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Newsom takes the lead in California recall election

Gov. Gavin Newsom took the lead in early returns Tuesday night in California’s historic recall election, a vote that will either serve him out or install a Republican governor in the Democratic stronghold for the first time in over of a decade.

The election gave California voters the opportunity to judge Newsom’s ability to lead the state through the COVID-19 pandemic, a global health crisis that has shattered families and livelihoods.

The recall offered Republicans their best chance in years to take the helm of the largest state in the Union, though Newsom and the nation’s top Democrats, including President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, have described the campaign to oust him as a “life or death” fight against “Trumpism” and far-right anti-vaccine activists.

Conservative talk show host Larry Elder appeared during the campaign as the favorite among 46 candidates on the ballot in hopes of becoming governor, though a victory would become meaningless if a majority of Californians voted to keep Newsom in power. If elected, Elder would become the first black governor in state history.

Newsom spent part of Election Day in an anti-recall rally in a San Francisco union hall and warned supporters of the consequences for California’s economy and the public health of its nearly 40 million people if he was recalled and replaced by Elder, who has sworn to repeal the state’s mask and vaccination warrants.

“California has surpassed Florida, Texas, Indiana and the United States as a whole not only in health, but also in economic performance,” Newsom told reporters. “Our economy has contracted at a more modest pace than these states.”

Newsom also criticized Elder and former President Trump for saying Tuesday’s election was rigged, calling the unfounded allegations a threat to democracy and a continuation of the “big lie” that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen from Trump.

“This electoral fraud thing is a pitcher; it is shameful. And when I say that, I mean it, ”he said. “Guys like me come and go. We are a dime a dozen politicians. Literally a dime a dozen. These are our institutions. It is about this nation. It is a matter of trust and confidence.

For Newsom, the election capped an extraordinary eight-week fight for political survival, less than three years after winning the governorship by the largest margin in modern history.

Newsom’s campaign to defeat the recall effort began on an upbeat note, with the governor touting California “roaring backwards” thanks to falling COVID-19 infection rates in the state and efforts to ensure residents get vaccinated. State restrictions and closures have been lifted. Baseball stadiums were overflowing with fans from June, people were dining in restaurants and, Newsom promised, public schools would be open for the new school year.

Newsom and his political allies had prevented any prominent Democrat from entering the field of replacement candidates, thus eliminating a credible alternative for left-wing Californians who could have soured the governor.

But in late July, just after the recall election was officially certified for the ballot, a cause for concern emerged for Newsom: A poll showed likely voters in California were almost evenly divided over whether to overthrow. the governor, a disastrous sign in a state where Democratic voters are almost 2 to 1.

Political scientist Mindy Romero, director of USC’s Center for Inclusive Democracy, said the lingering legacy of Newsom’s COVID-19 policies likely left some voters who backed him in the 2018 election this time around.

She said they held Newsom “at least partially responsible” for government-imposed restrictions that have devastated businesses and forced schoolchildren to stay at home in distance education programs. Under Newsom’s watch, the state also paid out billions of dollars in fraudulent unemployment benefits while at the same time millions of unemployed Californians with legitimate claims faced frustrating and lengthy delays in receiving benefits. their payments.

Romero said Newsom’s costliest mistake came in November when supporters of the recall struggled to collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. Newsom attended a lobbyist’s birthday party at upscale French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley after begging Californians to stay home and avoid multi-family gatherings.

Reminder supporters took hold of this, criticizing Newsom as an elitist and out of touch hypocrite who believed he was above the rules he imposed on other Californians. Romero said the message was “easy and intuitive for people to understand.” It has drawn voters from all political backgrounds and still persists, she said.

“It should never have come close,” Romero said. “This whole process damaged the governor. “

Dave Gilliard, one of the Republican strategists leading efforts to overthrow the governor, said Newsom was in serious trouble until August. That changed once Elder became the lead candidate to replace Newsom as governor.

“It was in bad shape,” said Gilliard. “Once the focus moved away from Newsom and his opponent, Elder in this case, his numbers improved dramatically. He succeeded in re-engaging Democrats in the election. “

Elder was a perfect foil, said Gilliard. The Republican opposed the right to abortion and supported offshore oil drilling, anathema to the state’s Democratic majority. Elder has also been a staunch supporter of Trump, an immensely unpopular figure in California. In fact, Gilliard said, supporters of the recall begged Trump’s advisers to “convince him to stay out of this,” which was successful until recent days, when he began baselessly asserting that the recall elections in California were “rigged”.

Most important, Gilliard said, was Elder’s vow to repeal Newsom administration mandates requiring students to wear masks in public schools and teachers, state employees and healthcare workers. are vaccinated. This at a time when the Delta variant was raging and most Californians supported Newsom’s actions to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

“Elder allowed Newsom to bring Trump back, at least Trumpism, when it comes to masks and vaccines,” Gilliard said. “When you combine that with the Delta variant, and people were suddenly extremely concerned about COVID, the timing for Newsom couldn’t have been better.”

At stake was the most powerful elected office in a state of nearly 40 million people, plagued by homelessness, a severe shortage of affordable housing, an increase in violent crime and thousands of people. businesses that have closed or are still struggling after statewide shutdowns during the height of the pandemic.

Newsom is the second California governor to receive a recall vote. In 2003, California voters distraught by power cuts, budget cuts and steep increases in vehicle registration fees recalled Democratic Governor Gray Davis from office and actor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, who remains the last Republican. to have been head of the state executive.

The spectacle of the 2003 recall election mesmerized the nation with its unique cast of political candidates in California, which, along with Schwarzenegger, included Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt, Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington and star of ” Diff’rent Strokes ”Gary Coleman. .

By comparison, the 2021 sequel fell flat.

Reality TV star and former Olympic decathlete Caitlyn Jenner tried to capture some of Schwarzenegger’s magic, but failed to win over California voters despite her visibility in cable TV media coverage.

Trying, as he put it, to make his campaign more “dumb,” Republican John Cox at one point brought in a 1,000-pound Kodiak bear named Tag to spark interest in his campaign. Neither the bear nor the $ 7.6 million he invested in the race helped replicate the success he had in 2018, when he garnered enough voter support in the primary. governors to face Newsom in the general election – to be beaten.

On Tuesday morning, Cox admitted that Elder had “shaken up the race a bit.” With a double-digit lead over any other candidate, Elder far surpassed Cox, who was supported by 4% of likely voters ahead of the election, according to the latest UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll co-sponsored by The Times.

Cox said he hoped the polls were wrong and reiterated his position that undecided voters will decide the election.

“The important thing is that we vote yes on the recall… it doesn’t matter if people choose Larry or myself,” Cox said.

Kevin Paffrath, who has 1.7 million followers on his YouTube channel, had the highest profile of the little-known Democrats on the ballot, even making it to the stage during one of the candidates’ debates. Paffrath, who proposed to build a pipeline to the Mississippi River to alleviate California’s devastating drought, is expected to have a relatively strong performance in the election, perhaps even questioning the success of Republican Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor. from San Diego.

As a fiscal conservative with moderate to liberal positions on social issues including abortion, immigration, and the environment, Faulconer has long been seen as the Republican Party’s greatest hope of winning back the governor’s office. But his campaign faltered, in part, because the pro-Trump core of the California Republican Party was firmly behind Elder.

Recall candidate and state assembly member Kevin Kiley (D-Rocklin) remained optimistic when he voted in northern California on Tuesday, undeterred by recent polls.

A dozen supporters and campaign staff were on hand as he brought his ballot to a nearly empty polling station at St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Roseville. The fact that Newsom “took out Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Barack Obama” in recent weeks in campaign announcements and rallies was a “sign of desperation,” Kiley said.

“At the end of the day, despite all the attempts by our corrupt political class to seize power from the people, the people are still sovereign in this state and the idea of ​​’We the people’ still makes sense,” Kiley said. .

Times editors Susanne Rust, Melody Gutierrez and Faith E. Pinho contributed to this report.