Rich Pedroncelli / AP
Gavin Newsom of California can now count himself among a select group of survivors – he is only one of two governors to face a recall vote and win.
Again, most recall campaigns fail before voters go to the polls.
The unsuccessful vote against Newsom, which angered many in the state by dining at an upscale Napa Valley restaurant in violation of its own pandemic gathering guidelines, follows the 2012 effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who narrowly repelled an effort by state Democrats to oust him.
Nineteen states allow recall elections, but even in those states the chances of success are slim. Only two gubernatorial revocation votes have been successful – one targeting California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, in 2003 after voters blamed him for an electricity crisis in the state and a faltering economy. Another turned out to be North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier in 1921. In 1988, Arizona Republican Gov. Evan Mecham would have had to face a recall vote if he hadn’t been impeached first. after being dismissed and convicted by the legislature.
The failure of most of these efforts is not for lack of trying. In California alone, there have been 55 attempts since 1913 to recall governors (six of the campaigns were against Newsom), giving individual recall efforts a less than 2% chance of success. Most efforts fail to get the required number of petition signatures and therefore never reach a ballot.
Successful recalls are rare, says Enrijeta Shino, professor of political science at the University of North Florida. “However, the latter two have occurred in the past decade,” she said, pointing to the “highly polarized political landscape”.
“We may see more recall elections in the future than we have seen to date,” she told NPR.
Nevertheless, “[There] were tons of attempts to recall the governors, ”writes Joshua Spivak, author of Election reminder: from Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom. “Last year 15 governors faced recall attempts.”
With around 64% of voters voting “no” on recall, the outcome in Newsom’s case has never been in doubt. For Republicans pushing for the governor’s ouster, Spivak borrows a line from Bob Dylan: “When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.”
Even Davis’ successful recall 18 years ago was a Pyrrhic victory, Spivak told NPR Morning edition earlier this week. Getting rid of Davis brought in Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the GOP continued to lose ground in the state. “But was it something that gave Republicans a long-term advantage? I can’t see in any way, shape or form that it did,” Spivak said.
Likewise, the unsuccessful offer nine years ago to remove Walker. “I don’t think Democrats won anything in Wisconsin,” Barry Burden, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told NPR. When they failed to overthrow Walker, “I think it set Democrats back for a while and emboldened Scott Walker and his supporters.”
Walker ended up having a very successful two-term governorship, even going so far as to run for president. As a result, he became somewhat of a darling of conservatives across the country, and that helped fuel his presidential campaign, ”said Burden.
Shino, however, cautions against making general comparisons between the recall votes for Walker and Newsom. The end result was the same, but the circumstances were different, she notes.
“Wisconsin is a swing state and Walker was pushing hard against a union-won white working class status quo by shaking state policy,” she said. Despite her missteps that angered voters, “Newsom is aligned with the vast majority of California voters,” she said.
Burden believes there’s another reason recall efforts are so rarely successful. He says that in states, like California, where many proposals and initiatives are voted on, they tend to get there with the support of organized interests – business lobbyists, advocacy groups, business organizations. “
These efforts “have an infrastructure of lawyers and paid staff and the experience to do so,” he said. “But the groups pushing for recalls don’t have any of that. And a lot of times they kind of start out as some sort of exciting idea. And then within a few weeks they fall apart.”