California GOP gubernatorial hopefuls debated on Wednesday night, and in total, 46 candidates (Republicans, Democrats, and Independents) are vying to oust Governor Gavin Newsom on recall election day, September 14. Mail-in ballots will be distributed in less than two weeks.
Democrats had banked on the idea that an earlier election day would work in Newsom’s favor — that he’d ride to an easy win thanks to school reopenings, a booming economy, and ever-shrinking COVID cases.
While Newsom’s approval rating is still hovering around 50% according to recent polling, it’s not clear that the governor’s Democratic base is fired up to support him.
And California’s current outlook is considerably less rosy than it was just two months ago. LA and the Bay Area have reimposed mask mandates as the Delta variant drives coronavirus cases back up — just as we enter what’s expected to be the toughest months for fires, heat and drought.
The mood may be reminiscent of the political headwinds then-Governor Gray Davis faced when he was recalled from office in 2003. California was in the middle of rolling blackouts, an energy crisis, and a huge budget deficit, which were problems Republicans successfully pinned on Davis.
But for now, Newsom remains in a much stronger position than Davis was 18 years ago, when his approval rating fell below 30%.
“Our recall election is not an election. It's a two-part dance,” says Republican strategist Sean T. Walsh. “The first is you have to convince the public that they need to fire a sitting governor. Then second, they need to make the case that they are the alternative if they choose to fire the governor.”
He says the Republican debate on Wednesday night was an example of candidates trying to raise their profile and position themselves for fundraising purposes.
The debate was also solely focused on attacking Newsom and his performances relating to the pandemic, homelessness, and crime. That’s according to Politico politics reporter Carla Marinucci.
“It was a Gavin Newsom bash from start to finish. … The Republicans really went by that Ronald Reagan 11th commandment: ‘Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.’ They did not go after the frontrunner in this race on the Republican side, Larry Elder, the talk show host who wasn't there. They didn't really go after each other. That was kind of a win for the Republican Party. Look, these folks had to introduce themselves to millions of voters who still don't know who they are largely.”
She says businessman John Cox, who lost in a landslide vote to Newsom in 2018, focused largely on housing and emphasized that he would audit different state entities such as the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Employment Development Department.
Notable candidates such as Caitlyn Jenner and Elder were absent from the debate. Marinucci says Jenner’s campaign has been overshadowed by her departure to Australia for reality TV show work, a lack of major endorsers, and financial debt.
Walsh points out, however, that Elder’s race is still running hot.
“He's very attractive to Republicans because it puts forward an image that they want to see, which is more diversity. He’s an African American gentleman. [A] long time individual with a lot of name identification, so he doesn't have to spend $10 million to get his name identification. People know him,” he explains.
Despite uncertain recall polling, Marinucci says Democrats, including those in Newsom’s camp, are not concerned about the election.
“Just do the math. The Republicans in California lag behind Democrats by more than 20 points on voter registration,” she explains. “They are impassioned, and the polls are showing that. But no matter how many turnout, many Democrats think the math is just not there for them to get this recall over the line.”
She adds that as Elder becomes a clear frontrunner in the race, Newsom’s team has been able to tie him to more controversial statements he’s made.
“They're mining his Twitter feed and his radio feed going back many years, tying him to Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, that whole Fox News crowd,” Marinucci says.
Walsh believes that initially, Newsom didn’t have much reason to worry as COVID numbers dropped and kids were poised to go back into the classroom. Now with the Delta variant and a worsening homelessness crisis and rising crime, the tide might shift.
“The bottom line is a recall is whether you want to fire the guy who's doing the job and whether you think the guy or gal doing the job is doing it well. And I'm just telling you, things are trending very, very different today than they were a month ago,” he says.
Marinucci adds, “Crime and homelessness are driving voters, and the Republicans have got to hope that that is going to be a defining issue. But at the same time, it may be just about the math and how this election is run by mail is going to be a lot easier for the Democrats. And the Republicans are gonna have to deal with that.”