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Gavin Newsom survived a California recall. Is he a lock to win another term?

Dale Kasler, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in Political News

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The last time Gavin Newsom’s name was on the ballot in California, he faced dozens of opponents in a chaotic recall election that drew national attention and was sparked by opposition to his handling of the pandemic.

At one point the polls suggested a close race and his chief challenger, conservative talk show host Larry Elder, appeared to have a realistic chance of unseating the Democratic governor.

Nine months later, Newsom is facing the voters again but the circumstances of the June 7 primary couldn’t be more different.

After beating last September’s recall by a resounding margin, Newsom is firmly entrenched in the governor’s seat. Riding a projected $97 billion budget surplus, he’s considered a shoo-in this year — in the primary and then in the general election in November.

The only major GOP challenger, state Sen. Brian Dahle, is a long-shot candidate from Lassen County in a deep blue state where only 23.9% of registered voters are Republicans. Nearly twice as many Californians are registered as Democrats.

Where have all the fireworks gone?

Or, to put it another way, where have all the Republican candidates gone?

Most are on the sidelines. Although it’s shaping up as a Republican year nationally, political consultants from both parties say Newsom’s smashing victory last September — 62% to 38% — effectively erased whatever drama that might have surrounded this year’s race.

“I don’t think there’s any mystery that Gov. Newsom’s surviving that recall curbed a lot of enthusiasm toward the idea that he’s somehow vulnerable,” said Matt Rexroad, a Republican consultant. “The likelihood of him getting reelected increased dramatically when he defeated the recall.”

Democratic strategist Garry South said Newsom’s victory also scared off potentially credible opponents in this year’s race, “eviscerating what might have been the Republican field.”

The prominent Republicans who competed in the recall have all taken a pass. Among them is former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a moderate Republican whom South believes could have provided a fairly strong challenge to Newsom this year.

South said Faulconer at one time was contemplating a run for governor in 2022. Then he jumped into the recall race and finished with just 8% of the vote, well behind Elder. Two months ago Faulconer opted out of this year’s race.

“He would have been better off keeping his powder dry,” South said.

For all his advantages, Newsom isn’t guaranteed a second term. Californians are unhappy about inflation, gas prices, crime and homelessness. Crackdowns on water usage as the drought worsens could hurt his popularity. So could a horrific summer of wildfires or electricity blackouts.

“A governor who can’t keep the lights on, well, we’ve seen that movie before,” South said.

South was senior adviser to former Gov. Gray Davis, whose popularity was permanently damaged by the California energy crisis of 2001, a mushrooming budget deficit and other woes.

Davis eked out a reelection victory a year after the blackouts but his political standing was severely weakened. In 2003, just a year into his second term, he was recalled. His replacement: Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who announced his candidacy to wild applause on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and then swept to victory.

A gourmet meal galvanized the revolt against Newsom.

A recall effort had been brewing for months, the result of anger over Newsom’s COVID-19 lockdowns, although it looked like signature-gathering for the campaign had stalled.

Then the San Francisco Chronicle in November 2020 revealed that Newsom had dined with a large group at the exclusive French Laundry restaurant north of Napa at a time when his administration advised against Californians mixing households at events. The recall effort, aided by a judge’s decision to extend the deadline for gathering signatures, gained new life and qualified for the ballot.

A total of 53 would-be governors jumped into the race, including 25 Republicans. Among the GOP challengers were Faulconer, Newsom’s vanquished 2018 foe John Cox, TV personality Caitlyn Jenner and the most formidable opponent: Elder, an ultra-conservative Black talk-radio host.

Why so many? The answer lies mainly in the quirkiness of the recall process and its two-part ballot. First, voters choose whether to recall the incumbent. Then they choose a replacement in case the incumbent is recalled.

The winner doesn’t need to earn a majority of the votes, and the incumbent isn’t allowed to run in the second part of the ballot. The governor could have lost the recall by a narrow margin — and been replaced by someone who actually got fewer votes on the second question than Newsom got on the first (By the way, that isn’t how Davis lost the 2003 recall; he received about 200,000 fewer votes than Schwarzenegger).

In short, a recall is a more viable route to the governor’s office for a Republican than a traditional election.

“A recall ... blows up the box on how elections are run, and it allows all kinds of unpredictability and different types of people and candidates who might not have emerged through the conventional calendar of politics,” said Elizabeth Ashford, a communications consultant who worked for Schwarzenegger and former Gov. Jerry Brown.

“People consider (recalls) kind of exciting,” said Ashford, who was Vice President Kamala Harris’ chief of staff when she was California’s attorney general. “People see them as kind of the exception to the rule. ... There was this really disruptive sort of moment.”

This year it’s much harder for a Republican to win. The last time a Republican won statewide office in California was in 2006, when Steve Poizner became insurance commissioner and Schwarzenegger, by then the incumbent governor, was elected to a full four-year term.

Ashford also says the political climate has changed somewhat since the tumult of the recall. The pandemic has quieted down and so has some of the noise about Newsom’s record on COVID-19. “School is open, things are quote-unquote back to normal, or as back to normal as you can be,” Ashford said.

Homelessness, gas prices and abortion

That’s not to say voters are satisfied with conditions in California. Almost two-thirds regard homelessness as a serious problem, according to a March poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. About one-third said rising prices have created serious financial hardships for them. Nearly half said they’re considering relocating, either to another part of California or out of state, because of the high cost of housing.

 

Republicans say these problems could potentially be laid at Newsom’s doorstep. Homelessness, for example, “is an issue that the governor has attached himself to,” Rexroad said. “There’s not too many people who feel California has handled homelessness really well.”

Yet that same Public Policy Institute poll said Newsom enjoys a 56% overall approval rating. Democrats say voter anger over life in California doesn’t necessarily translate into support for Republicans.

“Voters here do not view Republicans as any sort of viable alternative to Democratic rule no matter what dissatisfaction or discontent there might be,” South said.

In his first TV campaign ad, Newsom tries to turn the state’s problems to his advantage. Casually dressed, he strolls through a forested area and likens himself to redwood trees surviving wildfires — a leader steering California through difficult times. The tagline: “Courage through crisis.”

Ashford said Newsom has taken a position on homelessness that she thinks will resonate with many voters. He’s proposed the creation of a court system under which homeless Californians suffering from mental illness could be ordered into treatment for two years.

The fact that some advocates on the left are unhappy with the idea will likely help Newsom with moderates, Ashford said. She pointed to the Los Angeles mayor’s race as evidence that many voters are growing impatient about homelessness; billionaire developer Rick Caruso has been gaining traction in part by pushing for more aggressive removal of encampments.

Newsom is also trying to tackle a potentially troublesome pocketbook issue.

In his latest budget proposal, he offered $11.5 billion in tax refunds to motor vehicle owners. It’s his latest effort to break a stalemate in the Legislature on how to respond to the spike in gasoline prices — an issue that Republicans have been hammering for months. He said he has “all the confidence in the world” that he can strike a deal with lawmakers.

He’s also confident that he can use the abortion issue as a means of bashing Republicans. He used it during the recall, warning that women might lose their reproductive rights if he were replaced by abortion opponent Elder. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court appears to be on the verge of overturning Roe v. Wade, Newsom has seized on the issue again.

On May 11 he proposed appropriating $40 million for reproductive health providers to offset the cost of providing care to low and moderate income residents. He has joined with legislative leaders to propose an amendment to the California Constitution “so there is no doubt as to the right to abortion in this state.”

And at a news conference outlining his revised budget, he went after Republicans again over abortion, suggesting they’re hypocrites for opposing abortion while refusing to accept gun control measures. “If you were pro-life, you’d support common-sense gun safety,” he said.

Newsom also launched an attack ad on Dahle over the issue, saying he “stands with Donald Trump” and “wants to roll back abortion rights, punishing women and doctors.”

The governor’s campaign spokesman, Nathan Click, said abortion looms as a “huge, massive” issue in this election cycle — not just in the governor’s contest but especially in hotly-contested races. “You’re really seeing it show up in Democratic enthusiasm,” he said.

While Dahle doesn’t shy away from saying he’s pro-life, the Republican candidate is trying to steer the conversation to bread-and-butter issues such as inflation.

“He’s trying to fix the economic issues that we’re facing now,” said Hector Barajas, a Republican communications consultant and spokesman for Dahle’s campaign. Barajas was dismissive of Newsom’s ad linking his candidate with Trump: “That’s all he’s got. He’s not going to talk about his record.”

Dahle called the $97 billion budget surplus “a shocking revelation” — and scolded Newsom for not proposing to refund a greater portion of it to “the taxpayers who generated it.” Newsom’s plan for making refunds to motor vehicle owners would cost the treasury $11.5 billion.

Republicans see gas prices — and Newsom’s inability so far to enact legislation that would soften financial impacts on drivers — as a point of vulnerability for Newsom.

“He made a promise to voters that he would provide relief and we haven’t seen the relief,” Barajas said.

In a series of ads running on social media, Dahle, a farmer from Bieber, introduces himself and his family (his wife, Megan, is a California Assemblywoman). The video shows him driving through rural California, kneeling in a farm field. He blames Democrats for all that’s wrong with California, saying, “You can’t sit on the sideline and expect this one-party system to work. It’s broken.”

That statement also is a way of acknowledging the Republican’s uphill fight in a state thoroughly dominated by Democrats.

“I’m not going to back down because somebody tells me I can’t do it,” he says. “Because you never know. People told me I couldn’t do stuff all my life, and I’ve been doing it. I think maybe just being a farmer, I can tell you if I don’t plant, I know I’m not going to harvest. But I’ve got to at least plant.”

Actually, Dahle isn’t running for his party’s nomination in June. Neither is Newsom.

Instead, they’re competing to finish first or second in the primary. Under California’s “top two” primary system, which took effect in 2011, that’s all that matters.

The system was designed to force candidates to appeal to voters across party lines. But it’s also created odd circumstances in which Republicans can’t even muster enough primary votes to qualify for the November ballot. In the 2018 general election, for instance, the two candidates for lieutenant governor were Democrats.

Dahle was endorsed by Republicans at their party convention in April and appears likely to make it to November. “I can’t name anybody else who’s got a good chance of finishing second,” Rexroad said. “Nobody else has mounted much of a campaign.”

But Dahle appears to be hopelessly outgunned. He had $474,000 in the bank as of April 23, according to campaign finance reports. Newsom had $25.6 million.

“Brian has always been upfront that this is going to be a David vs. Goliath election,” Barajas said. “He’s got a good a shot as anybody else to take down Gavin Newsom.”

That is to say, according to Democratic consultants, not much of a shot at all.

“A lot of the oxygen that was in the room in the recall got sucked out,” Ashford said, “and now the governor is very well positioned for a second term.”

©2022 The Sacramento Bee. Visit at sacbee.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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