The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Sorry, Republicans. Newsom will survive recall — and emerge even stronger.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom in Oakland, Calif., Aug. 11. (Santiago Mejia/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Dan Morain, former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, is the author of “Kamala’s Way: An American Life.”

Republican fantasies of evicting Gavin Newsom from the California governor’s office are about to be dashed. Despite some recent polls indicating potential trouble for Newsom, actual turnout in early voting — as well as patterns in candidate fundraising — suggest that he is all but certain to survive the Republican-backed recall effort.

Sure, he could always decide on a mask-free dinner party tomorrow night at Napa’s exclusive French Laundry — reminding voters why 1.72 million Californians signed a petition to recall him in the first place. But barring a spectacularly self-destructive stumble, Newsom should triumph in the special election by significant margins. The latest poll, from the Public Policy Institute of California, shows likely voters preferring to keep Newsom in office 58 percent to 39 percent.

This should prompt soul-searching among California’s Republicans, whose failure would make their nemesis almost untouchable in his 2022 reelection campaign, and would have needlessly tarnished some of their own most promising leaders for naught.

The Democratic governor’s official day of reckoning is Sept. 14, and counting won’t begin until voting ends that evening. But ballots arrived in the mailboxes of 22 million registered voters two weeks ago, and voting by mail is well underway. Paul Mitchell, the Sacramento-based vice president of the firm Political Data, is closely monitoring the early voting patterns.

With 21 percent of ballots already returned, more than 2.5 million Democrats have submitted ballots to county election offices, compared with 1.1 million Republicans. One million ballots are from voters who don’t list a party preference or are registered with minor parties, though past elections indicate they likely lean Democratic.

Pollsters’ data indicate that few Democrats are voting to oust Newsom. So in a state with around 10 million registered Democrats and 5 million Republicans, and many of the other 6 million voters skewing left, the GOP’s returns so far aren’t nearly enough to overcome Newsom’s built-in advantage. Recall backers are fast falling too far behind to catch up.

Newsom raised $60.5 million, including $50 million in chunks of more than $100,000 from big-ticket donors. He also has energized 235,000 small-dollar donors, 85 percent of whom live in California. Such an army is unprecedented in California politics. Many of those contributions come from teachers, whose unions are known to turn out votes. (The largest of them, the California Teachers Association, gave Newsom’s anti-recall committee $1.8 million.) Leading GOP rival Larry Elder, by contrast, has raised only $8.3 million. Some 30 percent of Elder’s money comes from out-of-state donors — who can’t help him at the ballot box.

Republicans who were hoping for a 2003-style recall upset, in other words, will be disappointed. “I’m skeptical that the recall race will muster enough people to kick Gavin Newsom out of office,” said Sean Walsh, a Republican who helped run former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s winning campaign and served in his administration.

Part of the reason, of course, is that the 2021 GOP couldn’t offer a compelling alternative. It’s not that the party lacks talent: One of the 46 replacement candidates, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley — a conservative Harvard- and Yale-educated lawyer from suburban Sacramento — would be gubernatorial material in any red state. Another, Kevin Faulconer, a moderate former mayor of California’s second-largest city, San Diego, would be a contender in any purple state.

Instead, California Republicans are flocking to Elder, a bombastic radio talk-show host. He opposes mask and vaccination requirements, speaks fondly of Trump anti-immigration loyalist Stephen Miller, opposes any minimum wage, and is under fire for comments and behavior deemed offensive toward women. Not exactly a winning recipe in one of the bluest of blue states.

Before he jumped into the recall race, Faulconer could plausibly have convinced donors and party power brokers that he had a shot at higher office. Now, the fact he lags a contestant with Elder’s negatives casts doubt on his appeal to the statewide Republican base — without which his political ambitions don’t stand a chance.

When former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker defeated his 2012 recall by nearly seven points, his ability to thwart Democrats’ perceived attempt to “steal” an election they couldn’t win in 2010 made him a Republican hero and presidential contender practically overnight. Newsom’s margin of victory might be even greater.

Moreover, Newsom has been governing during a chaotic time as a disciplined incumbent. Calmly, he is confronting the crises of the day — raging wildfires, endemic homelessness and covid-19, and announced this week that 80 percent of eligible Californians have received at least one jab. All of this burnishes his credentials for his 2022 reelection — and beyond. “If he emerges victorious, Gov. Newsom will have a large and committed base of support that he can put to work on behalf of his agenda,” says Tim Tagaris, a veteran of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns who is heading Newsom’s digital fundraising effort.

Recent elections have taught us not to bank on anything until the very last ballots are tallied. Still, Newsom’s prospects are bright enough for him to pencil in a reservation for a celebratory glass of wine on the evening of Sept. 14.

Perhaps just not at the French Laundry.