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The Trailer: Explaining the California recall

In this edition: California's looming recall explained, the special-election map takes shape, and J.D. Vance learns to love Donald Trump.

There's always a House vacancy somewhere, and this is The Trailer.

LOS ANGELES — Gov. Gavin Newsom broke the news, weeks before it could be official. The third campaign to remove him from office, California's second recall of the century, was probably going to happen.

"It looks like it’s going on the ballot,” Newsom said Tuesday. “We will fight it. We will defeat it.”

The Recall Gavin campaign celebrated one day later, when the petition period ended. During a virtual town hall, organizers Orrin Heatlie, Randy Economy and Susan Hurd announced that they had submit at least 2,117,730 signatures, 600,000 more than the state required to launch a recall election.

“This is not about me or the company I keep,” said Heatlie, a former sheriff of Yolo County, who spent part of the call fending off a Democratic attack on his social media posts. “This is about Gavin Newsom and his failed policies.”

Californians now expect a recall to unfold this year. Right now, it looks less like the 2003 race that produced Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and more like the less-remembered 2012 attempt by Wisconsin Democrats to recall then-Gov. Scott Walker. Newsom's lost altitude since the start of the pandemic, but he is not as disliked as Gov. Gray Davis was in 2003.

Things can change, of course. Six months ago, Democrats would have bet against a recall happening at all. 

Why is this happening? The short answer is the coronavirus. As Newsom likes to point out, this is the third attempt to recall him since he took office in January 2019. Petitioners began collecting signatures last June, months into the pandemic, but they were not on a trajectory to qualify until Newsom attended a friend's birthday dinner in November at the French Laundry — indoors, with a larger crowd than allowed in most restaurants under his orders. The recall campaign, which had started as an attack on all of the ruling Democrats' priorities, became a way to vent anger at the lockdowns. Newsom has been apologizing for the dinner ever since.

“In hindsight, you know, we're all experts,” Newsom told CNN's Jake Tapper this week.

But the recall would have foundered if not for another effect of the pandemic. Weeks before their original Nov. 17 petition deadline, the recall campaign was hundreds of thousands of signatures short. It sued the state, and Judge James P. Arguelles, who had been put on the bench in Schwarzenegger's final days, ruled in the recall campaign's favor, giving it 120 days to complete signature-gathering. And most of those days fell after the French Laundry dinner, during a surge in covid-19 cases that spurred more lockdowns.

“It was political malpractice not to appeal that immediately,” said Garry South, Davis's political strategist during his rise and through the 2003 recall. “Give me a year to get signatures, and I could get a question on the ballot about giving California back to Mexico.”

When will the recall begin? Not for more than a month, if everything goes right for the recall campaign. County officials have at least 30 days to validate the signatures they were getting through the close of business Wednesday. They must be done by April 29.

The recall campaigners and Newsom agree that the election is happening because it would be highly unusual for more than a quarter of the petition signatures to be nixed. In 2003, the effort to recall Gray Davis collected 1.6 million signatures; about 250,000 were disqualified. According to Recall Newsom's organizers, they have been scouring some petitions all along for a sense of how big their buffer must be. In a sample of 61,000 signatures, just 3,000 were duplicates. 

But the recall won't begin when the petitions are processed. There is a 30-day period for voters to decide whether they want to remove their names from petitions, a 30-day period for the state to estimate the cost of a recall election, and two weeks for a panel of state legislators to validate the “certificate of sufficiency.” After that, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis would set the recall's date, no less than 88 days and no more than 125 days after getting the go-ahead from the panel. 

So, a recall election is not likely before November. If it happens, and if more than 50 percent of voters support removing Newsom, whoever gets the most votes on an accompanying ballot would become governor.

Who's behind it? The campaign behind the mass volunteer effort to get signatures is Recall Gavin, which isn't tied to a party. But the recall has become a conservative cause in California and beyond. Reform California, a 527 political committee founded by San Diego Republican activist Carl DeMaio, has been advertising for the recall; the Club for Growth has run ads blaming Newsom for the pace of school reopenings, a campaign designed to drive people toward the recall. And the Republican National Committee kicked in $250,000.

That might have been the most important part of the recall effort for Democrats. Newsom and his party debuted their fight-back strategy this week: Attack the effort as a “Republican recall” and its supporters as dangerous lunatics. Its first ad, in English and Spanish, described the recall's promoters as QAnon conspiracy theorists, insurrectionists who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and people who believe that undocumented immigrants should be micro-chipped. That was a shot at Heatlie, who had made a comment about microchipping in a Facebook post unearthed by Democrats.

“It was hyperbole, to make a point,” Heatlie said in the Wednesday night town hall. “It was a tongue-in-cheek or satirical point.”

California's campaign spending laws require ballot initiative campaigners to reveal their largest donors. Eighteen years ago, Rep. Darrell Issa spent $1.6 million from his personal fortune to help fund the recall. No single benefactor emerged this year at that scale. The recall effort was organized cheaply online and carried out by activists who, in many cases, were furious about lockdowns that affected their livelihoods. Hence the effort to portray the whole thing as a tantrum by mini-Trumps. That's been lucrative: The “Republican recall” ad raised more than $500,000 in its first 48 hours, doubling the initial RNC investment.

Who's running? A number of Republicans have said they are, if the recall happens, and several were already planning to run in the regularly scheduled 2022 election. The best-known, best-organized candidates are Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego, and John Cox, a businessman and one-time presidential candidate who lost the 2018 race against Newsom. 

Neither has starred in a series of films about time-traveling killer robots, much less police officers going undercover as kindergarten teachers. Neither has the political operation that Schwarzenegger did, which included a successful (and bipartisan) education ballot measure that took him across the state just 11 months before the 2003 recall. Neither has scared anyone else out of the race, with former Trump ambassador Richard Grenell hinting at a run, and former northern California Rep. Doug Ose emerging from retirement to put himself forward.

“Californians are tired of having a governor whose operating themes are hypocrisy, self-interest, half truths and mediocrity,” Ose said in a statement announcing his run.

The same drawn-out process that would kick the recall to November would allow potential candidates more time to explore options. It's easy to qualify for the ballot, and any candidate can withdraw 60 days before the election. In 2003, lesser-known candidates such as Peter Ueberroth, the Republican businessman who ran the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, ran for a while, then cleared a path for Schwarzenegger.

But nobody currently being mentioned as a candidate has celebrity or even much bipartisan appeal. (Faulconer attracted plenty of Democrats in his runs for mayor of San Diego, but never won more than 181,147 votes.) Perhaps hubristically, Democrats aren't worried about anyone currently exploring a run. They worry that a celebrity could get in, and they worry about a Democrat jumping into the race and enticing some of the party's voters to recall Newsom.

That's what happened in 2003, which is why Democrats are skeptical it will happen now. Then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who initially supported Newsom, jumped into the recall with the unforgettable slogan “No on recall, yes on Bustamante.” It backfired, both because he didn't win, and because some Latino voters headed to the polls to vote for the recall, then for the man who'd have been the state's first Latino governor. Much of Democrats's work recently has been convincing serious candidates to stay out of the recall.

“I don't think any of the statewide Democrats will run because it would be the end of their careers,” South said. “Gavin's not going to have an Arnold, and he's not going to have a Bustamante.”

Are Democrats taking a risk? In theory, yes. The top vote-getter on the ballot becomes governor if the recall succeeds, so ensuring that a Republican would be that top vote-getter creates the risk of a GOP victory. Democrats' argument is this: The state is far more hostile to Republicans than it was in 2003. Rudy Giuliani, still widely popular after his response to the 9/11 attacks, cut an ad for Schwarzenegger. George W. Bush, who would have been a divisive figure in the race, stayed out of it. The recall became seen as a binary choice between Davis, whose approval rating sagged into the 20s amid an energy crisis and backlash against a tax increase, and Schwarzenegger, who was Arnold Schwarzenegger.

California is bluer now. In October 2003, 44 percent of California voters were registered Democrats and 35 percent were registered Republicans. In October 2020, 46 percent of the electorate had registered as Democrats; just 24 percent had registered as Republicans. That has given Newsom a cushion, even when his popularity has slipped below 50 percent. Davis had won his 2002 race with just 3,533,490 votes, amid the lowest turnout in California history. Newsom won 7,721,410 votes, amid high turnout. There's no mystery to the Democrats' “Republican recall” ads: If the race becomes a simple red vs. blue choice, the recall effort will fail.

Plenty could go wrong before then. California voters were skeptical of the 2003 recall, until it appeared headed for the ballot. Polling has shown a minority of voters ready to reelect Newsom in 2022. That's not necessarily good for Republicans, who would have to explain why it's worth perhaps $100 million to speed up Newsom's firing by a year. But there's not much they need to do, if Newsom isn't presiding over a post-covid comeback.

“Our economy is going to absolutely come roaring back,” Newsom said on CNN on Tuesday night. “You talk to me in six months. Those numbers are going to be radically different than they are today.”

Reading list

“Putin targeted people close to Trump in bid to influence 2020 election, U.S. intelligence says,” by Ellen Nakashima

The new intel report on foreign election interference, explained.

“Republicans on Biden’s covid bill: We bungled this one,” by Gabby Orr, Christopher Cadelago, Meridith McGraw and Natasha Korecki

Why didn't the cavalry show up to fight the American Rescue Plan?

“Cedric Richmond endorsement before joining White House roils Louisiana race,” by Tyler Pager

How the promise of a direct line to Joe Biden has played with voters.

“As Newsom recall hits milestone, Democrats scramble for united front to keep governor in office,” by Faith E. Pinho

Can California Democrats keep their members on the same side of the field?

“Biden and allies launch stimulus campaign focused on competitive battleground states,” by Ashley Parker and Tyler Pager

Why the president and VP are going where they're going.

Special elections

The primaries in Louisiana's safely blue 2nd Congressional District and heavily red 5th Congressional District end on Saturday, and the latter could send a new representative to Washington quickly. And we'll know soon whether Democrats have another vacancy to worry about.

Trailer readers got caught up on the 2nd District race this week: Two Democratic state senators have split the endorsements and led in fundraising in the contest to replace former congressman Cedric L. Richmond, now a top Biden adviser. Richmond endorsed Sen. Troy Carter, who has led in public polls and, just as tellingly, opted out of the only televised pre-primary debate. Sen. Karen Carter Peterson has been close behind, but neither candidate has approached the 50 percent mark, with activist Gary Chambers running strong with Democrats who don't like the idea of elevating a “career politician.” The top two finishers will head to an April 24 runoff, and Republican Claston Bernard is hoping that Democrats divide up the vote and get him into that election.

“There's no infrastructure for Republicans,” Bernard said in an interview last week. “I'm running a campaign where I have to be trying to find places and find people myself, because we haven't gone there.”

Republicans have no such problems in the 5th District, where Julia Letlow has commanded the race to replace her husband, Luke, a former Hill staffer who won the seat last year but died before he could be sworn in. Letlow raised $683,000 between entering the race and the Feb. 28 pre-primary report, including donations from Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and the PAC of Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York. Eight other Republicans will appear on the ballot, along with two independents and one Democrat. 

None have raised serious money, lifting Letlow's chances of a first-round victory on Saturday. If she falls short, she'll head to an April 24 runoff; if not, she could be sworn in when Congress returns in mid-April. Letlow's campaign did not respond to interview requests from The Trailer, but she told National Journal this month that she was ready to pick up her husband's “torch.”

Ohio's 11th Congressional District won't be filled so quickly. On Thursday, Gov. Mike DeWine announced that the primary election to replace former congresswoman Marcia L. Fudge, who has been sworn in as HUD secretary, will be held on Aug. 3, with an election between party nominees on Nov. 2.

That's a long wait, and two factors made it longer. Republicans slow-walked some of Biden's nominees, with several senators objecting to beginning the confirmation process until the electoral count was validated on Jan. 6. Democrats' losses in 2020 also made every House vote more precious; Fudge stuck around for the final vote on the American Rescue Plan. Ohio law required an election to be held in May, August or November, and Fudge simply resigned too late for ballots to be printed for a May election.

The result: The seat will remain vacant for much of the year, even though the winner of the Aug. 3 primary is all but assured to head to Congress. (Republicans gerrymandered the seat to be safely blue, and only one gadfly GOP candidate has announced a run.) Former state senator Nina Turner, one of Bernie Sanders's most visible allies, has led the field in fundraising. But the primary winner will likely spend three months spinning her or his wheels, while other vacancies are filled. 

The race in New Mexico's 1st Congressional District, vacated by new Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, will take place on June 1; per state law, Republicans and Democrats will pick nominees this month at conventions. Republicans will pick their candidate on March 27, while Democrats will do so at a meeting on March 30.

There's one more potential special election looming in the California's 28th Congressional District, but it depends on Gov. Gavin Newsom. Rep. Adam B. Schiff has been quietly campaigning to replace new HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, who was confirmed on Thursday, as California's attorney general. Schiff's departure would reduce Democrats to just 218 seats in the House, and while Donald Trump won just 27 percent of the vote in Schiff's district, California law would require a primary and a special election to replace the congressman, leaving another safe seat open for months.

Schiff has the biggest national profile of anyone in consideration for Becerra’s job, building a following as the top-ranking Democrat on a committee that investigated Trump’s election and his presidency. He raised more than $19 million for reelection to his safe seat last year, spending just half of it.

But the idea of Schiff moving into the state attorney general’s office has agitated California civil rights activists. In February, a coalition that included several Black Lives Matter chapters and community groups released an open letter urging Newsom not to pick Schiff, citing the tough-on-crime legislation he sponsored as a state legislator and his votes in Congress for bills that increased the penalties for anyone who attacks law enforcement.

“We urge you to gain our trust and support by appointing someone who has worked throughout their career to uplift the people of California,” the coalition wrote. “Not someone who has used their power to punish Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, and poor Californians in a system marked by extreme racial and class disparities.”

Schiff took steps last year to repair his image with criminal justice reformers, withdrawing his support for Los Angeles’s district attorney, who was defeated in November by George Gascon, a Black Lives Matter ally

But that did not stop the criticism, which hasn’t been directed at any other potential nominee. Newsom also has favored non-White candidates when vacancies have come up, making Alex Padilla the state’s first Latino senator after Vice President Harris vacated her seat, and telling MSNBC host Joy Reid this week that he would appoint a Black woman to replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein should the 87-year old not finish her term.

Ad watch

Julia Letlow, “Don Jr. Endorses Julia Letlow.” The heavy favorite in this weekend's northeast Louisiana election has the support of the entire GOP infrastructure, from the former president to his family. This Facebook ad reminds voters that both Donald Trump Jr. and his dad have endorsed Letlow; the presidential heir says that Letlow will “fight Biden” to protect “our freedoms, our values, our jobs.”

Ray McGuire, “Ray McGuire for Mayor.” The former Citigroup executive had never run for office before jumping into New York's mayoral election this year, and he's gotten somewhat lost in the crowd. His latest ad simply walks through his small-business recovery plan: The city can pay 50 percent of what employers were paying before the pandemic, for a year, helping those employers recover.

Americans for Public Trust, “Sen. Whitehouse's Dark Money Secret." The Republican-tied watchdog group has run a series of ads since the 2020 election attacking the push for election reform by portraying it as hypocritical: Democrats, after all, got more “dark money” than Republicans did last year. APT's focused in particular on Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who's close to the Judiciary Committee gavel and has used judicial hearings to draw the links (sometimes on literal whiteboards) between political groups that don't disclose donors, and Republican nominees. 

A voice whispers “hypocrite” and “tsk-tsk” as Whitehouse is accused of taking “millions” from “liberal dark money” groups. The citation is a website listing Whitehouse's donors, which doesn't show the influence the ad's describing, and Whitehouse spent less than $7 million to win his current term to a safe seat.

Scott Kasper, “Paul O'Grady: You're Fired.” Freed by President Donald Trump after being impeached and sent to prison for trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat, former governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois has rebooted himself as a “Trumpocrat," unable to seek office again due to the impeachment, but happy to help Republican candidates down ballot. This lengthy video has one joke: Blagojevich overhears a Republican candidate in Orland Township talking about the incumbent Democrat's connection to disgraced ex-speaker Mike Madigan, the boss of state Democratic politics before and after Blagojevich.

“I couldn't help but overhear you talk about politicians getting in trouble,” Blagojevich says. “Well, I know something about that.” Orland Township, part of southwest Cook County with 90,000 residents, voted for Trump even as Illinois delivered a landslide for Joe Biden.

Poll watch

Do you approve of how Gov. Charlie Baker is doing his job? (UMass Amherst, 800 Massachusetts adults)

Approve: 52% (-16)
Disapprove: 39% (+10)

One year ago, nearly every governor in the country enjoyed a surge in popularity as they wrote and rewrote pandemic safety rules in real time. The sugar high lasted for months, through the 2020 election, and the New England governors on the ballot last year — Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire and Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont, both Republicans — won by landslides even as Donald Trump was losing their states. Both, like Baker, had been widely popular before the pandemic. This is the first poll in years to find Baker slipping to an approval rating in the low 50s, something to watch as more governors head into reelection, with the pandemic largely behind them. No Democrat, including Attorney Gen. Maura Healy and former congressman Joe Kennedy, surpass Baker in a trial heat, but both keep his numbers well below 50 percent.

How much of a role did white nationalism play in the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol last month? (Monmouth, 802 adults)

Major role: 47%
Minor role: 23%
No role: 22%

Democrats are getting closer to appointing a special commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attacks, adjusting the planned makeup of the panel to include more Republicans. It's a popular idea, with 53 percent of voters in favor of a commission. While there's more initial opposition than there was to a 9/11 commission, the commission would start with much of the country ready to believe white nationalism drove the riots at the Capitol. That's happened without Democrats embracing one idea that was floated in the first hours after the riots, the passage of on-the-shelf legislation to create more federal resources to probe white nationalism.

Midterm watch

Since 2016, the surest way to lose a Republican primary is to have said an unkind word against Donald Trump. J.D. Vance, the investor and author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” had said a few unkind words. His book took off as liberals grabbed for anything that could explain why Trump won the Republican nomination, and then why he won the presidency.

“I think that I'm going to vote third party, because I can't stomach Trump,” Vance told NPR in August 2016. “I think that he's noxious and is leading the white working class to a very dark place.”

Four-and-a-half years and one cinematic adaptation later, Vance is seriously considering a run for Ohio's open U.S. Senate seat, with a pro-Vance PAC already loaded with cash from Trump supporters (Peter Thiel and Robert Mercer), and a Trump campaign veteran (Bryan Lanza) handling press requests. And in an essay from Newsweek, the rebooted magazine that's taken a pro-Trump slant in its editorial pages, Vance has recanted his opposition to Trump. 

Vance shared a very “Hillbilly Elegy” story about a dinner with wealthy and semi-anonymous elites — “the CEO of a large hotel chain on our left, and a large communications conglomerate on our right” — who resented Trump's immigration policies, blaming them for having to raise wages. Trump's immigration policies were sound, Vance wrote, and conservatives should “ignore” anyone who calls them “racist” for supporting those policies.

“Surely, I thought, we can fix our broken politics with a more traditional Republican,” Vance wrote of Trump. “After he won, I rethought my opposition. As I watched the constant stream of venom from Democratic Party ‘resisters’ and their allies in the corporate media, it dawned on me that President Trump's aggressive style was a feature, not a bug.”

Candidates for the seat have the better part of a year to file; Vance was last recruited for the seat, unsuccessfully, after one candidate bailed on a 2018 race just weeks before the filing deadline. That candidate, Josh Mandel, is running again for this seat as a stalwart Trump supporter, even endorsing an effort to rename a state park in northeast Ohio after the twice-impeached president; his chief opponent right now is Jane Timken, the former state party chair. 

There can be life for Republicans after criticizing Trump. Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in 2016, and gave a few interviews attacking Trump from the right, doubting he'd govern as a conservative; those were repurposed in 2017, when Brooks ran for Senate, with a Mitch McConnell-allied PAC battering Brooks with his old quotes to make him look like a “Never Trumper.” 

Brooks went on to fully support Trump's agenda, and spoke at the “Save America” rally on Jan. 6, urging Trump voters to “kick [expletive] and take names.” On Monday he's making an announcement about his 2022 plans, joined by Trump adviser Stephen Miller. So far just one other Republican, Trump's ambassador to Slovenia, Lynda Blanchard, has jumped into the open U.S. Senate race.

The Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over his attempt to overturn the election results are still facing opposition. On Tuesday, the Alaska GOP voted to censure Sen. Lisa Murkowski and recruit a challenger against her. That's less of a threat to Murkowski than it would be to many other senators; Alaskans narrowly passed a “top-four” voting reform in 2020, replacing traditional party primaries. Murkowski won just 40 percent of the vote as a write-in candidate after losing a 2010 GOP primary, and won 44 percent in 2016, when her 2010 challenger became a Libertarian and ran against her again.


… Sen. Rick Scott, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, issued a call to Republican governors that echoed one he made as a candidate for governor in the Obama years: Turn down federal funding. In a letter, Scott urged governors to return “wasteful” spending from the American Rescue Plan. He has not found many takers.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Scott's successor, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, at a news conference this week. "I don’t think that would make sense for Floridians — for us to be giving even more money to the blue states that are already getting such a big windfall in this bill.” Scott was also rebuffed by Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, a potential Senate recruit who has led Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, in polls. Next, Scott will join Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, another potential Senate candidate, on turf Republicans are more comfortable: the U.S.-Mexico border.

… Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon has signed up as the national chair of Vote From Home, a liberal group urging for more mail voting to be adopted by states in the wake of the 2020 election. While mail voting was expanded rapidly, and while more voters filled out their mail ballots correctly than in previous years, Republican anger at the results has led to state legislation limiting the practice.

“For decades, we have been voting safely and securely by mail in my home state of Oregon,” Brown said in a statement. “Vote by mail has proven to be the most reliable and secure way to exercise the right to vote and no American should be denied access to it based on where they live or the color of their skin.”


… two days until special House election primaries in Louisiana
… 44 days until the special election in Texas's 6th Congressional District
… 51 days until the GOP nominating convention in Virginia
… 82 days until primaries in New Jersey and Virginia
… 96 days until New York Citys primary