The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trailer: Democrats are feeling better about California's recall. Republicans are feeling cheated.

In this edition: Democrats get more confident in California, Buffalo's mayor battles a would-be successor in court and supporters of a 2020 election audit get Donald Trump's endorsements in Michigan.

You know you're old when Democrats chant “Just say no” and you're the only person thinking about Nancy Reagan. This is The Trailer.

LOS ANGELES — California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) came here on Labor Day to talk about Larry Elder. Local elected officials and Black organizers crowded around a microphone, denouncing the Sept. 14 recall election as a coup attempt to install a right-wing radio host in the governor's office. A Black Lives Matter founder called Elder the “face of white supremacy.” Newsom warned about the ongoing threat of “Trumpism.” 

When a Democrat in the crowd asked him for specifics — what, exactly, would Black Californians lose if Newsom lost? — the governor talked for five full minutes.

“It's something no state's ever done, $2 billion child savings accounts for every kindergartner,” Newsom said. “We actually put $5 billion in the budget for after school and summer school for how to reimagine a school year. We got that done this year,” 

Newsom kept going, slamming an open palm on his lectern, pointing to the Democratic legislators in the room. “Three billion dollars for community schools [and] mental health for our kids. Adolescent mental health, zero to 25, universal screenings, universal service. A $4.8 billion investment, unprecedented in California history.” 

At weekend campaign stops, Newsom and his Republican rivals described radically different Californias — a state where ambitious spending can solve every post-pandemic crisis, or a state on the verge of collapse. Democrats pulled on masks and showed their vaccination cards to hear how Newsom would prevent California from becoming what he called one of “those damn red states.” Republicans gathered in or near businesses that suffered during last year's pandemic orders, with no masks required — and near one Elder rally, a booth where people could buy “CDC mask exemption” cards for $10. Democrats believed polls that showed support for the recall slipping. Republicans did not.

“The recall movement is not only the greatest citizens movement in California's history, it's also the most diverse,” said state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, an early backer of the recall, as he talked with a dozen voters at Hollywood store that resisted state and county coronavirus mandates. “Gavin Newsom has this way of being very polarizing. He tries to make everything partisan.”

The recall ballot contains two questions — whether to remove Newsom, and which alternative should become governor if he's gone. When they gathered signatures to force the election, pro-recall groups emphasized that they were not partisan, and that they had no alternative candidate in mind. Elder, who hosted shows for Salem Radio Network and the Epoch Times before the recall began, jumped into the race eight weeks ago, grabbed a significant polling lead on the second ballot question and became the focus of Newsom's negative ads.

“I don’t know if he has any appeal whatsoever to any Democrat, and that’s concerning to me,” Randy Economy, a former spokesman for Recall Gavin, said of Elder. “But at this point in the game, he’s the guy.” Orrin Heatlie, another Recall Gavin founder, told Politico this week that Elder's campaign had been “counterproductive.”

Democrats have seen populist uprisings before — the 1978 passage of the anti-tax Proposition 13, the 1994 landslide for cutting off benefits for undocumented immigrants, the 2003 recall that served as a model for this race. They had also just won an election where there was far more visible support for the Republican nominee — from painted barns to flag-flying Trump boat flotillas — than for the Democrat who got more votes. Democrats see the recall banners this time, too.

“Not voting is saying that all those folks who do vote yes, the people who are fine when Larry Elder says he’ll cut abortion funding and that climate change is a crock, can speak for you,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told Democrats at a Saturday morning rally for Newsom in Culver City.

With 6 million ballots already cast, Democrats believe that polarization in the electorate is leaving them with a larger share of it. But Republican voters took a different lesson from 2020, with many believing that the race was stolen from Trump. In interviews over the weekend, supporters of the recall spoke of the friends and neighbors who wanted Newsom gone, and their disbelief at polling that shows just 43 percent of voters inclined to remove him.

“After 2018, it clicked in my brain that they've been cheating us here in California for years,” said Leah Kabaker, 62, who supported the recall. In that race, Newsom had won the endorsement of most elected Democrats and labor unions, and easily dispatched former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in an all-party primary. “Newsom is a White elitist from San Francisco. Villaraigosa was the mayor of Los Angeles. Now, I didn't like him. But in a state that's 40 percent Hispanic, you're telling me that Villaraigosa got buried by Gavin Newsom?”

Newsom is in a weaker position than in 2018, when anti-Trump sentiment in California led the party to a midterm landslide. An early-summer flurry of spending, including $354 million in stimulus checks that began arriving as the ballots went out, did not move sentiments on the recall. The first anti-recall message, “California is roaring back,” did not survive the arrival of the delta variant. His closing argument, that Elder would undo vaccine mandates, has been more effective. 

Asked on Saturday why his paid advertising was so negative, with none of the ambitious agenda he described in campaign speeches, Newsom said that it worked.

“It's a recall,” Newsom explained, adding that the selling of his new spending plans would come later. “That's the reelect.”

Republican voters have tuned Newsom out, and to some extent, so have Republican candidates. At a Monday rally in Thousand Oaks, in one of the parking lots of the city's major mall, Elder spent more time disputing media coverage of his campaign than he did responding to Newsom. 

Over 30 minutes, Elder repeatedly said he would speak slowly, so as not to be misinterpreted by CNN. He didn't get into the specifics of Newsom's housing plans but said that he had spoken to former HUD  secretary Ben Carson and would adopt a shelved Trump-era plan to relocate the homeless to “large areas where we could build low-cost housing.” He spoke more generally, noting that it had been decades since a governor's veto was successfully overridden, and there was plenty he could mobilize voters against if he vetoed it.

“The lawmakers' phones start ringing and the constituents say: ‘Are you guys smoking crack?’” Elder joked. “So, we have more power than I thought. There's also the power to declare a statewide emergency. I have a line-item veto. I'll be appointing members of these very powerful commissions. I'll be bringing back sanity to Sacramento.”

No single popular issue has emerged for Republicans the way that property taxes did in 1978, or a hated tax on car registration did in 2003. One reason is that conservatives simply can't choose among the many reasons they want Newsom gone. Over the last week, Elder held events focused on school choice, on forest fires, on the effect the 2020 pandemic lockdowns had on businesses and on violent criminals released after changes in imprisonment policy. On housing, the campaigns talk past each other, and sometimes past themselves. Shortly before Elder promised to build more affordable housing, actor Scott Baio told the crowd that the threat of new multifamily units was an issue conservatives could talk back about to their Democratic friends.

“Ask them, are you okay with multifamily low-income housing in your area, in the suburbs next to your house?” Baio said. “Because that's what Gavin Newsom is going to do right after he shuts us down again.”

Several voters in the crowd shared part of that worry, suggesting that Newsom was shoveling out resources now to act with impunity after the recall. (He will face voters again in a June 2022 primary.) It was harder, they said, to imagine that a majority of Californians were telling pollsters the truth.

“You can see all the people out here who are going to vote for Larry,” said Becky Olsen, leaving the Thousand Oaks rally on Monday. “I think people don't want to say how they're voting. They're afraid to say it, maybe.”

Reading list

“California Gov. Gavin Newsom enters final stage of recall fight,” by Scott Wilson

The blue view from Oakland.

“In red California, Trump’s lies about a rigged election echo among recall supporters,” by Hailey Branson-Potts

Voters most likely to support the recall are more likely to believe it will be stolen.

“Republican wins on abortion, voting and guns cap their banner 2021, with Democratic goals in ‘dire’ danger despite Washington power,” by Michael Scherer

The impact of a strong down-ballot cycle for the GOP.

“The election gambit that’s sending Georgia Democrats into a frenzy,” by Maya King

A county board takeover spurs fears of a win being overturned.

“New Texas voting bill deepens growing disparities in how Americans can cast their ballots,” by Elise Viebeck

How the Republican-backed election law changed how Texans can vote.

“Back on the trail, Sanders campaigns for a legislative legacy,” by Emily Cochrane

In Iowa, but not to run for president.

“Virginia wants to prevent gerrymandering. Can a mathematician help?” by Steve Thompson

Math: The cause of, and solution to, all of Democrats' problems.

In the states

Buffalo. Mayor Byron Brown and the Democrat who beat him in the June primary are headed back to court, after a Trump-appointed judge allowed Brown to appear on the ballot as a third-party candidate. Democratic nominee India Walton's campaign filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals on Tuesday, setting off a new stage in a fight that could cost the self-identified democratic socialist up to $200,000 in legal fees.

“For a small grass-roots campaign, resources are always an issue,” Walton said last week, previewing the appeal.

Brown, who’s seeking a fifth term in November, launched a write-in effort shortly after Walton’s win was certified. In early August, his campaign collected signatures for a new Buffalo Party, even though the state’s election statutes required any new party to file for access in May, before the primary.

Attorneys for the mayor argued that the deadline was simply too far from the general election. Judge John Sinatra agreed, drawing a fast rebuke from Walton, who has struggled to get party leaders to accept her as the nominee. Asked last week if they would make an endorsement in the race, both Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and Attorney General Letitia James (D) stayed neutral. On Labor Day, the local affiliates of two unions, American Federation of State, Local and Municipal Employees and the Civil Service Employees Association, both endorsed Brown

New York City. The left-wing Party for Socialism and Liberation got a boost Tuesday from state Sen. Julia Salazar, a Democrat who endorsed PSL mayoral nominee Cathy Rojas over Democratic nominee Eric Adams.

“Cathy has dedicated herself not only to public service, but also to fighting to dismantle systems of oppression,” said Salazar, a member of Democratic Socialists of America, in a statement shared by Rojas. 

Adams narrowly won the city’s first-ever ranked-choice primary in June, frustrating left-wing Democrats who consolidated behind attorney Maya Wiley at the last minute. Pollsters have ignored the matchup between Adams and Republican Curtis Sliwa.

Ad watch

Stop the Republican Recall, “Vaccine Contrast (Korean).” Since mail ballots started arriving at voters' homes last month, California Democrats have focused their advertising on vaccination mandates: They're for them, Republicans would get rid of them. This is one of three non-English ads directed at Asian American voters, who have been turning out at higher rates than White, Black and Latino Californians. It uses the basic footage and messaging that debuted in English-language ads last month, portraying Larry Elder with Donald Trump and warning that Elder would risk the state's progress by wiping out vaccine requirements.

Terry for Virginia, “Seriously.” Like Newsom, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced support for vaccination and mask mandates, then bought ads to warn voters that his Republican opponent didn't. This spot starts with a clip of GOP nominee for governor Glenn Youngkin saying that Donald Trump “represents so much of why I'm running,” a generic comment that Democrats have repeatedly gone back to. The new hook: Youngkin “refuses to take coronavirus seriously” and opposes the new mandates. 

Youngkin for Governor, “Sheriff Partin: Virginia Won't Be Safe With Terry McAuliffe.” The Republican's campaign has released a series of ads highlighting the endorsements of sheriffs in Virginia's multiple ad markets, all saying the same thing: McAuliffe is too soft on crime. The Democrat has been difficult to tie to “defund the police” sloganeering; the focus here is on the parole board, which has come under fire for releasing criminals who later went on to commit new, violent offenses.

Biden job approval (ABC News/Washington Post/Langer Research, 1,006 adults)

Approve: 44% (-6 since June)
Disapprove: 51% (+9)

The withdrawal from Afghanistan and its aftershocks have staggered the Biden administration for two weeks. The damage here is similar to the damage measured by other polls: More than half of voters disapprove of Biden's performance, and fewer than a third approve of his handling of Afghanistan. That question cuts across party lines, but the raw job performance question doesn't: Nearly 90 percent of Democrats approve of Biden, as do supermajorities of Black voters and majorities of White voters with college degrees. Donald Trump showed early in his presidency that no matter what happened, a base making up 35 to 40 percent of the electorate would stick with him. How big is Biden's un-moveable base? We'll find out.

Boston mayoral primary (Boston Globe/Suffolk University, 500 likely voters)

Michelle Wu: 31% (+8 since June)
Kim Janey: 20% (-2)
Annissa Essaibi George: 19% (+4)
Andrea Campbell: 18% (+7)
John Barros: 3% (+1)

Boston Mayor Janey became the first Black woman to run the city when predecessor Marty Walsh left to become U.S. secretary of labor. But she made high-profile stumbles early on, including a quickly-retracted comparison of vaccination mandates to laws that made enslaved people “show their papers.” Wu, seen for years as a potential candidate, has surged ahead, with Janey winning Black voters but losing with other demographic groups — not enough in a city where Black voters make up less than a quarter of the electorate. Wu is far more dominant with Asian American voters than Janey is with the Black electorate, and the strength of City Councilor Campbell, another Black woman, creates the possibility of a White woman (George) and an Asian American woman heading to the runoff after the Sept. 14 primary. That prospect could help Janey consolidate the Black vote.


Michigan. On Tuesday, Donald Trump made two more endorsements of Republicans who questioned the results of the 2020 election: Kristina Karamo for secretary of state, and state Rep. Steve Carra in his primary against Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

“Upton has not done the job that our Country needs, for years has talked about leaving office and not running again, and he voted for Impeachment of the President of the United States on rigged up charges,” Trump said in a statement.

Both Carra and Karamo had embraced unfounded allegations about the election; Karamo, a first-time candidate, turned her experience as a poll challenger in Detroit into interviews across conservative media, warning that unspecified “corruption” in the secretary of state’s office was “a real threat to our survival as a state and as a nation.” Karamo visited Arizona over the summer to witness the Republican-led probe of the Maricopa County vote, while Carra has introduced legislation to audit Joe Biden's 2020 win in Michigan, a nonstarter so far despite GOP control of the legislature.

Arizona. State Rep. Randy Friese abandoned his bid for the Democratic nomination in the state's open 2nd Congressional District, despite a powerful biography — he was the physician who treated Gabrielle Giffords after she survived a mass shooting 10 years ago — and a larger war chest than his Democratic rivals. Friese had raised close to $425,000 for the August 2020 primary to replace Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D), and 314 Action, a Democratic group organized to elect more scientists and STEM workers, had suggested it would spend $1 million to help him. In a statement announcing he was leaving the race. Friese cited scheduling pressure —  running a campaign and practicing medicine as the delta variant surged across Arizona — in his withdrawal statement. 

Nine Democrats and 13 Republicans are still in the race. While the district will be altered in redistricting, it delivered an 11-point win for Joe Biden in 2020, up from a five-point win for Hillary Clinton four years earlier.


… seven days until California's recall election and the Boston mayoral primary
… 56 days until elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and primaries in Florida’s 20th Congressional District
… 116 days until the election in Florida's 20th Congressional District