiastically added his own voice to the demands. And, days before the polls closed, the Elder campaign bizarrely began circulating a link to a petition demanding an investigation into his loss, alleging widespread fraud – what some Republicans feared was a message his constituents shouldn’t even bother to show up on Tuesday. .
The recall has always been drawn out in a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by nearly 2-1 and the GOP has not won a statewide election since 2006. But the Republicans look to conspiracy theories and baseless fraud allegations to explain a loss that polls indicated would happen for months shows the party will not shy away from those suspicions. This led to the Jan.6 attack on the United States Capitol following Trump’s defeat. Some Californians are worried about what might happen to their condition now.
“This will be the second election in a row where there are aggressive and emotional accusations of voter fraud,” said Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California. “I can’t see a positive in that.”
NO RAMP OUTPUT FOR CALIFORNIA GOP
The recall offered California Republicans their one plausible hit at a statewide office in one of the nation’s bluest states. The recall is a way to dodge the state’s regular partisan attraction. This is an up or down referendum on the incumbent president, who normally has no enemy from the opposing side to use as a foil. This does not happen during biennial federal elections when voters remember their loyalty to their party. And any new governor is chosen from a long list of candidates rather than just two favorites from the two biggest parties.
It makes the recall a way for someone who belongs to a party that is always in the minority – the GOP – to always win. That’s what happened in 2003 when Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger won a recall against Democratic Governor Gray Davis. Schwarzenegger’s moderate politics would never have won a GOP primary, but was attractive enough to voters who were fed up with the incumbent president. Some Republicans were hoping it would happen again this year, with former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a moderate, on the ballot.
But there were two problems for the GOP. First, California is very different now compared to 2003 – it is more liberal and more diverse. There are 3.2 million more registered Democrats in the state now than in the last recall, but almost 400,000 fewer Republicans.
Second, Faulconer never understood. Instead, Elder’s bombastic style, honed over his decades on radio and echoing Trump, propelled him to the top of the Republican pack. Newsom, sensing a favorable contrast, began hammering Elder on the air.
Some Republicans had hoped that the populist approach of Elder, who is African-American, might appeal to the diverse electorate in California. But it doesn’t seem to have worked.
“Larry Elder was exactly what Gavin Newsom needed,” said Rob Stutzman, a veteran California GOP strategist.
NEWSOM TAKES A FEEDBACK
There is no doubt that Newsom won the recall elections. But he may not have come out unscathed.
When he was elected in 2018, Newsom was riding an anti-Trump wave in a state that saw itself as the heart of the “resistance” to Republican rule in Washington. The photogenic former mayor of San Francisco was seen as a possible future presidential candidate.
Three years later, his state is reeling from a brutal drought and the accompanying forest fires. Heat waves trigger progressive blackouts. Homelessness continues to be rampant in the state’s mega-cities as the cost of housing shows no signs of easing.
The recall demonstrated that Republicans are unlikely to beat Newsom in a partisan race. But California has a large bench of Democrats who may be eager to move forward. “I think there are Democrats looking at this thing with their bibs and their forks and knives out,” Stutzman said.
Newsom’s political operation was successful in preventing the Main Democrats from running as an alternative to the recall, which allowed him to describe the effort as a partisan Republican scam. Will he be able to rule out the challengers in 2022?
SCRAMBLED SIGNS FOR LAND ENVIRONMENTS
The recall is the first major election for Joe Biden’s presidency and served as a political stress test for both sides heading into next year’s midterms.
Democrats have shown they can vote even though their party holds the White House – a traditionally difficult feat, which is why the ruling party typically loses seats in Congress in midterm elections. Republicans are trying to win back the House and the Senate.
The rejection of the recall – and Elder – shows that a candidate too aligned with Trump remains toxic in some areas, especially Democrats.
Finally, the recall was a referendum on Newsom and how Californians wanted their state to be governed, especially with regard to the coronavirus – an issue the governor has a lot of influence over. The mid-terms will be a referendum on Biden. The power the GOP could gain – control of Congress – is not the executive branch, where the coronavirus regulations come from to date.
It’s not clear Democrats can mount the same defense of Congress as they did in their larger state.
Associated Press editor Kathleen Ronayne contributed to this report.
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