What’s Left and Being Right: California Gubernatorial Recall Election
September 24, 2021
“I’m Not Them!” The Democratic Party’s New Electoral Message Worked in California
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.
Being Right: What the Recall Failure Means for California and the Republican Party
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.