Should Gov. Gavin Newsom worry about being recalled? It depends on COVID

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Pursuer

California Governor Gavin Newsom is facing his most serious threat of being in a recall election. More than a third of California voters say they would vote to oust him from office, according to a new poll from UC Berkeley. His job approval is now below 50%, compared to above 80% in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The slump is driven by his handling of the state’s recent COVID-19 surge, poorly explained sudden policy shifts on reopening, a slow vaccine rollout, that dinner at the French Laundry, and the fact that millions of Californians are suffering economically while the state apparently paid billions of dollars in unemployment benefits to scammers.

Even some Democrats are becoming frustrated with their party leader. 

Ultimately, Republicans pushing to recall Newsom will need to get around 1.5 million signatures by mid-March to make it happen. 

“The proponents of the recall are saying they've collected 1.3 million [signatures],” says Phil Willon, who covers Gov. Newsom and California politics for the LA Times. “There's no way to verify that. And what we can verify is that only 410,000 signatures have been verified by elections officials as of last month. But again, there's a lot of unknowns about how many signatures they really have.”

This effort began in June 2020 and far-right group members were the ones collecting signatures, then more mainstream Republicans starting giving their support in the summer, Willon explains.  

“It's now backed by former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, John Cox, who ran against Newsom in 2018. The state party has backed it. So yes … some of the fringe right was at the beginning, but it's kind of evolved into a more mainstream Republican effort.”

He says this doesn’t threaten the California Democratic Party. “Democrats continue to hold their power, they have a majority in both houses of the Legislature. They hold every constitutional statewide office. So I don't think there's a big threat to Democrats, but you never know. I mean, we're in weird times. Obviously, you spent a year in this pandemic almost. And you never know what will happen in the months ahead. And that's critical for Newsom. I mean, he has an opportunity to get things kind of back on track or things could go sideways.”

Willon says California Independents will be pivotal to how things end up too, and right now, nearly one in three Independents is undecided, about 40% say they would oppose the recall, and about 32% say they would support it. 

Meanwhile, Gov. Newsom isn’t saying much. “Whenever he's asked, he kind of deflects the question and says, ‘I'm concentrating on the pandemic response.’ But in reality … I think he's keeping pretty close tabs on all the developments. I know his advisors are concerned about the recall effort,” says Willon. 



  • Phil Willon - LA Times reporter covering California politics