“I’m Not Them!” The Democratic Party’s New Electoral Message Worked in California

Reed Cleland, Staff Writer

Hardly anyone felt surprised that California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, defeated a G.O.P. effort to recall him from office on Tuesday, Sept. 14th. At the time of writing this article, Newsom had obtained approximately 63 percent of the vote (referring to those who voted “No”) with nearly 89 percent of precincts reporting, according to the New York Times. Pollsters predict that this lead is likely to grow.

Briefness is this article’s objective, for cable news stations and major press outlets have already provided the recall election with more attention than it is truly worth. Sadly, the recall was yet another example of the Republican Party’s newfound political mission to instigate cultural grievance food fights with every public officeholder who has not bent the knee to former President Donald J. Trump. Unfortunately for California’s taxpayers, this particular skirmish cost nearly $450 million according to estimates from David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University, as noted in the New York Times. Republicans have broadsided Mr. Newsom particularly with his handling of COVID-19, a statewide homeless crisis, high property taxes, and high rates of illegal immigration, according to ABC News. Perhaps it never occurred to them that $450 million might have been useful in any of these policy areas.

Let that sink in: nearly half a billion dollars was spent over the course of three months to remove a democratically elected governor who, for everything that most polls showed, was highly unlikely to lose his office in the G.O.P.’s best-case scenario. This quantitative metric does not include the untold hours of media coverage that stretch all the way back to Feb. 2020, when discussion of a recall first emerged in elite circles of the California Republican Party.

Political “experts” on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC have tried to use the recall election as some sort of prediction model for what will happen in the 2022 midterms, but such discussion is a complete waste of time. First, California is a Democratic stronghold and a poor mirror for reflecting trends in competitive states. Second, the midterms are more than a year away (even though cable news would pretend otherwise). The political winds will change one thousand times over the next year. 

Far more interesting than Mr. Newsom’s victory is a broader political question regarding how the Democratic Party is rebranding itself, and to what extent this rebranding has been successful. Since President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.’s victory against former President Donald J. Trump in November 2020, one might contend that Democrats have defined themselves in relation to their opponents. In other words, Mr. Biden found enormous electoral reward for simply ‘not being Trump,’ a rejection of all of Mr. Trump’s controversial temperamental and character habits; the Biden coalition attracted a substantial percentage of self-described “moderate” Republicans to cross party lines to vote against Mr. Trump, according to the Wall Street Journal.

There are numerous examples of Democrats who have copied Mr. Biden’s example of straddling the political center, with mixed degrees of success. On the one hand, Republican congressional candidates backed by Mr. Trump performed much better than expected against moderate Democrats in Nov. 2020, such as Mr. Anthony J. Brindisi’s loss to Ms. Claudia Tenney in New York’s 22nd Congressional District, which includes Colgate University. Mr. Brindisi, who had originally ousted Ms. Tenney in the 2018 midterms, had defined himself as the candidate refusing to accept corporate PAC money and willing to stand independently from the pressures of his own party. Yet in 2020, much of the substantive policy focus had disappeared, to be replaced with a profoundly vague message of ‘I’m not Claudia.’ Mr. Brindisi lost his re-election bid by little more than one-hundred votes. 

On the other hand, Mr. Newsom followed the same pattern and found success. During his 2018 electoral bid, he had endorsed ambitious proposals for statewide single-payer healthcare and comprehensive immigration reform. Yet much of his recall election ignored substantive policy issues to focus instead on the flaws of his major opponent, Mr. Larry Elder. In contrasting himself with Mr. Elder, who professes to be anti-vaccine, anti-COVID protection, and anti-union, Mr. Newsom comfortably secured his job for the next two years. Of course, while it is not entirely fair to compare California with NY-22, the latter of which Mr. Trump won twice in a row, such a comparison illustrates the lack of consistent electoral victories for the default Democratic message of, “Vote for us because we are better than them.”

The Democratic Party has plenty of time, as far as politics goes, before the 2022 midterms. Since they have all but abandoned any efforts for election reform, it is imperative that they question which message will consistently resonate with voters in swing districts so they might maintain their razor-thin congressional majorities. Will they continue to obey the retrograde impulse to portray calmness and “look presentable” on a TV screen, or will they instead recognize the thousands of independent voters who are up for grabs, ordinary Americans who are alienated from the financial and cultural elite and receptive to a message of economic security? As the saying goes, what happens in Vegas should stay in Vegas.