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The Trailer: As California recall vote nears, Republicans ready to blame 'shenanigans' for Newsom win

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In this edition: California recall supporters fret about voter fraud, a campaign stop near homeless encampments goes wrong and New England voters once again flip party control in a special election.

The one millionth person to ask for an explanation of how the recall ballot works gets a $10 gift card, and this is The Trailer.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — A few hours after a woman in a gorilla mask threw an egg at his head and missed, Larry Elder found a friendlier audience. Several hundred voters who wanted to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) gathered in this city's sunken garden, cheering when a former county supervisor called it the “largest political rally” ever held there. When the candidate was wrapping up, a woman shouted the question he seemed to be getting every day.

“How are we going to stop the Democrats' cheating?” Elder said, repeating the question for the crowd. “The reason the lawsuits did not work in the 2020 election — we know what happened there — is because the lawsuits were filed too late.” His campaign was ready to sue over “anything suspicious,” and “a lot of things have been suspicious so far,” but he wouldn't let his voters get despondent.

“The number of people that are going to vote to recall this man is going to be so overwhelming so that even when they cheat, they're still going to lose,” Elder said.

In the final days of campaigning ahead of Tuesday's election, polls have shown support to recall Newsom stuck in the low 40s, with a majority of voters preferring to keep the governor. Thirty-two percent of voters have returned their mail ballots, with registered Democrats sending back 53 percent of the total — above their proportion in the electorate — and Republicans sending back 25 percent. A surge of pro-recall votes still could put Elder in the governor's mansion. But the prospects look dimmer than they did a month ago.

As they've dimmed, supporters of the recall have speculated more loudly about a stolen election, saying flat-out — and without evidence — that the fix is in for Newsom. Elder and his surrogates openly warn of Democratic “cheating.” Pro-recall websites warn that about folding lines on ballots or holes in ballot envelopes that they say could be used to throw out votes. A statute that lets voters print ballots at home if their mail ballots are damaged has fueled theories about large-scale fraud.

“It's probably rigged,” former president Donald Trump said in a Newsmax interview Tuesday, providing no evidence. “They're sending out all ballots, the ballots are mail-in ballots. In fact, I guess you even have a case where you can make your own ballot. When that happens no one is going to win, except these Democrats.”

Trump's refusal to concede the 2020 election has turned “election integrity” into a defining issue for Republicans, inspiring a wave of new laws that tighten access to voting and campaigns for partisan “forensic audits” of the closest swing states. Long before that, Trump speculated that he'd lost the popular vote in 2016 only because millions of “illegals” cast California ballots, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said California Democrats had “weaponized” a practice of sending volunteers to collect mail ballots from voters — a process generally referred to as “ballot harvesting,” which Republicans have gone on to ban in other states.

In Democrat-led California, voting, and “harvesting,” are easier now than they've ever been. After 2020, the state joined Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington in the practice of sending mail ballots to every registered voter. And after Trump indicted mail voting as inherently risky, Republicans who had once outpaced Democrats in getting their voters to mail back ballots adjusted to the new reality.

That has worried Republican strategists, and conservative voters, who according to some of the final pre-election polls are more confident than other voters that Newsom will lose. According to a YouGov poll released this week by the conservative Hoover Institution, 60 percent of Californians who'd supported Trump in 2020 thought the recall's success was “very” or “somewhat” likely. Just 14 percent of Biden voters said the same.

“I am a little bit worried about mailing it in,” said Tori Knight, 47, after Elder's shortened campaign stop in Venice. “I folded the ballot the other way so you can't see how I voted. I'm going to mail it, and I'm going to track it, but I have heard some people have gotten their ballots rejected just because their signature didn't match. That's a little bit suspicious.” 

Like many states that expect high volumes of mail votes, California does let voters track what's happening to their ballots. But California has more voters than any other state, and more generous ballot return rules than most of them, with ballots added to the count if they arrive up to seven days after the election, so long as they are postmarked by Sept. 14. 

As of Thursday, more than 7 million ballots had been returned, nearly one-third of the total sent out. That may speed up the count next week — ballots arriving before Sept. 14 are processed quickly — but it will mean some number of ballots aren't counted on election night. Before 2020, Californians were used to that. After 2020, Trump and allies began casting doubt on any votes not counted by the time the East Coast went to bed — and the polls won't even close here until 8 p.m. local time Tuesday.

The only thing that will save Gavin Newsom is voter fraud,” insisted conservative pundit Tomi Lahren on a Fox News panel this week. Pay attention to the voter fraud going on in California, because it’s going to have big consequences not only for that state but for upcoming elections.”

These worries are not helpful to recall advocates right now. Both Democrats and Republicans expect recall supporters to vote closer to Election Day, and cries of “vote in person” often ring out at Republican rallies. Elder has repeatedly said that “shenanigans” took place in 2020, and could take place in California, cleaning up a Sacramento Bee interview in which he judged the 2020 election to be “fair and square.” 

Other Republicans, lagging badly behind Elder, have broken with the party's base and refused to question the last election. State Assemblyman Kevin Kiley has accused Democrats of slanting the election in their favor, pointing out that the legislature in Sacramento scheduled it as quickly as possible.

“Once it's certified, it's certified,” Kiley said at an Aug. 25 debate, declining to get into specifics about when Republicans should concede. It was not a thrilling message to voters who believe that the media is trying to suppress enthusiasm for the recall.

“The politicians want you to think the system is so rigged that you don't participate,” said Mark Meuser, a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2022, speaking to volunteers at a meeting last month organized by the pro-recall group Reform California. “If we flood this ballot box with 20 million people, they're gone. They can't cheat that much. They can't cheat enough to deprive you if we simply turn out and vote.”

Elder makes the same point at his rallies, though it hasn't dispelled any of the worries. Before Elder's rally in Thousand Oaks over the weekend, one attendee held a massive sign near the stage with the message “Zuckerberg prints 3 million ballots, no [signature] verification,” warning that the election would be rigged and referring to the Facebook founder's support for easier voting last year. In Santa Barbara, rally attendee Howard Thorne, 54, said he was worried about reports of possible fraud, including the arrest last week of a mail thief whose haul included more than 300 unopened ballots

“I don't want to take no chances,” Thorne said, explaining that he would cast his ballot in person. “Would you mail $10,000 and see if it gets mailed back to you?”

On the trail, Elder has not said specifically what could be the focus of a lawsuit, and what sort of fraud he was worried about. Early on Wednesday, after he cast his own ballot, The Trailer asked Elder if he had seen anything in the millions of ballots cast so far that made him question the integrity of the election.

“We have a voter integrity board all set up,” Elder said. “Most of these are lawyers. So when people hear of things, they contact us. We're going to file lawsuits in a timely fashion.”

Reading list

“Kamala Harris stumps with Gavin Newsom ahead of the recall vote: ‘Everyone has to vote,’” by Scott Wilson

The vice president, back home, and on the trail.

“Why no one wants to talk about this hot-button election tool in the California recall,” by Robin Estrin, Sarah Parvini

Ballot drop boxes: Threat or menace?

“Trump expected to endorse Wyoming lawyer to unseat Liz Cheney in biggest test of his ability to purge his critics from the party,” by Marianna Sotomayor and Josh Dawsey

More moves in the slow-motion Republican remodel.

“Critical race theory turning school boards into GOP proving grounds,” by Daniel Payne

The sparks coming off a brush fire.

“Trump reaches out to families of U.S. service members killed in Afghanistan,” by Matt Viser and Josh Dawsey

Talking to grieving Biden critics, with an eye on 2024.

On the trail

LOS ANGELES — When candidates want to talk about California’s homelessness crisis, they often end up in Venice, where the unhoused sleep just feet away from start-up offices. Caitlyn Jenner brought cameras there in August to discuss the “very, very complicated issue” in her campaign for governor. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, a pro-recall Democrat, went there in June with a promise to clear encampments off the boardwalk.

Larry Elder arrived Wednesday, his campaign bus rolling by Gold’s Gym, where the Republican candidate was greeted by a dozen or so supporters — and quickly surrounded by furious critics, cursing, shouting and even getting physical. 

“He don’t even like his own people!” shouted one man, using an unprintable expletive for emphasis.

Elder walked from the gym to a street full of tents, talking to members of the Venice Neighborhood Council Public Health & Safety Committee. But their conversation was barely audible. As they made one turn, a woman in a gorilla mask threw an egg that missed the candidate, then took a swing at the candidate’s security guard. 

By that point — with another man punching the guard from behind — Elder was being pushed into an SUV, to exit the ugly scene. He sped away, joining reporters on his campaign bus, which would not stop on the Venice streets again.

“I didn't expect there to be a ticker-tape parade,” Elder said once he settled on the bus. “Look, it’s a hard problem. People are angry. They're mad. Many of them are mentally ill.” He had heard the man shout that he didn’t care about Black people, and he’d heard that before, too. “I’ve been called worse by better.”

Media coverage of the stop inevitably focused on the scuffle and the drive-by egging attempt, so some of Elder’s point was lost. He repeated it for reporters: As mayor of San Francisco, Gov. Newsom had pledged in 2003 to solve the city's homeless crisis within 10 years. “Have you been to San Francisco?” Elder asked rhetorically. 

If elected, Elder said, he would declare an emergency to partially suspend the California Environmental Quality Act “that stops almost any development for any reason,” and enact a plan he had talked about with former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, using land owned by the government (and far from major downtowns) to rehouse the homeless. (Various efforts to provide housing over the years have not been fully successful.) He did not, he said, favor a new bill that would ban single-family zoning, which policymakers call a reason that housing in the state has grown so expensive.

“I feel that housing is a local issue, and the state shouldn’t be making mandates like that,” Elder said. “I'm not in favor of a bill that basically federalizes this zoning ordinance that should be done locally.”

Newsom spent the day near San Francisco, rallying with Vice President Harris for the start of a final push that will also bring President Biden to the state. A truck paid for by the Republican National Committee idled outside, attacking Harris for campaigning while “Californians are stranded in Afghanistan,” and some Afghan Americans outside the rally waved the country’s old flag.

Neither that nor homelessness came up at the rally, where the vice president, like other Newsom surrogates, alternated between attacking the recall’s very existence and saying the governor had not gotten enough credit for his work.

“If having a governor who is for workers rights and labor unions weren’t a problem for them, they wouldn’t be trying to recall him,” Harris said.

There are nearly four dozen candidates on the ballot as alternatives to Newsom, who will be removed from office if a majority of voters decide to recall him. They have been campaigning across the state, but getting less attention, with recent polls showing only Elder garnering double-digit support on the replacement question. 

Businessman John Cox, who lost the 2018 gubernatorial election to Newsom, spent Wednesday in the Bay Area. Kevin Paffrath, a moderate Democrat and the only member of his party to qualify for a debate, released a video commenting on the stop Elder made in Venice.

“This doesn’t surprise me, that this is happening in California,” Paffrath said. “It’s just wrong.”

Ad watch

Larry Elder Ballot Measure Committee and Recall Newsom Committee, “Recall Newsom.” There may be no more memorable opening to a political commercial this year: “You remind me of the guy in high school who took my girlfriend.” The speaker is Brad Gold, a Los Angeles resident who, according to state campaign records, donated $100 to Elder's campaign for governor. He plays Howard Beale for this pro-Elder committee, which can accept unlimited donations but was not putting out ads until this week. There have been successful populist campaigns built around people  liberals consider unsophisticated, like Howard Jarvis in his 1978 campaign for Proposition 13.

Stop the Republican Recall, “Obama.” The 44th president won two landslide victories in California, and is more popular than President Biden with independents and Republicans. So here he is, saying that Gov. Newsom “spent the past year and a half protecting California communities,” next to the same image of Elder with Donald Trump that the Democrats have been using in ads for three weeks. The Newsom campaign was already testing the power of a vaccine mandate message for the Sept. 14 recall, and the message is now tied to Obama, who faced his own criticism recently for holding a birthday party (for vaccinated and tested guests) at a time when many events were being canceled.

Glenn Youngkin, “Common Cents.” The Republican nominee for governor of Virginia spent the summer introducing himself with ads describing his business career. The payoff: This ad, which shows Youngkin walking through a supermarket as prices increase, then decrease, as he describes the possible savings from eliminating a grocery tax. Like most states that tax food, the state levies lower taxes on groceries than other products, and the ad's CGI reflects that; corn falls by just 2 cents. “Career politicians will call it radical,” Youngkin predicts.

Michelle Wu, “Working for You.” Like the Youngkin spot, the latest from the Boston mayoral candidate uses camera wizardry to dramatize something dry; in this case, articles describing the city councilor as an effective leader.  She stops in a park, promises to tackle the housing crunch, and that's it.

Andrea for Boston, “Two Bostons: Leadership.” One of Wu's rivals has a few more details in her latest spot, on the same issue — housing. After mentioning her own roots in public housing, councilor Andrea Campbell says she has a “real plan to expand housing assistance” and reform zoning.

Poll watch

Public polling released this week has found waning support for a recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.). A YouGov poll, conducted for the Hoover Institution, found just 44 percent of voters supporting Newsom's removal, and a Suffolk University poll shared first by USA Today put support at 41 percent. Since mid-August, when Democrats began focusing their advertising on vaccine mandates for school and health-care workers, support for Newsom has risen and Democrats have made up a larger share of the likely electorate. A YouGov poll conducted for CBS, before that stage of the Newsom strategy, found 48 percent of voters favoring recall.

So, what else is going on with California voters?

How likely do you think it is that a majority of voters will vote to recall Gov. Newsom? (YouGov, 2,043 registered voters)

All voters
Very/somewhat likely: 28%
Fifty/fifty: 35%
Very/somewhat unlikely: 28%

Biden voters
Very/somewhat likely: 14%
Fifty/fifty: 36%
Very/somewhat unlikely: 42%

Trump voters
Very/somewhat likely: 60%
Fifty/fifty: 27%
Very/somewhat unlikely: 8%

Conservative voters organized the recall effort, and liberals have never been as engaged with it. The entire Democratic campaign has focused on convincing liberals that the election matters, because Newsom could lose it. But only half of them think that's more likely than not. Republican optimism is far higher; 87 percent of Californians who voted for Trump are confident that Newsom will get recalled, or think there's at least a 50-50 chance. Trump voters disproportionately plan to vote closer to Sept. 14, and just 25 percent of poll respondents who had not turned in ballots yet said Newsom would probably beat the recall attempt.

This is a difficult question to ask, because studies of voter behavior find that Americans think the country's political opinions are more conservative than they really are. Other polling has found that voters overestimate the number of people who are refusing to be vaccinated. Fear of the Trump-era GOP has gotten to liberal voters, and conservatives — disproportionately living in smaller communities where there is public support for recall — believe support for the recall is higher than media coverage admits. 

Which option best describes why you feel Gavin Newsom should be recalled? (Suffolk University, 205 likely voters)

Handling of covid restrictions: 17%
Homelessness: 15%
Closures of businesses: 12%
Spending decisions: 10%
Mishandling of unemployment dollars: 6%
Crime: 6%
Wildfires: 5%
Attending a party during lockdown: 4%

The recall election almost certainly wouldn't have happened without two events from the same day last November. Three days after the presidential election, Newsom flouted emergency social distancing limits to have dinner at the French Laundry restaurant, and Democrats failed to appeal a court ruling that gave petitioners four extra months to collect signatures for a recall. Anger at the dinner inspired a wave of signature-gatherers, who had until spring to get enough names on paper. But the sources of recall voter anger are diverse. Just one-third are most frustrated with issues around pandemic health orders, from the Nov. 6 dinner to business closures. One in 5 are most frustrated with crime and homelessness, and 16 percent are concerned about government waste and spending. 

Special elections

For most of this year, special elections did nothing to change the balance of power in Congress or the states. No Republicans captured any Democratic seats, and no Democrats captured any Republican seats.

That changed in the past three weeks. In August, a Republican captured a Connecticut state Senate seat he'd nearly won in 2020, and on Tuesday, Democrat Catherine Rombeau captured a New Hampshire state House seat that voted Republican last year.

The margin was close, with Rombeau beating former state Rep. Linda Rea Camarota by 37 votes out of 4,613 cast. Camarota has asked for a hand recount, which will unfold Monday, but Rombeau and Democrats declared victory on Tuesday night. In an interview, Rombeau said that she had won votes, in part, by opposing Republican legislation to expand a school voucher program.

“It would take state funding out that's usually given to the local public school system and would go to families to use for religious schools or home schooling or private schools,” she said. “So, I spoke to my folks about the issues of using public money for public schools and also the practical realities of how that will likely impact our property taxes in the next couple of years.”

Democrats solidly carried New Hampshire at the presidential level last year but lost control of the state legislature, thanks to crossover voting from Biden voters who picked Republicans down the ballot. Biden narrowly carried the Hillsborough County district in 2020; eight years earlier, Mitt Romney had won it with more than 60 percent of the vote. “Talking to folks about the issues that mattered to them was a good way to reach them,” Rombeau said. “I definitely felt like the conversations I had reflected a real a real range of political values and priorities that may have shifted a bit in recent years.”

In the states

New York. The November mayoral ballot in Buffalo remains in a kind of limbo, with Mayor Byron Brown trying to access it as the “Buffalo Party” candidate after losing a June primary to Democratic nominee India Walton. Last week, a judge whose family had donated to Brown ruled that he could appear on the ballot, erasing the need for a write-in campaign, even though he had missed the deadline for filing a new party by three months. The Walton campaign appealed, and the ballots are not yet being printed. 

There will be a hearing on the appeal Monday, with the deadline for Erie County to start printing ballots coming four days later. Tonight, Walton and Brown will meet for their first debate, sponsored by the Buffalo Association of Black Journalists — a rarity in a race where one candidate may not appear on the ballot. 

Arizona. The Republican-led board of supervisors in Maricopa County is debating its next steps after Attorney General Mark Brnovich demanded that they comply with another request for election information, or lose around two-fifths of their funding.

While the county has provided most of what Republican investigators have asked for, as an audit of the 2020 vote has dragged from spring into autumn, it has resisted sharing routers and passwords with investigators. Brnovich, who is running for U.S. Senate in 2022, gave the county a Sept. 27 deadline for a handover, after which point the county would be violating a subpoena. According to the Arizona Republic, that could let the state deny around $676 million of the $1.6 billion that Maricopa, where two-thirds of Arizonans live, was expecting from the general fund.


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