Newsom said Aug. 9 that supporters should not choose a replacement. And the California Democratic Party tweeted the same instructions over the weekend.
So Newsom might be recalled, but Democrats … don’t want people to vote for a Democratic replacement? Even just in case? They would effectively be ceding the race to a Republican such as pro-Trump radio host Larry Elder, the type of figure who in all likelihood would never become California governor in a non-recall election.
The “Governor Elder” scenario is suddenly very real, at least according to the polls. But was it more avoidable?
To say California’s recall elections are confusing would be a massive understatement. Voters first decide on whether to recall the governor and then choose from more than 40 mostly gadfly candidates aiming to replace him. But they can do so regardless of their initial vote.
The Democrats’ strategy basically boils down to Newsom-or-bust. And there are compelling arguments both for and against it. But that very much leaves open the possibility that this was the wrong call.
Basically, California Democrats have decided that having a big-name Democrat running might lead more people to vote to recall Newsom. If there’s a Democrat they like better than Newsom on the ballot, they might vote for the recall believing (incorrectly) that it’s necessary for their replacement vote to count. Or they might view that Democrat’s presence on the ballot as some indication of Democratic disunity.
So, in the months before formally urging people not to pick a replacement, California Democrats fought hard to ensure that no well-known Democrats would appear on the ballot. And they succeeded; perhaps the ballot’s leading Democrat is a 29-year-old real estate investor who is popular on YouTube, Kevin Paffrath.
They have also apparently succeeded in persuading many Democrats not to vote for the replacement choices they do have. A recent poll from the University of California at Berkeley showed that 40 percent of Democrats say they will not select one.
The reason for the strategy traces back to the last recall of a California governor. In 2003, the party pursued a similar strategy. But with the recall of then-Gov. Gray Davis (D) looking quite possible due to his historic unpopularity, the situation changed as the filing deadline loomed. Davis’s lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, suddenly jumped into the race as the backstop in case Davis was recalled.
It didn’t exactly work out. Davis lost the recall by double digits (55 to 45 percent), and Bustamante lost to a guy named Arnold Schwarzenegger in the subsequent race by an even wider margin.
Even when Bustamante jumped in, many believed it would hurt Davis. Republican polling suggested as much. Sean Walsh, a consultant for Schwarzenegger, recalled recently to Reid Wilson that Bustamante’s entry led to celebrations in the GOP camp: “High fives, low fives, toasts, tequila shots. Rum raisin ice cream: It was a party all the way around if you were a Republican.”
But no two political races are identical. And there are reasons to doubt both that Bustamante truly hurt Davis that much and that, even if he did, it would be applicable to today.
For one, Davis was hugely unpopular, with an approval rating that had sunk into the 20s in some polls during the recall campaign. Newsom, by contrast, has been in no such situation. Even as polls suggest his recall is on the table, his approval rating has generally been in the 50s. It’s quite possible that some Democrats felt freed up to vote to recall Davis because of the Bustamante backstop, but not nearly as many people are predisposed against Newsom.
Second was the campaign that Bustamante ran. The idea was that Bustamante would run on “No on recall, yes on Bustamante.” But with the recall looking likely, he and allies drifted into distancing Bustamante from the very unpopular governor. In particular, he repeatedly and conspicuously mentioned having bucked Davis on Proposition 187, a controversial immigration law. Bustamante was also criticized for running a bad campaign in general (his image ratings were about 20 points negative), meaning whatever benefit might have been gleaned from having him on the ballot, it never came close to being realized.
The proof will ultimately be in the results. If Newsom survives, especially narrowly, it will look like a good call — to avoid anything that would jeopardize that. If he’s narrowly recalled despite the strategy, though, there will be very valid questions about why there wasn’t a Plan B. It would not necessarily mean that a Democrat would have won the race, but Democrats wouldn’t have really given themselves a chance.
Which brings us to another key difference between today and 2003: the disparate Republican opposition. Back then, Schwarzenegger was the elephant in the room, and he wound up getting nearly 49 percent of the post-recall votes. Only one other Republican, Tom McClintock, took more than 1 percent of the vote.
Today, Elder is the clear GOP front-runner, but he has also has run into a series of potentially damaging personal revelations in recent days that could open to the door to other Republicans. Those Republicans include former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer and 2018 gubernatorial candidate John Cox. (Cailtyn Jenner could also take some votes, despite running an unserious campaign.)
In other words, it’s quite possible that a Democratic alternative would not need to win near the percentage of votes that Bustamante would have needed in 2003.
Imagine a scenario not just in which Democrats lose control of the governorship, but they do so to a candidate who gets 25 percent of the vote, and that candidate is someone like Elder. There would undoubtedly be questions about why the Democratic Party in such a blue state didn’t do more to cover its bases.
It made sense to do what it took to protect Newsom, especially given where this was polling a few months ago. And it’s worth being skeptical of the tightening polls, given how difficult a race like this is to poll.
But there’s a chance the best strategy for the Democratic governor might not have been the best strategy for Democrats’ retaining the governorship.