It’s hard to make too much of the California recall. It is after all one of the most Democratic states in the union. The moribund state Republican party coalesced around a standard bearer whose top policy position may have been credible reports he pulled a gun on his fiance during a fight. The only conceivable way Larry Elder could have become governor is with very low turnout and a majority of voters deciding narrowly to recall Newsom and allowing Elder to slip through with like 35% of the vote.
But it doesn’t mean nothing.
One thing it clearly shows is that Democrats can turn out their voters with no presidential ticket, no Trump and even what seems like a defensive vote. By defensive vote, I mean voting just to hold on to what you have. That’s always going to be harder.
That alone is a pretty big thing, especially when we consider Democrats’ experiences in 1994 and 2010. Those were demoralized, low turnout elections which were devastating for Democrats on numerous levels. This is September 2021 not November 2022. But it at least shows a path toward maintaining high levels of engagement and high turnout.
The biggest thing is around Trump. You can apparently do this without Trump being on the ballot or even in office.
I’ve seen numerous commentators portray this as somehow a cheap tactic, living off the past or juicing voters with what amounts to a sugar high. This is wrong. It’s worth remembering that Republicans ran against Jimmy Carter for more than a decade after his defeat. But unlike Jimmy Carter Trump is still, unquestionably at the center of our politics. That’s reality. Unless things change drastically over the next 18 months there’s little question he will be the Republican nominee for President if he chooses to run. Not only is he the leader of the Republican party. There’s really no significant opposition to him within the Republican party. If you’re an anti-Trump Republican you’ve already been driven out of the party. Trump – all he represents and the man himself – is the price of letting Democrats lose elections. It would be political malpractice in addition to dishonesty not to put him at the center of any Democratic campaign.
Also notable is the power of aggressive COVID mitigation policies. Like Biden, Newsom has spent recent weeks pursuing what we might call an “out of patience” COVID strategy. Enough of persuasion, we’re going to use the power of government to end the pandemic as soon as we can. Voters said COVID was their top issue and they appear to have rewarded Newsom.
Again, it’s a Democratic state. So this only tells us so much. It’s interesting to me for a different reason. We see the polls showing that these measures – stuff like Biden’s new vax or test mandate – are generally popular. But there’s always a question about whether an energized minority can punch of above its numerical weight. This result suggests the answer is no – at least in one state, in this one election.
The final point is Larry Elder himself. He was clearly a gift to Newsom inasmuch as he became the de facto challenger. No one with any familiarity with Elder over the years will be surprised about the various positions and news that emerged about him. But Elder wasn’t a crazy stroke of luck for Newsom. His ascension is part and parcel of Trumpism. There was a credible Republican candidate – the former Mayor of San Diego. He basically went nowhere. Trumpite radicalism made Larry Elder the de facto challenger. And this isn’t the only race where Trumpite radicalism will have that result. That is another factor that will help Democrats in some races next year.
So yes, it’s a Democratic state. The result only tells us a limited amount about the national political environment going into 2022. But what it does tell us is encouraging for Democrats and points a path forward for a kind of Biden-era Democratic politicking that can be effective.