California voters will decide whether to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday, concluding an idiosyncratic election held amid a pandemic and closely watched as one of the first major indicators of the country’s political direction since the President Biden takes office.
Democrats are feeling more and more confident, predicting that Mr Newsom will prevail and avoid what would be a disaster for the party in California, the most populous state in the country. If Mr Newsom is recalled, his likely replacement would be Larry Elder, a Conservative radio host who has made a career of denigrating Liberal causes.
But the fact that the Democratic governor of a state Mr Biden won by nearly 30 percentage points is forced to fight to keep his post has highlighted the vulnerabilities of leaders who seemed well positioned before the coronavirus pandemic. .
Democrats are trying to energize voters without former President Donald J. Trump on the ballot, and a defeat – if not a narrow victory – would raise questions about the political weight of Mr. Biden, who campaigned with Mr. Newsom Monday night.
Leading Republicans vying to replace Mr Newsom have embraced Mr Trump and his baseless claims of a stolen election, an early sign of the party’s reluctance or inability to distance itself from the former president.
While the peculiar nature of California’s recall elections does not provide a perfect barometer of national mood, much is at stake, including the leadership of the world’s fifth-largest economy. Political insiders from both parties note that Mr Newsom’s fate could have far-reaching national consequences, given the governor’s power to appoint a new senator in the event of a vacancy.
The voters are asked two questions: Should Mr. Newsom be recalled? And if this happens, who should replace it? Forty-six candidates, about half of them Republicans, are on the ballot, along with seven certified candidates in writing.
The winner will serve the remainder of Mr Newsom’s term, which ends in January 2023. Whatever the outcome, there will be another election in just over a year.
Polling stations close at 8 p.m. Pacific. Follow our results page here and our coverage of the election and its implications on nytimes.com.
Here’s what we’re looking at as the results are released.
Will the governor survive the recall?
Early returns suggest that California’s huge Democratic base is rallying for Mr Newsom, who was elected in 2018 in a landslide. The governor’s campaign presented the recall as a takeover by Republicans from Trump.
If Mr Newsom is recalled, it will be because a critical mass of independent voters and Democrats voted against him, which in California would suggest a significant – and unlikely – turn to the right.
The most likely question is whether the governor wins by a wide or narrow margin. For a while, polls seemed to indicate likely voters were not enthusiastic about Mr Newsom, which sparked a torrent of support from major donors and appearances from national Democratic figures, including Mr. Biden.
A decisive victory for Mr Newsom, as some recent polls predict, would strengthen him as he approaches a campaign for a second term in 2022 and perhaps even position him for a national post. But if Mr Newsom wins by just a few percentage points, he could face a major challenge next year.
How many Republicans will vote?
Republicans make up only a quarter of registered voters in California. Since the 1990s, when the party’s anti-immigrant positions alienated Latinos, their numbers have declined. Supporters have presented the recall as a way to check the power of the Democrats, who control all state offices and the legislature. Republicans also say the battle has animated their party base.
But Republican support and money for the recall failed to come close to the big operation and Mr Newsom’s war chest. And Mr. Elder’s candidacy appears to mark the GOP more as far-right by California standards. Support for moderates like Kevin Faulconer, former San Diego mayor, is in single digits, polls show.
Critics of the GOP under Mr. Trump say a failure to impeach Mr. Newsom could further diminish Republican influence in California and further polarize the nation.
How will Latinos vote?
Latinos are California’s largest ethnic group, making up about 30% of registered voters – a largely Democratic constituency that has shaped state governance for decades.
But to the dismay of Mr Newsom’s party and much to the interest of supporters of the recall, Latinos were slow to weigh on his ouster, thanks to a combination of distraction – many voters are more focused on navigating the pandemic – and ambivalence, both about Mr Newsom in particular and the Democratic Party as a whole.
Critics have warned that California Democrats have recklessly assumed that the Latino electorate will be driven by memories of Republican anti-immigrant policies, rather than trying to woo Latinos with their vision for the future.
This has sparked speculation whether the rapidly growing Latin American vote in California and elsewhere might be within the grasp of candidates willing to work to engage those voters. After Republicans withdrew significant amounts of Latino support across the country in the 2020 election, a poor performance by Latino voters on the recall could spark a new round of Democratic soul-searching.
What will be the influence of postal ballots?
Every registered and active voter in California received a ballot as part of an extension of the pandemic voting rules. Launched in 2020 to ensure the safety of voters and election officials, the system has helped increase the turnout to over 70% in the presidential election. This month, lawmakers voted to make the system permanent.
California election officials say the vote went smoothly in 2020. But Republicans have claimed that the mail-in ballots invite cheating, echoing Mr. Trump’s baseless claim that Democrats are cheating them. had used to steal the presidential election.
Last week, in an appearance on Newsmax, the former president claimed without evidence that the recall election was “probably rigged”.
Conservative groups seeking evidence of voter fraud have called on Californians to warn them to recall ballots that arrive in the mail addressed to deceased people or voters not residing at their addresses.
The warnings about postal voting appear to have had an effect: Republicans have been reluctant to adopt the practice – a trend that worries some party members as more states adopt postal voting. Yet, on the eve of the election, nearly 40% of all registered voters had already voted, a significant share suggesting that the ease of voting early and by mail will increase turnout in what is an unusually scheduled special election.
This bodes well for Mr Newsom, who relies on the state’s huge Democratic voter base: the higher the overall turnout, according to his campaign, the better his odds.
Still, analysts are watching if a significant number of Republican voters vote in person on Tuesday, and if younger and Latino voters will join them.
What will the vote say about pandemic policies?
If Covid-19 hadn’t paved the way, Mr Newsom arguably wouldn’t have been fighting for his job by now. But lately he has some progress to report. Cases declined this month in California, where indoor face masks have become a reality in many places, and about 80% of those eligible have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
In recent weeks, Mr Newsom has trumpeted California’s approach, noting that mask and vaccination requirements have reduced new cases to half the rates reported in Republican-led states.
Californians have said no problem is more important to them than beating the coronavirus. Broad support for Mr Newsom, beyond Democratic voters, could signal policymakers elsewhere – including in some of the dozens of other states with governor races next year – that strong health policies can be good policy.
Other Democratic candidates on the ballot this fall also looked at policies such as mask and vaccine warrants while alarming their Republican opponents would reverse those measures. Mr Biden followed suit, offering stricter policies on terms of office and harsher rhetoric aimed at Republican governors.
How will Trump affect the race?
For four years, Democrats have enjoyed huge gains thanks to Mr. Trump. The former president energized party activists, helped their candidates raise mountains of campaign money and led voters to the polls in record numbers.
Mr. Newsom has tried to maintain this source of inspiration, offering frequent warnings about the continuation of “Trumpism” in American politics. His recall election offers the first major test of whether the former president’s specter still has the power to mobilize liberal voters while keeping moderates voting Democratic.
On the Republican side, the main candidates have adopted Mr. Trump’s political playbook, proposing baseless allegations of voter fraud and “rigged” votes. Mr. Elder declined to say whether he would accept the election results.
Not all Republicans agree with this playbook. Some fear that some Republicans are staying at home because they think their votes won’t count, and a low turnout could lend credence to that argument.