One irony of the race was that one of Newsom’s perceived liabilities — his quick, strict approach to the pandemic, which undermined the world’s fifth-biggest economy — was perhaps the primary policy reason he won by such a large margin. Californians have been vocal about their fears of the pandemic and have accepted — even welcomed — their government’s rules intended to keep them safe.
The result could offer a road map for other governors and state leaders heading into midterm elections next year: Identify a galvanizing issue and investing in getting out supporters. The lesson may hold even if their supporters do not outnumber the rival party to the same extent they do here in California.
In the closing weeks of the recall campaign, Newsom campaigned in front of his base and virtually no one else, driving up labor turnout and volunteerism that eventually overwhelmed a far leaner Republican get-out-the-vote operation.
“Midterm elections are about motivating your party’s base, and Newsom showed that he could use covid-19 mandates to do just that,” said Dan Schnur, a politics and communications professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications who has worked on past Republican political campaigns.
Schnur said the margin of victory, roughly 20 percentage points, also solidifies the party around Newsom heading into next year.
Newsom’s high-profile governorship has included him on a list of Democratic figures who are talked about as future presidential candidates. While he has not addressed this issue publicly — and his recent upheaval in California put a dent in the speculation — his decisive win has brought him back into the conversation.
Since his landslide election in 2018, Newsom, while a representative of the liberal wing of the party, has struggled to break through with Democrats statewide. He has been seen by some as more of a San Francisco politician, given his tenure there as mayor, than as a Californian with broader appeal.
But the exit polling showed that the vast majority of “no” voters surveyed said Newsom was “in touch with the needs and concerns of Californians like you.”
“The most practical impact that this has on state politics is that it almost eliminates the possibility of Newsom facing a challenge from within his party,” Schnur said of the governor’s reelection race next year. “If he had beaten this narrowly, he almost certainly would have faced a challenge from the left. Now that is not going to happen.”
The race began to turn a few months ago amid a new surge of the coronavirus and Newsom’s aggressive actions to keep it contained. Most controversially, those included vaccine mandates for all state workers and mask mandates in schools.
His chief rival in the recall, conservative talk-show host Larry Elder, pledged repeatedly that “before I have my first cup of tea” in the Governor’s Mansion he would cancel the pandemic rules. Soon after, a new round of polling showed strong support for Newsom’s pandemic policies and a corresponding boost in his overall standing.
“There was never an intelligent rationale for this recall, and the people saw through it,” said Jim Newton, an author, journalist and public policy lecturer at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. “And he got his people out, and that of course was the great fear heading into the vote, that too many Democrats would take the outcome for granted.”
The pandemic was by far the top concern of “no” voters. Those who voted to recall Newsom listed crime as their most pressing concern. A large share of “no” voters also stated that Newsom’s pandemic rules had been “about right,” with even more demanding a stricter response from the governor.
In a statement Wednesday, President Biden, who campaigned for Newsom here on the eve of the recall election, said that “this vote is a resounding win for the approach he and I share” toward controlling the pandemic.
“The fact that voters in both traditionally Democratic and traditionally Republican parts of the state rejected the recall shows that Americans are unifying behind taking these steps to get the pandemic behind us,” Biden said in the statement.
Elder positioned himself as a disciple of former president Donald Trump, retracting at one point previous comments that he believed the 2020 presidential race was conducted fairly.
He won the bulk of the vote among the 46 candidates vying to replace Newsom, meaning that if Newsom had lost the yes-or-no recall vote, Elder would be governor. He conceded late Tuesday but remained coy about what his next steps might be.
During public appearances, Newsom made clear that “Trumpism is on the ballot” in California, casting Elder as a politician who would take his cues on climate change, a woman’s right to abortion and pandemic mandates from the former president. His large victory against “Trumpism,” as he characterized it, is certain to help his national standing.
“He’s sent off the forces of Trump in California, and there is a lot more energy around him,” Newton said. “I’m sure he has national ambitions — all California governors seem to — and he’s in better shape today than yesterday or even a year ago.”
Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.