The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP suffers historic embarrassment in California recall

Republican conservative radio show host Larry Elder speaks at a rally for the California gubernatorial recall election on Monday. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)

This post has been updated with the results from California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) defeated the recall handily.

The results are still coming in, but it’s become clear that Republicans have lost the California recall by what appears to be a historically large margin.

The idea that Republicans would fall short in California, of course, isn’t terribly surprising; it’s a blue state, and the margin is similar to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) win in 2018. But it’s also a blue state in which they proactively picked this fight — and lost by an embarrassing amount.

The latest results show Newsom defeating the recall 63.9 percent to 36.1 percent, with about 68 percent of expected votes counted.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said he's “humble, grateful, but resolved” during his remarks after defeating a recall campaign against him on Sept. 14. (Video: The Washington Post)

That margin will shift in the days to come and could narrow, but even if it does, this will mark one of the biggest repudiations of a recall effort in the last 100 years.

Starting with the successful recalls of North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier and two others in 1921, at least 43 recalls targeting either high-profile statewide officials or state legislators have made the ballot in the relatively few states that allow them. A little more than half of them succeeded, either by recalling the lawmaker or forcing their resignation.

Among those that failed, though, a strong majority came at least somewhat close, garnering between 41 and 50 percent of the vote. Only six — 14 percent of these recall efforts — failed to crest with at least 40 percent of the vote.

The roughly 36 percent of people supporting this particular recall would make it the fourth least-successful recall in the last century — ahead of only a trio of state legislative recalls in California and Wisconsin.

Here’s a look at where the Newsom recall currently ranks:

The loss is also the biggest among the relatively few efforts to recall a governor. Both Frazier and California Gov. Gray Davis (a Democrat who was replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger) were successfully recalled. Another effort targeting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) in 2012 failed but garnered 46 percent of the vote.

That last effort was largely viewed as a cautionary tale when it comes to such recall votes. Democrats were incensed over Walker rolling back collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions. The previous year, they came up just shy of taking over the state Senate in a spate of recalls, and they pressed forward with trying to unseat Walker and his lieutenant governor. They ultimately failed in a manner that actually appeared to strengthen Walker, who went on to also win reelection in 2014 and even led some early polls for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

It’s not clear that Newsom’s resounding win will elevate him in a similar way, nor is it necessarily a setback on a specific issue in the way that the Walker recall was a setback for unions. (Indeed, Republicans have never really enunciated a specific and consistent reason for recalling Newsom, who is and has been pretty popular throughout the process.) But it certainly reflects on the GOP’s strategic know-how in the sense that it proactively put this on the ballot and then came so far from victory.

Conservative writer Jonah Goldberg summed it up nicely.

“If the California GOP were a strong & serious party it would’ve worked to clear field of the rabble & rabble-rousers and put all its weight behind a competent & conventional candidate like [former San Diego mayor Kevin] Faulconer,” Goldberg said. “Would’ve kept Newsom the issue and laid foundation for rebuilding GOP.”

Instead, the GOP effectively allowed the race to be defined as being between a fringe figure like Larry Elder, who would otherwise never be a contender statewide in California, and Newsom, who was able to make the race into a choice rather than the kind of referendum that recalls are supposed to be.

And on that choice, the voters declared this to be an utter waste of time.