Five Points On The Recall Effort Dogging Gov. Gavin Newsom In California

Gov. Gavin Newsom (TPM Illustration/Getty Images)
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May 3, 2021 3:56 p.m.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) is staring down a recall effort that will likely lead to an election for his political survival sometime before the end of the year. 

Organizers have collected over 1.6 million verified signatures to get the recall on the ballot, surpassing the roughly 1.5 million they needed. There are still months of procedural hoops to jump through, but it seems certain that this effort won’t die on the vine like its predecessors. 

Here’s a quick and dirty guide to how Newsom landed himself in such hot water. 

1. How We Got Here: A Court Date He Should Have Attended And A Dinner He Should Have Skipped

Fledgling recall efforts are not exactly rare in California — Newsom himself has been the subject of five of them since his election in 2018. And at first, this one, started in February 2020 before COVID-19 hit the United States in earnest, seemed to be going the way of the others. Organizers had nowhere near the number of signatures they needed — 12 percent of the voters in the last gubernatorial election — to push it to fruition. 

Then November 6 rolled around.

That morning, a judge in Sacramento Superior Court made a final ruling. The recall petitioners had argued that Newsom’s COVID-19 shutdown orders had made it impossible for them to gather the signatures they needed. The state’s lawyers said nothing — they hadn’t bothered to show up to oral arguments. 

The judge granted the petitioners four more months to collect names. 

That night, Newsom made another mistake: he attended a birthday dinner at a tony restaurant in Napa Valley called French Laundry. Local outlets obtained photos of Newsom hanging out, maskless, with a large group — the very behavior he’d advised his constituents against. People went ballistic and the recall effort leapt forward. 

While the recall petitioners were originally displeased with Newsom over a whole host of complaints — a sampling from the “Recall Gavin 2020” website lists “unaffordable housing. Record homelessness. Rising crime. Failing schools. Independent contractors thrown out of work. Exploding pension debt. And now, a locked down population while the prisons are emptied.” — things got worse for him as the pandemic intensified.

His administration was dinged by a string of scandals, including weathering massive pandemic unemployment insurance program fraud. His poll numbers took a precipitous dip in February as frustration with the pandemic mounted, hospitals filled to capacity and COVID-19 cases rose.  Eventually, 1.6 million Californians scrawled their names on petitions to recall the governor.

2. Newsom Seems Relatively Well-Positioned — But Isn’t Messing Around Anymore

The days of arrogantly skipping court hearings are over for the Newsom camp. The governor and his allies started up a counter-campaign in mid-March called “Stop the Republican Recall.” They seek to tie the recall movement to far-right extremists, including anti-vaxxers and QAnon believers. 

The governor has also beefed up his team with seasoned political operatives to bat back the effort. 

His biggest success so far is keeping prominent Democrats off the recall ballot. The ballot will ask two questions — whether Newsom should be recalled and, if so, who should replace him. If over 50 percent say no to the first question, Newsom is safe. 

As to the second question, there will likely be dozens if not hundreds of names to choose from. 

Back in 2003, when California Governor Gray Davis (D) was successfully recalled and replaced with Arnold Schwarzenegger, there were 135 people listed on the ballot. This time, ten candidates have announced their runs so far.

That’s in part because it’s pretty easy to get on the ballot. It costs around $4,000 and 65 signatures (or 7,000 signatures and no filing fee).

That means that, should Newsom be recalled, someone off the list of replacements could win with a small plurality of votes. Keeping serious Democrats off the list lets Newsom make a convincing argument to his liberal constituents: keep me, or risk one of these Republicans getting my job.

Happily for Newsom, Democrats have a much higher registration advantage now than they did when Davis was fighting his recall effort, with nearly 5 million more registered voters in the state than Republicans. And just because recall petitioners likely got their question on the ballot doesn’t guarantee success on the vote —  they only needed around 1.5 million signatures to hop that first hurdle (for context, former President Donald Trump got 6 million votes from enormous California in 2020).

Newsom’s favorability ratings are also much higher than Davis’ dismal ones that actually dipped into the low 20s amid a statewide fiscal crisis. They’ve gotten better since Newsom’s mid-winter lows, a seeming correlation to the vaccination campaign that is slowly bringing life back to a pre-pandemic normal. A March poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 56 percent of likely voters oppose the Newsom recall effort.

3. People From Trump’s Orbit Are Lending Their Advice, Their Possible Candidacy…

Caitlyn Jenner, one of the heads of the Jenner/Kardashian clan, announced her candidacy in recent weeks. She’s already made a fairly significant campaign gaffe — a tweet in which she was seemingly unaware that district attorneys are elected by the people, not appointed by Newsom — and it’s unclear how serious her candidacy is. She also triggered outrage from transgender rights activists over the weekend when she told TMZ that she did not support trans girls competing in women’s sports at school. 

Still, she’s attracted some politicos of MAGA renown. 

Brad Parscale, Trump’s former campaign manager, is advising her on filling out her team, according to the New York Times. Caroline Wren, who worked fundraising for Trump in 2020 and helped organize the January 6 rally that turned into the violent mob, is reportedly also advising her.

Meanwhile, Ric Grennell, formerly Trump’s acting director of national intelligence and U.S. ambassador to Germany, is flirting with a run himself. 

He has not formally announced, but has been promoting the recall for months and been hinting at his interest in running. He even reportedly met with Trump in February to discuss his possible gubernatorial bid.

4. …And Their Money

Some of Trump’s biggest donors have gravitated towards the recall effort, a seeming outlet for their political participation after Trump’s defeat. It’ll also be necessary if any Republican wants to win — California is huge and campaigning there is extremely expensive. Newsom also already has the coffers and connections to make him a formidable opponent.

Some GOP funders, per Politico, have been drawn to Grenell and his Trump ties. Others, though, worry that Trump connections could hurt more than help the Republican candidate.

5. The Recall Election, Coming Just A Year Before The Regular One, Will Be Expensive For The State

Now that recall petitioners have met the signature threshold, there are a few procedural periods. From now until June 8, Californians can withdraw their signatures from the petition — something most think is very unlikely to ultimately avert the election, even with a concerted effort from pro-Newsom forces. Then county officials have to come up with a budget for the election, which the legislature will have to approve. At that point, the date will be set probably some time between November and December.

Already, some price estimates are astronomical. The California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials estimated that the total cost for the recall election could reach $400 million, a drain on state and county funds already depleted by administering the 2020 elections amid the pandemic.

That’s a large pill to swallow, considering that Newsom is up for reelection in 2022 anyway.

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