LOS ANGELES – Gov. Gavin Newsom easily repelled a historic attempt to recall him as head of the nation’s most populous state, an effort that threatened to change California’s role as a liberal pioneer and reportedly sent waves shock through the Democratic Party.
Newsom, a Democrat who had been touted as a potential presidential candidate, has found himself at the center of the country’s divisions over COVID-19 and mandates to keep people safe. He was applauded for his work as the pandemic began, leading to the shutdown of the first state. But after months of tight restrictions and public failures, that same work helped spark the effort that led to the fourth re-election for governor in U.S. history.
Newsom needed to convince more than half of voters that he should stay in office, which he easily achieved. Election experts have warned that the results could take a long time in the state, which is known to take weeks to count the ballots.
But with less than an hour of the state polling closing, Newsom was declared the winner by The Associated Press, NBC News and CNN.
“I am humbled and grateful to the millions and millions of Californians who exercised their fundamental right to vote and spoke so overwhelmingly in rejecting the division,” Newsom said after the race called for him, noting that the election sent a message to the rest of the country.
His ability to keep control of the state in an out-of-year election with rules that could have allowed him to be replaced by someone garnering only 20% of the vote is likely to embolden Democrats. The first-term governor centered the race around several key issues that could be critical in 2022: COVID-19 mandates, abortion, workers’ rights and former President Donald Trump.
Only twice in the history of the United States has a governor been removed from office by removal; in North Dakota in 1921; and in California in 2003, when Gray Davis was removed from his post and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
On the eve of the election, Newsom received a nudge from President Joe Biden, with the Commander-in-Chief telling voters at a campaign rally that “the eyes of the nation are on California.” Biden, who made an appearance in Long Beach, Calif. On Monday, warned that Newsom’s withdrawal would have consequences that would ripple across the country and risk reverting to the ‘grim, destructive and confrontational politics’ of the former President Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, Republican leader and conservative radio host Larry Elder, referred to by Biden as a “Trump clone,” predicted victory.
“Make sure your friends vote, vote, vote and try to get 10 other friends to vote and answer every call, make every call, knock on every door, we’re going to win this thing if we vote,” Elder said declared this week.
How the California recall worked
Voters asked two questions on their ballot: Does Newsom need to be recalled? If over 50% of voters said yes, then the next question was key: who should replace him?
Forty-six candidates were on the ballot. Elder has always led the polls among those vying to replace Newsom.
Californian reminder:Allegations of electoral fraud create ‘circus atmosphere’, prompt California governor Gavin Newsom recall
Other prominent Republican candidates who came forward included Caitlyn Jenner, a former Olympic gold medalist who starred in the Keeping Up With The Kardashians reality series; former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer; California Assembly Member Kevin Kiley; and John Cox, a businessman who was easily beaten by Newsom in the 2018 gubernatorial election.
The only prominent Democratic candidate to emerge in the race was Kevin Paffrath, a real estate broker and YouTube personality.
Most of the candidates avoided Republican early attempts to discredit the election with unfounded allegations of voter fraud, but Elder gave the problem a broader platform.
In recent days, he has suggested that recall election results could be skewed by unspecified “shenanigans”, echoing Trump’s baseless claims of electoral fraud in his 2020 run with Biden. He repeatedly declined to say he would accept the race results in various interviews.
There has been no confirmed evidence of widespread fraud.
The Elder Campaign website is linked to a “Stop CA Fraud” site where people can sign a petition demanding a special legislative session to investigate the “twisted results” long before the results are announced.
Elder did not immediately acknowledge Newsom’s victory after multiple media outlets called the race. His campaign did not immediately respond to requests from USA TODAY.
What did voters think about it?
Newsom’s recall campaign focused largely on its COVID-19 policies. California has become one of the epicenters of the COVID-19 outbreak last year, despite the governor employing some of the tightest terms in the country.
Critics said he was heavy handed, shutting down businesses and keeping children out of classrooms longer than necessary. Newsom said his actions saved lives.
“I’m angry. It should be a freedom of choice. What is it? A dictatorship?” asked Janet Webb, a 69-year-old resident of Lafayette, Calif., who voted for Elder.
She said feuds over Newsom’s handling of the pandemic had divided her family and friends and may prompt her to leave the state.
“I can’t live here like this if they force everyone to get vaccinated,” Webb said.
Briana Mendoza, 30, said the last thing California needs is more unrest. She voted to keep Newsom.
“We are in the midst of a pandemic. Why would we recall the governor who really tried to curb the spread of the virus? Said the San Diego social worker.
Mendoza does not believe Newsom caused the recall by attending a birthday party at The French Laundry, an upscale Napa Valley restaurant, last fall in violation of his own administration’s coronavirus rules. Instead, she believes the effort to topple him is a backlash from a small minority of Republicans in a firmly Democratic state.
“We don’t want Elder in office,” she said. “It’s ridiculous. We just got Trump out. We don’t want a Trump puppet.
Voters’ priorities divided according to parties
Exit polls have shown COVID-19 to be the number one issue for voters, followed by the homeless, the economy, wildfires and crime.
The exit poll, conducted by Edison Research for multiple media outlets, found that about a third of voters listed COVID-19 as the main issue in determining how they voted.
But the problem split across parties: more than four in 10 Democrats said COVID-19 was their main problem, compared to about a fifth of Republicans. Conversely, Republican voters were more than three times more likely than Democrats to list the economy as their main problem.
Voters have offered mixed reactions to the current trajectory of the pandemic in California, with around four in 10 saying the situation is improving, three in 10 saying it remains about the same and just under one. quarter claiming it is getting worse.
The results largely align with recent polls on top voters’ priorities. In a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll, COVID-19 again topped the list of issues important to voters in the state.
Contributing: Tom Coulter, The Desert Sun; The Associated Press