To understand California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) odyssey these past 18 months — from riding high in the polls to sliding toward extinction in next week’s recall election, before apparently steadying himself as voting began — look no further than San Francisco’s Millennium Tower, a 58-story structure that is slowly listing and sinking because its foundation rests on erosive sand and clay.

The building opened in April 2009, just days after Newsom, who was then San Francisco’s mayor, announced what would be an abbreviated run for governor. The tower was emblematic of the city’s dizzying tech-age wealth and beautiful-people culture, and it paired nicely with Newsom as a mayor wedded to San Francisco’s moneyed elite.

But Newsom has a steadier political foundation. He’s the lead Democrat in a state that rarely votes Republican (since 2004, Democrats have won 41 of 42 statewide contests not involving Arnold Schwarzenegger). His fate will be decided by how many of California’s 10.2 million registered Democrats, all of whom have received a mail-in ballot, bother to participate.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) will face Republican front-runner Larry Elder on Sept. 14 in the state’s first recall election since 2003. (James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

Even if he wins, the ignominy of needing to fight to keep a job he won in a landslide three years ago won’t go away. The recall process has revealed a flaw in Newsom’s design. Despite his good looks and championing of the Golden State as a progressive, anti-Trump utopia, the act wore thin during the pandemic.

Los Angeles Times political columnist George Skelton sized up the governor last month, saying Newsom “doesn’t connect with regular people,” his public pronouncements are “frequently repetitive and long-winded,” and “he doesn’t know when to shut up.”

Another possible reason Newsom is facing a recall election: his political inflexibility.

Born in October 1967, Newsom is three years younger than Vice President Harris. He’s also a generation apart from the previous two individuals to serve as governor (Jerry Brown, born in 1938, and Schwarzenegger, born in 1947).

Schwarzenegger and Brown were studies in adaptation. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, drifted to the center and embraced climate change after a humiliating ballot defeat in his second full year as governor. Brown, a Democrat, with his canoe theory of governing, frustrated the left — for example, telling Democratic lawmakers that he’d go along with single-payer health care if they could demonstrate how to pay for it.

But Newsom is yet to morph as governor. If anything, he has steadily moved California further to the left in ways Brown may not have dared — universal transitional kindergarten for 4-year-olds, pulling back California Guard troops from the Mexican border and pouring billions into trying to solve California’s chronic homeless problem. (Newsom has vowed to end family homelessness within five years; back in his mayoral days, he promised to end it in San Francisco by 2014.)

Even California has limits on how far it’s willing to tilt left. Look no further than last November’s presidential election results — Joe Biden capturing 63.5 percent of the presidential vote, but a ballot measure restoring affirmative action to college admissions receiving nearly 3.9 million fewer votes than Biden.

In the months since that election, the pandemic has exposed problems with California’s one-party dominance of state government. Democratic officeholders’ unwillingness to pressure teachers unions on school reopenings underscored the squalid nature of that relationship, and legislators running interference for Newsom put off until after next week’s recall vote potentially embarrassing examinations of the state unemployment department’s inability to issue checks in a timely fashion and the Newsom administration’s handling of wildfire prevention.

Newsom didn’t help matters by giving the public glimpses into his cosseted lifestyle — from the ill-advised outing to the French Laundry restaurant last year, flouting covid-19 rules he had imposed on the public, to the revelation in March that his four children had been attending in-person classes at a Sacramento private school while their father claimed to have “been living through Zoom school.”

One major difference between Newsom and the troubled building in the city he once oversaw as its mayor: Money apparently can stave off disaster.

Though a $100 million retrofit that was halted last month failed to remedy the Millennium Tower’s slow decline, an $81 million war chest has enabled Newsom and his allies to dominate California’s airwaves for the past six weeks. That includes $36 million in round-the-clock television advertising in August, while the field of potential replacement candidates was mostly off the air.

That money won’t buy Newsom love. But it will likely spare him from an ugly fall to Earth.