Being Right: What the Recall Failure Means for California and the Republican Party

Nathan Biller, Staff Writer

In-person voting for the California recall election officially concluded on Tuesday, Sept. 14. Within hours, it became apparent that Governor Gavin Newsom would survive the contest. With anti-recall voters currently holding two-thirds of the count, and decisively winning even in tossup areas such as Orange county, a former Republican stronghold, his governorship is almost certainly secure.

There should be no debate that the effort to replace Newsom was an abject failure. It was always going to be a longshot. California has voted blue in every presidential election since 1992, and with the state having no shortage of political donations, Newsom enjoyed extensive funding from both local and out-of-state sources alike. His over $83 million war chest, split between his own fundraising and those of other anti-recall committees, amounted to nearly six times the fundraising of runner-up Larry Elder. Couple this with the efforts of various national figures campaigning on his behalf, including Presidents Joe Biden and Barack Obama, and the odds of his removal were incredibly slim.

Republicans did experience some spark of hope as the polls between pro and anti-recall forces momentarily came extremely close, with FiveThirtyEight reporting anti-recall forces as only having a 0.2 point lead from Aug. 4 to 11. But, at the end of the day, Newsom’s advantages were simply too profound.

Rather than fretting on the results in a solidly blue state, it is important instead to look ahead, breaking down both the failures of Republican strategy as well as the consequences this election will have on the state of California.

Under Newsom’s leadership, California has experienced a serious decline. According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, they have far and away the greatest homeless population at over 161,548, which includes nearly 27 percent of all the homeless in the United States. Per capita, they have the third highest rate of homelessness behind Hawaii and New York. According to California’s own Legislative Analyst’s Office, a whopping 72 percent of their homeless are unsheltered, versus, for example, 5 percent in New York. In 2017, United Nations housing expert Leilani Farha described the situation as “cruel and inhuman.”

This problem is perhaps most evident in San Francisco, the Golden State’s cultural, commercial and financial center. This city alone experienced a whopping twenty-eight thousand reports of human feces during 2018.

California also has the second highest cost of living of any state, second only to Hawaii, a water locked state whose housing costs are driven by their massive tourism industry and wealthy property buyers. Newsom and fellow Democrat leaders across the state like to boast figures such as their GDP per capita and median household incomes as evidence of their economic success. However, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis, California has the highest rate of poverty of any state when adjusted for these costs, at 18.1 percent as of 2019. This is nearly double the 2020 national average supplementary poverty rate of 9.1 percent.

Their various economic crises were only worsened by Newsom’s failed, draconian COVID-19 response. Small businesses, already struggling under California’s explosive business taxes and crippling regulations, closed their doors by the thousands as Californian regulations shut down much in-person work and as unemployment subsidies depressed labor participation. Their unemployment rate consequently peaked at sixteen percent in April of 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Even as the national economy began to reopen, the California job recovery slowed to a crawl, with the unemployment rate stagnating at 7.5 percent as of August this year, according to the California Employment Development Department. This was only a 0.2 point improvement from the previous two months. Disgruntled local businesses were largely credited as a driving force of the petition efforts to kick off the recall election.

So what could California Republicans have done better to combat this decline? How do they take this loss as a learning experience and press forward?

The first and perhaps most obvious mistake of the California GOP was treating this recall election as a two person race. 41 names made it onto the recall ballot, and yet the Republicans only actively promoted one: Larry Elder.

As already established, there were plenty of reasons for average, everyday Californians to be upset with the status quo. And there were just as many potential candidates to replace Newsom with, including numerous Democrats on the ballot. The election could have and should have been a referendum on Newsom’s competence as a leader. Instead the GOP turned it into a two-way popularity contest between him and Elder. In total ignorance of the uphill battle ahead of them, the GOP prioritized not the recall itself, but who to replace him with. And, as the saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers.

The GOP also has a nasty habit of taking what strategies work nationally and attempting to implement them on the state level. To call Larry Elder a “clone of Donald Trump,” as he was branded by Biden, is simply untrue when you break down their distinct policy platforms. However, Elder largely stood out for his ardent support of Trump, and platforms that were broadly right-wing on cultural and economic issues alike, even by national standards.

Donald Trump winning off of right-wing populism in 2016 gave many Republicans the illusion that it was a one-size fits all path to victory, even in states that voted against him, such as California. This mistake can be seen in various other state-level examples, such as the 2018 Connecticut gubernatorial election. Connecticut’s previous governor, Dan Malloy, was ranked as the most unpopular governor in the United States, with a measly 21 percent approval rating earlier that year. Though he elected not to seek an additional term, the Democratic nominee, Ned Lamont, was largely recognized as a near carbon copy of the outgoing governor in terms of his policy. After years of grievances against Connecticut Democrats, this was the Republicans’ year to win back the Nutmeg State. Instead, they put forward Bob Stefanowski, a candidate who deliberately emulated President Trump to the furthest extent he was capable. Stefanowski went on to lose that election by a margin of only 3.2 percent.

Republicans need to become more in touch with state and local issues and public opinion if they ever want to have a hope of flipping blue strongholds. Convincing rival states of national Republican platforms is simply not something accomplished over the span of a few months. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

Gavin Newsom, on the back of his victory, stated, “We said yes to science. We said yes to vaccines. We said yes to ending this pandemic.” These voters also, perhaps unwittingly, said yes to poverty, yes to homelessness, yes to needles and feces lining the streets and yes to the mass exodus of residents and businesses alike as the state continues its sharp decline. And unless Republicans adapt their local strategies, this will never change.