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Regional Interests

Newsom Prevails in California Recall Election, Holds Onto Job as Governor

California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom soundly beat back a recall election effort Tuesday, ending a months-long campaign with a victory that served to vindicate his leadership of the state through the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of 8:45 p.m., more than a third of voters had rejected the recall effort, with close to 60% of votes counted, according to results from the California Secretary of State’s Office — prompting the Associated Press to call the race.

Newsom took a healthy lead immediately after polls closed, as early votes were counted.

Tuesday’s vote brings to a close a campaign that in politics began a lifetime ago — in the early weeks of 2020.

The petition to remove Newsom from office, launched by retired Yolo County sheriff’s deputy Orrin Heatlie, was one of six that had been circulated by the governor’s opponents since he took office in January 2019.

Getting the vote to the ballot took an unlikely synchronization of political fortune and Newsom’s own missteps. In early November, a Sacramento judge gave the recall campaign an additional four months to collect signatures, citing the difficulties in distributing petitions during the state’s coronavirus stay-at-home order. Later that same day, Newsom dined at the upscale French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley, against his own guidance to avoid gatherings as the spread of COVID-19 picked up pace.

The dinner became the enduring symbol of the recall campaign and fodder for the most convincing attack against the governor: that he failed to practice what he preached.

While that sentiment did not ultimately prove strong enough to convince a majority of voters to support his ouster, polls show it continues to trail him.

In a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS) survey conducted this month, 56% of likely voters agreed with the following statement: “Through his own actions, Newsom has demonstrated that the strict policies and behaviors that he wants others to follow during the pandemic don’t apply to him.”

Voter discontent snowballed in early December when Newsom instituted a second round of sweeping closures of businesses and activities, even shuttering outdoor dining, as COVID infection rates soared statewide. And as most California kids were still attending classes virtually, midway into the academic year, many faulted the governor for not doing more to open schools.

Those mounting frustrations spurred his detractors into action. Instead of waiting for the 2022 gubernatorial election, thousands of voters signed petitions to put the governor’s fate on the ballot this year.

But in the months since the recall campaign reached its milestone for signatures — 12% of total votes cast in the 2018 gubernatorial election — the greatest danger to Newsom has been Democratic voter apathy, not a tidal wave of voter discontent.

Polling of the entire electorate on the recall question has remained remarkably steady, and notably similar to the results of the 2018 governor’s race. The last IGS preelection survey put support for the recall at 38% of likely voters — the same percentage of votes received by Republican John Cox (a current recall candidate) three years ago when he ran against Newsom and was handily defeated.

But over the summer, as a total of 46 candidates threw their hats in the ring, pollsters predicted a smaller and more conservative electorate for the recall election — a dynamic that could pose a threat to Newsom, with the thinking that many Democrats would skip the off-year vote.

Fears of a low-turnout election were exacerbated by the decision of Democratic state lawmakers to speed up the recall process. In June, as COVID rates plummeted and vaccines became widely available, they approved a change in state election law that allowed the vote to be moved up, to mid-September, in the hopes of capturing the post-pandemic goodwill of voters.

Instead, the start of voting coincided with the rise of the coronavirus delta variant in the state, largely affecting the unvaccinated.

The resurgence of the virus also allowed Newsom to draw his clearest contrast between himself and the candidates hoping to replace him, most notably conservative radio talk show host Larry Elder.

In late July, Newsom announced vaccine mandates for California state employees, health care workers and school staff, along with a mask requirement for school children — orders that Elder promised to revoke on Day One if elected.

Elder’s dominance of the replacement candidate field also presented Newsom’s campaign with the foil it was desperately searching for — after previous attempts to try to link the recall to Republican voter suppression efforts or the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack fell flat.

But Elder’s emergence as the clear favorite for replacing Newsom  — on the second question on the ballot — allowed the governor to turn the race from a referendum to a choice; Newsom spent the final days of the campaign slamming Elder’s conservative positions on climate policy, abortion and the minimum wage.

Although Elder remained the overwhelming favorite among voters who filled in the second question — with well over 40% of those voters selecting him — he received nowhere near the number of votes needed to oust Newsom.

Tuesday’s vote could end up being the last gubernatorial recall held under the current rules, which were enacted by voters and added to the state constitution in 1911, an effort by Progressives to curb rampant political corruption.

Leading state Democratic officials, including Secretary of State Shirley Weber, have already voiced support for reexamining the process. Advocates for reform note that  other states with recall provisions have much higher thresholds for the process to reach the ballot, such as requiring a greater percentage of signatures or only sanctioning it if an official is convicted of an act of malfeasance or a serious crime.

Tuesday’s vote is only the fourth gubernatorial recall election in U.S. history. Two of those challenges have been in California — the last in 2003, when actor Arnold Schwarzenegger successfully ousted then-Gov. Gray Davis.

And while three-quarters of the voters surveyed in the IGS poll said they support retaining the recall provision, most said they were open to various changes that would make it harder to remove state officials from office.

This post will be updated.

Copyright 2021 KQED