LOS ANGELES – In the final days of the campaign to save his job, Governor Gavin Newsom of California has assessed the stakes as nothing less than saving democracy. The possibility of being dismissed from his functions had awakened him to the fragility of the political system, which he compared to… a Fabergé egg.
“It’s like a Fabergé egg, so to speak, in terms of democracy,” he said. “It’s not a soccer ball. You can’t throw it away. It’s delicate. Democracy is tricky. I hadn’t realized how tricky it was, and now I’m starting to appreciate how tricky it is and how important this race is, not just for me.
This belated realization has animated the final weeks of this bizarre campaign, and when the votes are counted after the polls close on Tuesday, they look very likely to break in favor of the governor. Yet the election does not appear intended to be a game of morality on democracy or an endorsement of Mr Newsom and his record. It’s more prosaic than that: an unbalanced battle between a reasonably popular Democratic incumbent who often appears more egocentric than self-aware, and a conservative radio talk show host who is arguably to the right of Donald Trump, in a state where Mr. Trump lost 29 percentage points.
What the reminder tells us is that California – one of the bluest states in the country – is not that different from other places by being subjected to the gravitational pull of partisan forces. Even though Mr Newsom wins by far, the recall underscored Californians’ lingering ambivalence about his leadership. A victory will be less a vote of confidence than an outright rejection of the right-wing Republican agenda, a message Democrats hope to resonate beyond California.
It shouldn’t even be close – and perhaps, despite earlier fear-mongering polls suggesting a close race, it never has been. On whether to recall Mr Newsom, support for his impeachment has always been around 40%, slightly more than the share of the vote Mr Trump received in 2020. Mr Newsom, elected by a big margin in 2018, comes to preside over a staggering $ 76 billion budget surplus that has allowed the state to spend generously on a myriad of programs and people – from elaborate vaccine lotteries to $ 600 stimulus checks. .
Will Democrats face a mid-term erasure?
California Democrats outnumber Republicans almost twice, and no Republican has won statewide in 15 years. To defeat the recall, Mr Newsom need only ensure that a sufficient number of Democrats vote. Polls and Democrats’ strong early voting turnout suggest he will.
The political calculation was complicated by several factors: the upsetting nature of the Covid pandemic and its ordeals, without which the recall would not have taken the ballot; the extreme political polarization that has gripped the country; and California’s recall law, which allows a replacement to win with minimal support if the recall is successful. But Democrats’ fears that a low turnout could create a doomsday scenario also reflected lukewarm enthusiasm for Mr Newsom and an underlying dissatisfaction with his leadership in the face of serious issues such as the lack of affordable housing and devastating forest fires.
Part of the dissonance is personal. For a long time, he evolved in an elitist world rich in Michelin-starred restaurants and Fabergé collectors. He sympathized with the shared parenting pain of Zoom School as his children attended private schools that already offered in-person instruction. On the day he took office, he moved with fanfare into the state-owned Governor’s Mansion in downtown Sacramento – without revealing that he had already purchased a $ 3.7 million suburban estate that would be the family home.
Some of the lukewarm support is professional. Its extensive use of executive orders and powers has contributed to friction and mistrust with some Democratic legislative leaders. He has a reputation dating back to his tenure as mayor of San Francisco for being enamored with shiny and shiny objects, making headline-grabbing ads that go missing. Progressives are unhappy with his action on issues such as fracking and single-payer health care; moderates consider it too liberal. In a sense, it lacks a committed base.
But the specter of a Republican Governor Trump has united Democrats. Mr Newsom capitalized on his ability to accept donations of unlimited amounts – another recall law quirk – raising more than $ 70 million to lead a fear campaign against talk show host Larry Elder, the favorite to become governor if the recall assists. Mr Elder’s extreme positions on Covid-19 (he wants to repeal the vaccination and mask mandates), climate change (he is “not sure” that the forest fires are due to climate change), the abortion (it’s “pro-life, 100 percent”) and minimum wage (“the ideal minimum wage is $ 0.00”) allowed Newsom to place the competition in a national framework, warning that the California would become Texas and Florida in one. It is not clear whether the tens of millions of dollars spent on the Vote No campaign resulted in Mr Newsom’s conversion. But that’s not the point. The fear is meant to galvanize broad Democratic participation.
Mr Newsom has largely not campaigned on his record, except for his handling of the pandemic, which has earned him strong approval ratings in an era of growing support for mandates on vaccinations and drugs. masks.
At the same time, less than half of those polled recently said California was going in the right direction, and about half believed the state was in a recession. When assessed on pressing issues like housing, homelessness and economic issues – which temporarily took precedence over Covid-19 concerns – Mr Newsom received relatively low marks.
In recent weeks, Mr Newsom has remained on the post, warning that the recall is a matter of life and death. He made little mention of accomplishments beyond bragging in some interviews of ambitious programs that for the most part have yet to go into effect (such as the promise of a universal kindergarten for 4-year-olds and a delivery experience. health care for people living on the street).
He would have liked to campaign on his track record, Mr Newsom recently told the Los Angeles Times editorial board. But that should wait until his alleged re-election campaign next year.
Republicans have probably missed their best opportunity to regain power. With no obvious strong suitors on the horizon, it seems likely that 2022 will bring a sequel to what looks like the 2021 anti-climate recall.
Myriam Pawel (@miriampawel) is the author of “The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation”.