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Opinion The big Newsom win shows how to run against the continuing threat of Trumpism

California Gov. Gavin Newsom. (Fred Greaves/Reuters)

In the right-wing imagination, California is perpetually about to “prove” that liberal governance is a catastrophe. High taxes on the wealthy and robust social spending are forever on the verge of provoking economic implosion and mass voter rebellion, in the form of out-migration to conservative Edens such as Texas.

Some California Republicans who voted to oust Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom hoped the recall election would sustain this mythology. But the data doesn’t actually support this picture, and if anything, Newsom’s massive victory on Tuesday vindicates liberal rule, and repudiates conservative governance, on the biggest issue facing the country: the resurgence of covid-19.

This provides a future template for Democrats: It suggests they should lean hard into support for public health restrictions in response to covid, and into hammering Republicans for opposing them, as a way to motivate their supporters.

However, there are dangers in extrapolating too much from single off-year elections. Which is why it’s important that this approach faces another test: the Virginia gubernatorial election in November, where Democrats are already following this template.

Attacking GOP radicalization

Newsom currently leads by 64 percent to 38 percent, with around two-thirds of votes counted. Though this could tighten once more Election Day votes are counted, early indications are that Newsom is running slightly ahead of his 2018 vote totals and that Democratic turnout was surprisingly robust.

Many analyses have noted that Newsom strongly stressed support for vaccine requirements and other covid measures. As CNN put it, his win offered a “decisive answer" to whether voters would penalize "strict policies aimed at slowing the coronavirus pandemic.”

But that’s only half the story. The other half is that Newsom and Democrats also aggressively prosecuted the case against conservative and Republican radicalization when it comes to resisting public health measures.

Before the election was called, Republican candidate Larry Elder and former president Donald Trump both challenged the legitimacy of the California recall vote (Video: James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

David Turner, a senior official at the Democratic Governors Association, points out that toward the end, Newsom’s TV ads pivoted to leaning hard into public health mandates and into condemning extremist Republican opposition to them.

For instance, one closing spot featured former president Barack Obama warning that recalling Newsom would let Republicans “overturn common sense health and safety measures” and put schoolkids “at risk.” Another ad featured Newsom warning that Republicans would “eliminate vaccine mandates for health and school workers,” which would “threaten the recovery.”

Turner says these ingredients together galvanized Democratic turnout. “Right now the largest bloc of voters in America are the vaccinated,” he told me. “They’re tired of seeing Republicans stand against common-sense safety measures, and are increasingly seeing them as the chief obstacle to ending this pandemic.”

“This has a galvanizing effect on the coalition that has been increasingly trending Democratic over the last four years,” Turner continued.

That coalition, of course, includes the suburban and educated voters who have trended Democratic amid alienation from Donald Trump and the Trumpified GOP. And these voters are key to the meaning of the California victory: While there’s still lots of data to examine, Steve Kornacki points out that as of now, Newsom is outpacing his 2018 vote share among college-educated Whites.

Which brings us to the Virginia gubernatorial contest, where such voters will also be key. Democrat Terry McAuliffe is highlighting his support for vaccine and mask mandates and excoriating Republican Glenn Youngkin’s opposition to them, and casting this as a hangover of Trump’s deranged approach to covid.

If this drives relatively good turnout in the suburbs in Northern Virginia and around Richmond, enabling a McAuliffe victory, that might suggest this really is a motivator for these voters and for the Democratic base, with implications for the 2022 midterms.

The continuing threat of Trumpism

A big question here is whether the derangement of Republicans around covid could be a kind of substitute energizer for Democratic voters at a time when Trump — who supercharged turnout among those types of voters in the 2018 and 2020 elections — is not on the ballot.

Dan Sena knows something about this turnout, having served as a chief strategist in the Democrats’ 2018 House takeover. Running against Republicans on covid might be complicated in 2022 House races — governors have more direct responsibility for covid policies, and many GOP House candidates are challengers without a record — but Sena says Democrats have a big opening.

“They absolutely have to plant their feet and go on offense on this,” Sena told me. He said Democrats should spotlight the records of Republicans who have thwarted our covid response by “highlighting what those stances mean for your kids, for your small businesses, for your family.”

Sena said this could help hold Democratic gains and juice 2022 turnout among voters alienated by Trump. That’s because it could speak to legitimate voter “fear and anxiety” about covid that Trump previously activated, Sena said.

“If you want to win the same voters that we won in the past two cycles,” Sena told me, “drawing a clear contrast on Republicans’ more extreme measures on covid will absolutely motivate those voters to stay on the Democratic side.”

After all, much GOP anti-mask, anti-vaccine derangement is rooted in the continuing obsessions of Trump and his movement. Republicans can’t seriously explain why they’re so fervently opposed to mandates on covid, while being fine with many other sorts of public health mandates.

So by stressing this, Democrats can campaign against the continuing threat posed by Trumpism. The California victory suggests this might work. Let’s hope Virginia demonstrates the same.