By Thomas Elias
In almost every aspect of the Sept. 14 recall election that is now mere weeks away, Gov. Gavin Newsom has had it his way.
His most recent “victory” was in dissuading every other substantial (read: well-financed) Democrat in California to stay off the list of candidates to replace him if the ‘yes’ side of the recall should win a majority vote.
This was Newsom’s aim from the moment it became clear recall advocates would gather enough signatures to put the notion to a statewide vote. The tactic is designed to let Newsom use his massive and, thus far, largely untapped war chest to convince voters this contest is really between him and ex-President Donald Trump.
If he can do that, enthusiasm among California Democrats to vote ‘no’ seems likely to rise enormously. Right now, polls show almost all the registered Democrats who outnumber Republicans in this state by nearly a 2-1 margin oppose the recall but essentially yawn as they say so.
Associate the recall with Trump, whom they despise to the extent of twice giving his election opponents margins above 3 million votes, and their determination to vote stands a chance of approaching the enthusiasm displayed by recall backers, who salivate at the prospect of throwing out Newsom (known to many of them as “Gov. Nuisance”).
Can Newsom make the recall synonymous with Trump? He shouldn’t have too hard a time, as the most prominent of the 33 Republicans in the replacement field all have ties to the defeated President.
San Diego area businessman John Cox, for example, was strongly endorsed by Trump when he ran against Newsom in 2018 and lost in a 62-38 percent landslide. Ex-San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer proudly says he voted for Trump last year and can be seen in Oval Office photos fawned over him. Reality TV star Caitlin Jenner has had ex-Trump operatives in her so-far ineffective campaign. And so on.
So Newsom has an early election date and everything he said he wants and needs in order to defend himself, save one. A blunder attributed to his aides deprives him of the tag “Democrat” following his name in the recall question.
But he has plenty of money and plenty of name recognition, with almost no Californian unaware that Newsom is, in fact, a Democrat, even if the ballot doesn’t say so. Among the funded, he has only Republican opponents. He has a state budget that will put significant COVID recovery checks in millions of mailboxes just before the vote.
He has $5.2 billion to pay more than a year’s rent for almost all Californians who lost jobs to the pandemic. He has an electoral system that will furnish mail ballots to every registered voter, making it easier than ever for them to vote, even if they’re not feeling fired up about it.
For most candidates, this looks like a dream world.
And yet, no poll so far shows great enthusiasm for keeping Newsom around.
So there remains plenty of work for the governor to do if he really wants to stay in office and maybe later move on to either the Senate or the White House – or both.
It’s a situation very different from what faced ex-Gov. Gray Davis, who was recalled within months of getting reelected in 2002, the only American governor ever to lose his office so ignominiously.
But Davis faced an electorate that blamed him for a major energy crunch and a series of rolling blackouts. Plus, he ran up against the Terminator, movie muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger, who emerged as the favorite to ignite the recall and replace Davis from the moment he declared himself a candidate.
There is no one like that today. Newsom has been among the most effective governors in America at getting his state vaccinated and reducing pandemic damage. He has, for the most part, kept the lights on, even while he’s favored utility companies financially.
So it would be a major upset if Newsom were to be dumped. But there’s still that huge enthusiasm advantage Republicans now have over Democrats. Which means we all must stay tuned.