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Just a few months ago, the idea that California’s dashing Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, might actually be recalled by the state’s voters seemed farcical. In February, Newsom had a 16-point lead, with 56 percent of voters saying that would vote “no” on the recall effort. But the race has tightened dramatically in the ensuing months (one recent survey even had Newsom losing outright), and the absurd mechanics of the recall process mean that there is real risk not only that Newsom is cashiered but that the governor’s office will go to the far-right crackpot currently leading the field of GOP hopefuls.
How could this be happening in a state that Joe Biden carried by 29 points over Donald Trump? While the recall effort began before the pandemic, Newsom’s most consequential gaffe was being spotted unmasked during a lobbyist’s birthday party at the posh French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley in November 2020, at the height of the winter surge. While Newsom was hardly the only public official to brazenly violate the restrictions imposed on their constituents, it really was an egregious affront to the sacrifices most Californians were willingly making for the common good.
Pandemic fatigue is also making some subset of generally reliable Democrats crabby enough to mutiny for no particular reason. But it also surely has something to do with California’s failures to address housing and homelessness crises, two of the state’s biggest and most intractable long-term problems. And it can’t help that the recall is coinciding with yet another summer of out-of-control wildfires driving many residents from their homes and creating a respiratory nightmare of smoke inhalation for millions more.
Newsom’s long-term political aspirations probably died with the lobster or duck he ate that night at French Laundry, and that’s fine. The bigger problem for California is the way that this process unfolds. Voters are presented with two questions. The first is simple: recall the governor, or keep him in office? If a 50 percent plus 1 of the state’s voters elect to keep Newsom around, that’s the end of it, and that’s obviously what the governor’s strategists and state Democrats are hoping for.
But if he falls short of a majority, California then turns to the results of what amounts to an instantaneous jungle primary. Forty-six people will be on the ballot to replace Newsom, and whoever gets the most votes wins, even if that’s far less than a majority. Some Democratic strategists fear that voters who want to retain Newsom might just skip the second part, a strategy that Newsom himself is, completely insanely, advocating in public. And some polls have found that Larry Elder, a Trumpy radio host and longtime syndicated columnist, is leading the unwieldy scrum of candidates and could become California’s next governor with as little as 20 percent of the vote.
Elder opposes the very concept of a minimum wage, supports abolishing the IRS, wants to cut government spending by 80 percent, and is an ardent support of overturning Roe v. Wade. But those are mostly national issues that he would have little to do with as the governor. By far his most damaging ideas for Californians today are his suite of opinions opposing public health measures to mitigate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “As Gov, I will not tell, much less order, people to wear masks,” he said on Twitter in July. He opposes vaccine mandates, one of the few tools remaining to get the virus under control. In all likelihood, California under Elder would simply let the virus rip through the population, as Florida has under Gov. Ron DeSantis. And although he is an extremist, he is a polished speaker and does not give off Lauren Boebert or Matt Gaetz-style crazytown vibes.
Elder could sneak through because, astoundingly, California Democrats did not recruit a credible candidate for the second part of the recall effort, staking it all on Newsom’s ability to retain the office. In 2003, when Democrat Gray Davis was recalled, Davis’ lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, threw his hat in the very crowded ring. At the time, Davis and other party leaders felt like “No on the recall, yes on Bustamante” was a confusing proposition for voters. Bustamante came in a distant second place behind movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Davis, though, was far more unpopular than Newsom and was surely a goner no matter what Bustamante did or didn’t do.
This time around, Newsom and his allies successfully scared off prominent Democrats from joining the circus. But that means the best known Democrat in the race is a YouTube real estate guru named Kevin Paffrath. You can go judge for yourself, but he seems a little extra. To call the situation for Democrats on the second question if Newsom is recalled not ideal would be a dramatic understatement, although the recent SurveyUSA poll showing the recall effort with 51 percent support also had Paffrath leading the replacement field over Elder 27 percent to 22 percent.
When all of this is over, Californians might want to sit down and have a little rethink about a system that makes two goofy media personalities the leading contenders to be the next accidental governor of the world’s sixth-largest economy. If nothing else, they should be using Ranked Choice Voting for the second round, ensuring that the winner has, if nothing else, some kind of majority support. Better still would be to cut this kooky process out of the state constitution altogether. You should probably need to commit more serious crimes to get removed from office in the middle of your term than annoying the voters.
California has developed a well-deserved reputation as a laboratory for half-baked democracy reform ideas. From the ballot initiative process itself, which has resulted in a series of laws and constitutional amendments that make the Golden State close to ungovernable, to the state’s experiment with so-called “top two” primaries, which have frequently led to the incredibly stupid outcome of two politicians from the same party squaring off in the general election, state leaders desperately need to read some political science before another unworkable reform idea leaks out of their lab.
With all that said, Newsom probably remains a modest favorite to “win.” The betting market PredictIt has him as a 2-1 favorite. Democrats have such an enormous registration advantage in the state that a concerted awareness-raising and GOTV effort might be able to reverse the governor’s declining fortunes. His overall approval rating is still 50 percent, which is not great in such a deep blue state but might be high enough for him to hang onto his job. That’s probably not the political ceiling Newsom imagined for himself a year ago but California Democrats will take it. And if he does survive this recall effort, Democrats need to get to work fixing the design quirks that made these shenanigans possible in the first place.