Decision time: Three ways the California recall election could go

By Laurel Rosenhall | CalMatters

President Joe Biden and Gov. Gavin Newsom shake hands during a rally one day ahead of the California gubernatorial recall election, Sept. 13, 2021, in Long Beach. Photo by Jae C. Hong, AP Photo

For nearly 25 years, Gov. Gavin Newsom rose the ranks of California politics without ever losing an election, buoyed by connections to powerful San Francisco Democrats and a willingness to take risks — like sanctinoing same-sex marriage — that put him at the vanguard of his party.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic. 

The governor’s attention-grabbing style — implementing the nation’s first stay-at-home order in March 2020, then dining at an exclusive wine country restaurant as he told people to stay home to avoid a winter surge — rubbed enough Californians the wrong way that 1.7 million voters launched the second gubernatorial recall in state history.   

And yet to fight back, the Democratic leader of one of the nation’s bluest states returned to what helped him succeed in the early days: connections to fellow Democrats and well-calculated policy risks — this time, to fight COVID-19.

At a campaign rally in Long Beach on Monday night, President Joe Biden heaped praise on Newsom’s management of the pandemic. Newsom this summer made California the first state in the nation to require vaccines for health care workers and state employees

“Gavin Newsom has had the courage to lead, to stand up for science,” Biden said. “He’s been one of the leading governors in the nation protecting people and vaccinating his state.”

Echoing Newsom’s campaign message framing the GOP-led recall as an act of “Trumpism,” Biden described the leading Republican candidate — talk radio host Larry Elder — as “the clone of Donald Trump.”

“Can you imagine him being governor of this state? You can’t let that happen,” said Biden, who beat Trump in California last year by 30 points

Hosting the president the day before the election is just one sign of how much the power of incumbency has boosted Newsom in this race. With no legal cap on his fundraising against the recall, Newsom raised five times as much as all his opponents combined. His haul included $5.5 million from the Democratic Governors Association, $3 million from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and more than $7.6 million from public employee unions. He ran ads featuring nationally-known Democrats including former President Barack Obama and U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. 

And the governor used the trappings of his office in unusual, attention-grabbing ways. He blasted critics “promoting partisan political power grabs” during a State of the State speech on the field of Dodger Stadium that served as an unofficial campaign kickoff. He used an enormous $76 billion state budget surplus to address pandemic-induced hardships, sending $600 stimulus payments to most Californians — checks that landed just before the election.  

In the final days of the campaign, Newsom leaned into COVID even further, contrasting his vaccine and mask requirements with his GOP opponents who say they’ll repeal them — and hammering a message of fear. “What’s at stake in the Sept. 14 recall? It’s a matter of life and death,” one Newsom ad says.

Having persuaded prominent Democrats to stay out of the race to replace him, Newsom finished the campaign betting that the pandemic that fueled populist angst to take him down will also stimulate the support he needs to keep his job. 

“One of the ironies of this recall is that COVID got him into trouble and COVID is going to, in the end, probably help him defeat this thing in a landslide,” said GOP consultant Rob Stutzman.

Did Newsom’s strategy work? We’ll find out after polls close tonight at 8 p.m. It may take elections officials a few days to determine the results, depending on how close the race is. Here’s a look at the three possible scenarios: 

Newsom wins by a lot

Newsom’s effort to win reelection in 2022 kicks off as soon as the recall votes are tallied. If the governor beats back the recall by a double-digit margin — as recent polls indicate is likely — he could claim a mandate that could empower him in at least two ways. He can continue governing the final year of this term with the same priorities he’s had all along — for enacting progressive social policy and taking a relatively strict approach to managing the coronavirus pandemic. And he can coast toward the 2022 campaign without fear of a credible challenger from his own party.