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The Trailer: Five takeaways from California's recall -- and they're not all good for Democrats

In this edition: Lessons from California, election results from Boston to Des Moines, and a Republican case for gerrymandering in Ohio.

While you're refreshing the secretary of state's website for the next month or so, this is The Trailer.

LOS ANGELES — It wasn't even close. Less than an hour after polls closed in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) was projected to defeat a years-long campaign to recall him. By 10 p.m. local time, when Republican candidate Larry Elder conceded the race, more than 8 million ballots had been counted, and the “yes” vote, to remove the Democratic governor less than three years into his term, was 3 million votes short.

“Let us be gracious in defeat,” Elder told supporters at an Orange County Hilton hotel, quieting some people who were booing Newsom's name. “We may have lost the battle, but we are going to win the war.”

That seemed unlikely, based on Tuesday's results. The recall effort was a debacle for Republicans, who talked themselves into a believing that a majority of Californians were as angry at Newsom as they were. It was a clear win for Democrats, who even before Tuesday were arguing that their victory could be scaled up to other states in the 2022 midterms.

“Hopefully there's a silver living here, which we can apply to the big problem we have nationally,” Newsom strategist Sean Clegg told reporters before Newsom's final rally, with President Biden. “The base may start out asleep, but you can wake up the base.”

What else did it prove? Some of the answers will have to wait. Counties have yet to report how many ballots are left, and won't know until Sept. 21, the last day that ballots postmarked by Election Day can be counted. We know that there are not nearly enough votes to change the results, but we don't know, specifically, how the “yes” and “no” votes fared in areas that will have competitive 2022 congressional races. (We won't even know what the congressional districts will look like until later this year, after the state's nonpartisan commission draws maps.)

Some answers are available to us now, though. Here are five takeaways from Newsom's rout.

Democrats now believe vaccination mandates can win votes. The turning point in the recall election came early in August, when Newsom announced new vaccination-or-testing mandates for health-care and education workers — and then, days later, began running ads about them. The recall election, the ads warned, was a “matter of life and death.” The campaign's own polling found that a supermajority of Californians supported the policy, and the idea of ripping it away was a powerful motivator.

“He rolls out these highly produced campaign ads that they clearly had ready to go before they even announced the policy,” said Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R), a conservative and early recall supporter whose campaign staggered into sixth place Tuesday. “It is emblematic of the way he treated covid-19. He said that he saw the coronavirus as an opportunity for a new progressive era.”  

It was a political opportunity for Newsom, and Elder made it easier, repeatedly promising to repeal vaccination mandates “before I have my first cup of tea” in the governor's office. According to exit polls, 65 percent of voters considered coronavirus vaccination a “public health responsibility,” compared with 32 percent who called it a “personal choice.” Just 30 percent of voters said Newsom's orders were “too strict,” while the rest of the electorate said they were either acceptable or “not strict enough.”

The context matters, because it changed from the time the recall election was called to the moment it was defeated. In 2020, Newsom instituted strict stay-at-home orders during both the first and second surges of infections. After this spring, with a mass-vaccination campaign underway, the focus shifted to state vaccination mandates and local mask mandates. Measures that do not close schools, or force businesses to close, are not as controversial as measures that do. And Democrats who were a little squeamish about alienating vaccine skeptics have moved on, confident that the pro-vaccine electorate in nearly every state will be bigger than the electorate that resists.

The power of mail. In 2020, California sent every registered voter an absentee ballot, and in 2021, the state made mail voting a permanent feature of its elections. It's not alone in that; Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington moved to all-mail voting before last year, and before Republicans and their voters became opposed to the process. And mail voting clearly benefited Democrats on Tuesday, in two ways.

First, it shrank any enthusiasm gap between supporters and opponents of the recall. Democrats did not need to persuade liberal voters who may have been frustrated with the governor to wait in line or find a polling place. The message was to vote “no,” and drop the ballot in the mail — a task that could take less than a minute.

Second, it gave anyone interested in the election (voters, candidates, newsletter writers) a daily look at who was voting, revealing as early as two weeks ago that Democrats were turning out their vote. It's one thing when polling suggests that momentum has shifted, as it did in this race, finding the “yes” vote tumbling after Democrats began running their vaccination-focused ads. It's another when people can see a massive advantage for one party piling up in real time. Elder and his surrogates responded by insisting that a surge of in-person votes would make the mail vote irrelevant, invoking the GOP's final-day turnout surge in 2020, a message that continued even after the Associated Press called the race for Newsom.

“Some TV stations are saying it's coming to an end,” former lieutenant governor Abel Maldonado, one of Elder's most prominent Latino surrogates, said at Elder's election night party. “It's way too early. They just counted the mail ballots. They need to count the real ballots, from working people.” But by that time, Democrats had piled up such an advantage that there weren't enough “real ballots” left, and no assurance that those coming in would go dramatically for Elder.

Unfortunately for Democrats, all-mail voting isn't the norm in most states, and legislators in some have worked to limit its use.

Republicans never knew what they were doing, and Democrats did. Despite the name Democrats slapped on their anti-recall campaign, the election was not forced by the Republican Party. The Republican National Committee contributed just $250,000 to the petition drive, when it was already likely to succeed. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, whose Bakersfield-based district was a hotbed of pro-recall sentiment, rarely talked about the election, and never endorsed a candidate. Most elected Republicans took the same approach, with just two members of the state's House delegation endorsing a candidate: Rep. Doug LaMalfa and Rep. Michelle Steel, both of whom backed Elder. 

The quiet approach to the recall made some sense, as just 24 percent of Californians are registered as Republicans — a red-vs.-blue race, as the results proved, was never going to go their way. Elder and other Republicans repeatedly emphasized the number of non-Republicans who signed petitions to recall Newsom, and in the race's final weeks, Elder's most prominent surrogate was Gloria Romero, a Democrat and former state Senate leader who supported him because of his advocacy for school choice.

“Democrats for Elder, now and forever!” she cheered at Elder's concession speech.

But the state GOP never officially endorsed Elder, or any other candidate. A convention meeting called to decide their endorsement was transformed by Elder's entry into the race. Kevin Faulconer, the former San Diego mayor who had the most support from elected Republicans of any recall candidate, had been favored to get that endorsement; as Elder electrified the party's base, it was clear that delegates wouldn't give it to him, so he advocated no endorsement, and after that succeeded was soon calling the conservative commentator “unfit” to be governor.

Democrats, meanwhile, were unified and flush with cash. Candidates facing recall elections can raise unlimited money for their campaign committees, and according to data collected by the Los Angeles Times, Democrats raised $83.4 million for their campaigns compared with $45.3 million for every recall candidate and pro-recall campaign group. (More than $8 million came from the Democratic Governors Association, which wanted both to protect Newsom and to make a statement heading into November's regularly scheduled races in New Jersey and Virginia.)

That fundraising advantage won't carry over to 2022.

Polling without Donald Trump on the ballot still works. Tuesday was a triumph for California pollsters, especially the ones at Berkeley IGS, who saw a 20-point “no” margin in their final look at the race. As of Thursday, pollsters also seem to have nailed voter preferences on the second part of the ballot, on which candidate should replace Newsom if he were recalled. Roughly 40 percent of voters who returned ballots did not bother picking an alternative, as Democrats urged them not to; roughly 27 percent of voters picked Elder. (Elder got 47 percent of the vote among those who did pick an alternative candidate — around 5 million people so far, compared with 9 million who only voted on the first question.)

Much of what Democrats have said about the recall may be overblown, as they're not likely to get many competitive 2022 races where Republicans are so outspent and divided. But much of what Republicans hoped for didn't happen, and was based on a combination of two factors: The reality that Donald Trump drove out millions of voters who had not cast ballots before, and the fantasy that the 2020 election was stolen from him. That led to overconfidence from both Elder — a libertarian who did not back down from unpopular positions like opposing the minimum wage — and from pro-recall media, which covered the race like a dead heat.

Sweat the small stuff. The single most underrated factor in making the recall happen was Judge James P. Arguelles's decision to grant the Recall Gavin campaign seven months, up from the usual three, to collect signatures. That got left out of some national reporting on the recall, but it was crucial: Under the old deadline, the recall was going to fall well short of the 1.5 million signatures needed to force the election.

The extended deadline wasn't inevitable. Newsom's political operation could have appealed the decision, or cited a conflict of interest; Arguelles, appointed to the bench by former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, previously worked at the same firm as Bradley Benbrook, the lawyer representing the recall campaign. But Democrats didn't take seriously the recall effort and the attempt to extend its signature deadline. They channeled that frustration into the campaign, but had they acted faster, there wouldn't have been one. And not long after Newsom declared victory, Democrats in Sacramento were talking about changing the recall statute so something like this would never happen again.

Reading list

“Emboldened by recall win, Democrats brush aside talk of unity and escalate attacks on Republicans,” by Sean Sullivan and David Weigel

Out: Unify the country. In: Running against anti-vaccine policies.

“Five takeaways from Newsom’s big win in California’s recall election,” by Seema Mehta and Melanie Mason

A broad view of what happened in the Golden State.

“Youngkin and McAuliffe debate coronavirus vaccines on Twitter ahead of Thursday’s actual gubernatorial debate,” by Gregory S. Schneider

Democrats keep implementing what they learned in California.

“Full speed ahead on overhauling California recalls,” by Ben Christopher

Aftershocks of a $270 million election.

“Trump, Elder’s campaign falsely claimed fraud before California votes were counted — a growing GOP tactic,” by Elise Viebeck and Tom Hamburger

Claims of “rigging” from Republicans are becoming standard.

“After a half-century of political surprises, Dennis Kucinich’s political career comes to an end,” by Brent Larkin

Requiem for a former mayor.

In the states

Tuesday's mayoral elections in Cleveland and Boston set up November runoffs with the same dynamics — a non-White, self-styled “progressive” facing a White candidate who appealed to Republican voters.

In Cleveland, nonprofit founder Justin Bibb grabbed 27 percent of the vote in a seven-way race, and city council president Mike Kelley finished with 19 percent. That helped Kelley, who would be Cleveland's first White mayor since 2005, push past former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who early polling had put in the lead. In a text message, Kucinich pointed to “$1.4 million in dark money,” secretive PAC spending designed to help Kelley, who has retiring Mayor Frank Jackson's endorsement.

“Since my motivation was duty and not the attainment of office, my burden has been lifted and I can fly,” Kucinich said. 

Turnout was paltry, with fewer than 40,000 people showing up for the nonpartisan race — around 7,000 more votes than were cast four years ago, when Jackson faced scattered opposition as he sought a fourth term. It was highest in Cleveland's Whiter neighborhoods, and fairly low in majority-Black eastern Cleveland. Still, 35 percent of the vote that didn't go to Bibb, Kelley or Kucinich went to other Black candidates — a potential source of votes for Bibb, who'd be the city's youngest Black mayor if elected.

In Boston, at-large city council member Michelle Wu easily led the field and secured a runoff spot, as acting Mayor Kim Janey tumbled into fourth place. Wu won a third of the 107,498 votes cast, running 10 points ahead of fellow council member Annissa Essaibi George.

The result started a countdown on the end of Janey's mayoralty, which began just five months ago when Marty Walsh left city hall to become U.S. secretary of labor. The first election after Boston got its first Black female mayor won't have any Black candidates: Janey, council member Andrea Campbell and former city economic development chief John Barros got a combined 42 percent of the vote, none of them consolidating enough support to break through.

That set up a race between Wu, backed by liberal groups and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Essaibi George, who has called Wu's plans “unrealistic” and had opposed the city's eviction moratorium.

“We have to make sure every day we are working towards the solutions to the challenges we face as a city,” Essaibi George said at her first post-primary campaign stops. “That comes with not just bold ideas, but the action behind them.”

And in Toledo, 82-year old former mayor Carty Finkbeiner earned another chance to seek his old job, grabbing 27 percent of the vote in a low-turnout, three-way primary. Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz, a Democrat who unseated the city's last mayor, led with 54 percent; Republican Jan Scotland, who entered the race late and raised less than $3,000, got locked out.

Ad watch

Patriotic Millionaires, “Rocket Science.” Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) beat back a liberal challenger last year, ensuring that he'd remain chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. This liberal group is spending $50,000 over a few weeks to attack the tax changes coming out of the committee, demanding that the wealthy pay a higher rate, and using Washington Post owner and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos as the reason. “Billionaires like Jeff Bezos are popping champagne,” says a narrator. Neal doesn't face another primary until next September, but Patriotic Millionaires strategist Erica Payne said “the goal is to fire a shot across the bow” and compete with the lobbying underway against more progressive taxation. “The Democrats have to get behind what Biden ran on and won on,” she said, “and we’re coming after them if they don’t.”

Poll watch

Do you support or oppose instituting, or reinstituting, face mask and social distancing guidelines? (Monmouth, 802 adults)

Support: 63% (+11 since July)
Oppose: 46% (-12) 
It Depends: 2% (+2)

The results out of California convinced Democrats that vaccine and mask mandates are political winners — not that they were wavering on them before this week. Just 15 percent of adults polled by Monmouth say they'll “never” get vaccinated, down from 24 percent at the start of the year, suggesting that hardcore anti-vaccine resistance is loud but overblown. Support for new restrictions isn't as high as it was in the summer of 2020, but it's ticked up, and is opposed mostly by Republicans. Sixty-five percent of them oppose reinstituting general mask mandates, 61 percent oppose mask mandates in schools and 61 percent oppose mandatory vaccinations for teachers. But among all adults, each of those ideas has support over 60 percent.


Ohio. The Republican-led state redistricting commission approved a map that would lock in the party's legislative supermajorities for four years, overruling Democratic opposition. Republicans did not sugarcoat it: In a statement accompanying the map, they argued that “the statewide preferences of the voters of Ohio predominately favor Republican candidates,” explaining that the party had won 13 of 16 statewide races over the past decade. (Thanks to a voter-passed initiative, maps that do not have the support of both parties can be used only until 2025.)

In Ohio's last three presidential elections, Republicans gained ground, winning 48 percent of the vote in 2012 and 53 percent in 2020. But according to the party's estimates, provided to the Columbus Dispatch, the new legislative maps would give the party a far bigger advantage: 62 of 99 House seats would start with Republican leans, along with 23 of 33 Senate seats. The decline of Democratic support in Appalachia and northeast Ohio, which sped up in the Trump years, has made it easier for Republicans to pack Democrats into districts drawn in and around major cities.

Special elections

No seats changed hands in Tuesday's special legislative elections, but a swing seat got swingier in Iowa and a safe Republican seat got redder.

Republicans held onto Iowa's 37th state House district, where Democrats had invested more than $300,000 to boost three-time nominee Andrea Phillips. Republican Mike Bousselot triumphed by 383 votes out of 11,463 cast, the party's smallest-ever margin in the district, which was strongly Republican at the start of the decade. Five years ago, Phillips lost by 14 points; one year ago, by 6 points; and Tuesday, by a bit over 3 points.

“I am prepared to fight tooth and nail for policies that will keep our community safe, your freedoms protected and our economy thriving,” Bousselot said in a victory statement, after a race in which the GOP accused Phillips of wanting to defund police. (Phillips had signed a pledge from Future Now, a group that included some language on its website about the possibility of reducing police funding.) The Democrat told the Des Moines Register she will not run in 2022, after the district is redrawn.

In Tennessee's 29th state House district, Republican Greg Vital won by a landslide, capturing 3,884 of the 4,858 votes cast. It was just the second contested, two-party race for the seat since it was created, and the first without former Rep. Mike Carter, and Democrats did far better in the 2018 midterms — they won 32 percent of the vote that year, compared with 20 percent this week. But there were some special circumstances this time. On Sunday, Democratic nominee DeAngelo Jelks was accused of rape, which he denied while admitting that he had an “inappropriate” relationship that he wouldn't comment any further on. Before the polls closed Tuesday, Jelks had resigned his position in the county Democratic Party.

What I’m watching

There's a rally planned in D.C. this weekend to support people arrested after the Jan. 6 insurrection — or, as organizers call them, “political prisoners.” But it's not the first rally of its kind. Look Ahead America, the newish conservative group that put together the rally, organized protests in D.C. and other cities in June, which drew small crowds and scattered media attention.

The rally Saturday is shaping up differently, with fencing going up around the Capitol, police warning locals to stay away and fliers being put up around D.C. that warn restaurant owners that other rally attendees have attacked non-White workers and “targeted those wearing all black uniforms.” It's a lot of preparation for a much smaller-scale, and fringier, rally than the one Trump's political network organized in January. 

LAA's founder Matt Braynard, who worked briefly for the 2016 Trump campaign, has drummed up attention with tactics like a news conference urging the United Nations to “impose travel restrictions and financial penalties on President Biden.” Braynard last got national attention for being unable to defend his allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 election when questioned about it by Georgia legislators; his group, before this weekend, is best known for displaying a gold statue of Trump at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference. What worries D.C. residents and police isn't a rally on the scale of Jan. 6 but a repeat of the smaller “Stop the Steal” rallies from December 2020, fringe events that led to brawls between Proud Boys and black-clad antifa members.

Nevertheless, on Thursday, Trump put out a statement referring positively to the Jan. 6 prisoners, but not mentioning the rally. “Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election,” Trump said. “In addition to everything else, it has proven conclusively that we are a two tiered system of justice.” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who held an ill-fated news conference in July to question the treatment of Jan. 6 insurrectionists, are not attending the Saturday event.


… one day until early voting starts in Virginia
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… 107 days until the election in Florida's 20th Congressional District