It seems like only 18 years have passed since California last threw its governor out of office during a recall election. It was back in 2003, when the Arnold Schwarzenegger Govern-ator Express prematurely derailed Gray Davis only a year into his second term. That’s the last time a Republican ascended to the governor’s office in our heavily Democratic state, but a pandemic-fueled recall of Governor Gavin Newsom appears increasingly plausible.
In many ways, Newsom is in a much stronger position than Davis was. The biggest difference to date is the lack of a Schwarzenegger-ian (Schwarzenegger-esque? Schwarzenegger-ish?) candidate to captivate public interest the way the actor did. In addition, California’s blue tint has deepened over the years. Democratic voter registration is now roughly double that of the GOP, and Newsom’s landslide victory just over two years ago was far more one-sided than Davis’s close call the year before his recall. Unlike the energy crisis and rolling blackouts that drove public sentiment against Davis, the coronavirus has been a worldwide emergency that is much harder to pin on any single political leader. And Newsom has benefited tremendously from his ability to use the Trump administration as a foil throughout the crisis.
But Newsom’s vulnerabilities are considerable. Voters know he did not cause the pandemic, but are less understanding about the closed businesses and schools, the state government mishaps and scandals and, most damaging, the governor’s horrendous decision last fall to attend an exclusive dinner at an expensive restaurant while ignoring the social distancing rules that he had been urging on his constituents. The perceived double standard of the mask-less dinner—coupled with the fact that his own children had been attending in-person private school classes when most California public schools were relying on distance learning—has breathed life into what had been a floundering recall effort.
As a result, the recall’s backers have dramatically increased their signature-gathering efforts and now appear likely to collect enough names to qualify for an election later this year. Although it will be several more weeks before the recall’s status becomes clear, Newsom’s own behavior and heightened schedule of public appearances suggest that the governor and his advisers have shifted from attempting to prevent the recall to instead preparing a campaign to defeat it.
Even though Newsom’s public approval ratings have dropped since his restaurant adventure, it does not appear that California voters have turned dramatically against him. But while his overall poll numbers hover around 50 percent, he receives much lower marks on his handling of the coronavirus. Since a recall will almost certainly be a referendum on the pandemic, Newsom’s team may be tempted to delay the election for as long as possible to increase the chances that our post-COVID lives will have returned to normal by the time we vote.
The recall ballot would include only two questions. The first will be an up-or-down vote on whether Newsom should be removed from office. The second will list all of the candidates running to replace him. At least three prominent Republicans have already committed to running, including businessman John Cox, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and activist Mike Cernovich, with former Trump official Ric Grenell likely to follow if the recall does qualify. But in a heavily Democratic state, Newsom’s most serious challenge could come not from the right but from the left.
Most prominent Democratic officeholders have vowed not to challenge Newsom—although former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been noticeably non-definitive about his plans. And there are already earnest conversations among party loyalists about whether to put a just-in-case candidate on the ballot as a safety guard should the first question against Newsom pass.
Even if the recall does happen, Newsom will be a strong favorite to retain his office. But voters are suffering from months of COVID-driven fatigue, and any politician who wanders into their eyesight becomes a convenient target for their anger. In a local campaign, they would remove a mayor. In last November’s national election, they replaced a president. In a statewide recall, the name they’ll see will be Newsom’s.
Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.