California Gov. Gavin Newsom Faces Greater-Than-Expected Threat in Upcoming Recall Election

Irfan Khan | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images
  • Counties will send ballots to every registered voter in mid-August, giving the Democratic governor a month to boost turnout to oppose his recall in the Sept. 14 special election. 
  • Complacency among Democratic supporters and the rollout of new pandemic health orders may pose real threats to Newsom's chances of surviving the recall election. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom may face more of an uphill battle in the upcoming recall election than initially expected. 

Counties will send ballots to every registered voter in mid-August, giving the Democratic governor a month to boost turnout for the Sept. 14 special election. 

The odds may seem to be in Newsom's favor, especially as registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans in the state, and money raised by supporters of the recall are dwarfed by the governor's nearly $47 million war chest

However, complacency among Democratic supporters and the rollout of new coronavirus pandemic health orders may pose real threats to Newsom's chances of survival. 

"Democrats have not had urgency, and that's Newsom's greatest challenge at this point," said Democratic consultant Michael Soneff. "His ability to convince Democrats to return their ballot over the course of a month is going to make all the difference in whether or not he wins against the recall."

Recent polls show that more voters oppose Newsom's recall than support it, but an enthusiasm gap between Republican and Democratic voters has created uncertainty. 

In a poll conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, and the Los Angeles Times in late July, 36% of the state's registered voters would vote to recall Newsom, while 51% would vote to keep him in office. 

The numbers among likely voters were more evenly divided with 47% favoring Newsom's recall and 50% favoring his retention. 

This indicates outsized interest among Republicans, who have been the major area of support for the recall, the poll said.

Democratic and no party Preference voters may have lower interest in the election because they believe Newsom will easily defeat the recall, according to the poll. 

"If everybody voted, then Newsom would actually be in a safe place right now. But that's not the way elections in this country work. I think the governor and his team understand that even his supporters aren't all that excited about him right now," said Dan Schnur, a politics professor at three California universities who previously led the California Fair Political Practices Commission.  

"Over the next few weeks, you'll see him spending less time trying to persuade recall supporters to change their mind, and much more of his time and energy simply trying to motivate his own base to bother to show up," Schnur said. 

The governor and his campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

Blanketing the airways with ads

Newsom's ads decrying the recall are blanketing airways and digital spaces in an effort to reach Democratic voters. Most recently, an ad featuring Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., condemned "Trump Republicans" behind the recall effort.

"They're coming to grab power in California, abusing the recall process and costing taxpayers millions," Warren said.

Labor unions such as the California Labor Federation are also playing a role in the governor's anti-recall campaign by organizing volunteer canvassing efforts and rallies this past week.

But Newsom's chances are also threatened by his handling of the pandemic, the same politically charged issue that allowed the recall campaign to gain traction last fall. 

As Covid cases surge again in California and nationwide, Newsom's response could spur more Republican opposition and potentially discourage Democrats from casting their vote in September. 

"It's going to be very difficult for any Republican candidate to beat Gavin Newsom. But Covid sure can," Schnur said. 

The highly contagious delta variant is the most common cause of new infections in the state, the California Department of Public Health said Thursday. 

CDPH added that California is experiencing the "fastest increase in Covid-19 cases during the entire pandemic," with 18.3 new cases per 100,000 people per day and case rates increasing ninefold within two months. 

In response, the governor has issued new pandemic health orders, most recently requiring all of California's nearly 2.2 million health-care and long-term care workers to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30, according to CDPH. 

Los Angeles County also reinstated an indoor mask mandate for fully vaccinated people last month, and several other California counties followed suit last week.

While Newsom left counties to make those decisions, he issued a statewide mandate last month that requires K-12 students to wear masks indoors during the upcoming school year, NBC Los Angeles reported. 

This move garnered intense backlash from state school boards, with one in Orange County filing a lawsuit against Newsom on Wednesday for allegedly "abusing his power" by forcing children to wear masks, according to NBC Los Angeles. 

If Covid conditions worsen and Newsom moves to issue state lockdowns, his chances of surviving the recall could be jeopardized, Schnur said. 

"The recall first qualified when the shutdowns were their worst last winter. This spring, when things began to open up, Newsom's numbers started to get better. If we're heading into a more difficult period of Covid now, closing things down again could be a real problem for him," Schnur said.

Republicans pounce on pandemic response

Republican candidates vying to replace Newsom have seized on his pandemic response, slamming him at the GOP recall debate last week for his mask mandates and state shutdowns last fall. 

Businessman John Cox, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley and former Rep. Doug Ose all took part in the debate, calling for greater personal autonomy in the pandemic and less "government overreach."

Cox called Newsom's response "an absolute disaster" that resulted in "far more danger and far more problems."

Ose addressed Newsom's K-12 mask mandate, suggesting that parents have the option to move their children to a different school if they oppose wearing masks indoors. 

"I happen to have great faith in the ability of people to make decisions of their own," Ose said. "Instead of giving people mandates, we need to give them options."

Among the 46 confirmed candidates running in the recall election, 24 of them are Republican.

This includes Caitlyn Jenner, a reality television star and former Olympic athlete, who is running with the help of Donald Trump's former campaign manager, Brad Parscale. 

But the California Republican Party announced Saturday that it will not endorse a candidate in the election over concerns that supporting one candidate would divide the party and discourage GOP voters, NBC News reported. 

Newsom is facing other issues in the state, such as wildfire season and a drought emergency, but Soneff said they pose little threat to him in the recall election. 

"Wildfires are a colossal challenge for our state going forward, but I don't think voters hold Newsom responsible for them," Soneff said. "Climate change, aging infrastructure, and historic housing development decisions have created this crisis, and voters know that."

Copyright CNBC
Contact Us