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Opinion The conservative effort to oust Newsom could backfire

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) at a news conference in San Francisco on Wednesday. (Noah Berger/AP)
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As Pepe Le Pew est fini in cinema, let’s turn to his fellow toon Wile E. Coyote to explain how a campaign to recall California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, could backfire against the conservative activists behind the effort.

We won’t know officially for a few weeks if the recall petition was successful (the deadline for collecting signatures was March 17), but many observers expect that it will succeed in triggering a vote. Keep in mind: Such a vote includes a two-part ballot — a yes-or-no choice to remove the incumbent, followed by a list of potential successors.

In 2003, 135 Californians offered themselves as candidates to replace then-Gov. Gray Davis (D). One of those challengers, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, landed the lead role.

The Looney Tunes scenario for conservative recall organizers would see voters opting to oust Newsom, but then choosing to replace him with an even more progressive Democrat. Here’s how California gets to the recall equivalent of Wile E. Coyote being blown up by a faulty Acme contraption while his Road Runner prey cheerfully speeds away:

First, a majority of voters choose to recall the governor when the vote is held, likely in late summer or early next fall. I wouldn’t bet on the recall option winning, but I don’t rule it out either. Newsom is far less popular than he was a year ago, though he’s nowhere near Davis’s toxicity (3 in 4 voters in this recall exit poll disapproved of Davis’s job performance).

Then again, a recall ballot pits Newsom against himself, not a Republican certain to lose on an adjacent line. On the question of whether their governor should be ousted, this poll shows Californians almost evenly divided. Newsom should be worried.

It’s the second half of the recall ballot that should concern Newsom’s foes.

At present, three Republicans are likely to run: businessman John Cox (runner-up to Newsom in the 2018 governor’s race), former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer and former congressman Doug Ose. Richard Grenell, a former ambassador and Donald Trump aide, could make it four.

That’s multiple Republicans swimming in a lane much narrower than it was back in 2003 — the GOP share of California’s electorate is currently 24.1 percent, compared with 35.3 percent at the time of the Davis recall. And Schwarzenegger of course had the advantage of celebrity that the current crop of potential GOP candidates can only dream of.

Newsom is much more likely to be threatened from his left in a recall. He has lately embarked on a series of public appearances that appear intended to scare off would-be challengers. His recent State of the State address at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles was more a political stump speech than a policy recitation, and lots of Democratic stalwarts, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have been enlisted to show their support.

But can Newsom keep other Democrats off the ballot? Controlling every statewide office as they do, Democrats don’t lack for ambitious climbers. And candidates could justify adding their names to the recall ballot as an act of selfless party loyalty and political insurance: In the regrettable event that the governor is knocked out of office, somebody from the Democratic Party must be available to assume the mantle.

Perched as he is atop Sacramento’s power ladder, Newsom might be able to box out some of the more prominent members of his party (former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who ran for governor in 2018, is such a potential challenger).

Enter the recall organizers’ biggest nightmare: an up-and-coming, progressive replacement for Newsom from the California legislature. Or what about Tom Steyer, the crusading environmentalist, hedge-fund billionaire and failed 2020 candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination? Politico reported this week that Steyer commissioned a poll to survey the recall landscape. That’s quite the political discourtesy, as Newsom last year tapped Steyer to lead his economic recovery task force.

Given a chance to run California’s executive branch of government, a progressive replacement could be expected to embrace legislation considered too left wing for Newsom, such as a bill he vetoed last fall that would have extended health and safety protections to domestic workers.

Such a governorship might be short-lived, as Newsom’s departure likely would result in several Democrats making a primary challenge in the summer of 2022 (other ambitious climbers having kept their powder dry). California’s business leaders could find themselves longing for the days when Newsom, with his past in the wine and hospitality sector, at least paid lip service to having “a strong entrepreneurial bias.”

Wile E. Coyote never seems to learn from his mistakes, but if the recall election goes sideways for California conservatives this time, maybe they’ll wait a lot longer than 18 years before lighting a fuse under another sitting governor.

Read more:

Bill Whalen: What Gavin Newsom could learn from Arnold Schwarzenegger

Helaine Olen: Gavin Newsom needs to get a grip before he faces a recall election

Jeanne Noble: Newsom’s plan to reopen schools is too weak to work. He owes California something bolder.

Dan Morain: Gavin Newsom has given Republicans’ recall campaign against him a fighting chance

Greg Sargent: Trump is exposing the ugly truth about the GOP plan to retake power