In mid-August, Newsom was practically pleading for help from national Democrats: from President Biden and Vice President Harris to other well-known politicians. He saw conservative media tuned in to the recall election but not liberal media. He saw Republicans paying attention but not Democrats. He wanted help from national Democrats as a way to draw national attention and in the process sharpen partisan lines. Thanks to cable TV and social media, national figures can now rally the base more effectively than in-state politicians, who aren’t as well-known.
Newsom sought to polarize the race around vaccine and mask mandates. As the school year was opening, he aggressively pushed vaccine-or-testing requirements for teachers and school staffs just at a moment when polls showed the pro-recall (anti-Newsom) forces far more alert and energized than Newsom supporters. Whether coincidence or smart politics, it worked, aided immensely by the fact that the leading Republican, conservative radio talk-show host Larry Elder, became a near-perfect foil as a Trump clone for his views on everything from vaccines and masks mandates to abortion and climate change.
Recalls are thought to be a referendum on the incumbent. In today’s politics, it isn’t that difficult to turn every election into a choice, a stark one based on party allegiance. Persuasion used to be thought of as winning voters over to a candidate’s positions on issues and leadership qualities. There’s still some of that, but the Newsom camp concluded that persuasion now is as much about convincing people to vote. It paid off.
But if most politics are national, is the California recall a harbinger of the Democrats’ strategy to avoid crippling losses in next year’s midterm elections? That’s a different question. There are some strategies that no doubt will be exported, but there are limits to what can be translated from deep-blue California to other parts of the country, or from the oddities of a recall election to a more traditional midterm campaign season.
There’s been much focus on Newsom’s full-throated advocacy of stricter requirements for vaccinations and mask-wearing to combat the spread of the highly contagious delta variant. What he did echoes the direction Biden has taken of late, with his call for businesses with more than 100 employees to require their workers to be vaccinated or submit to regular testing. The growing divide between people who have been vaccinated and those who haven’t sets up a political fault line that many Democrats believe can be exploited next year, both to mobilize their voters and to pick off some Republicans who share frustrations with those who remain hesitant to get vaccinated.
Evidence of that came Thursday night during the first Virginia gubernatorial debate. Democrat Terry McAuliffe, the former governor, repeatedly challenged his Republican rival, businessman Glenn Youngkin, to offer more than encouragement to people to get vaccinated, pushing for him to embrace mandates for parts of the population. Youngkin repeatedly resisted.
That strategy worked for Newsom, and perhaps it will work for McAuliffe in November. What isn’t clear is how potent an aggressive covid strategy will be in places that are not as heavily Democratic, particularly in swing congressional districts that Democrats will be defending.
Nor is it clear whether the virus will be as top-of-mind in a year as it is now. The path of the pandemic has been unpredictable. Right now, many people are nervous about the spread of the virus. In a year, other issues could come to the fore. Just a few weeks ago, after Texas passed the most restrictive abortion law in the nation, there was talk about how much the abortion issue would shape the midterm elections and energize Democrats to vote. What will be the issues next year that starkly define the fault lines between the parties?
One thing the California recall highlighted is the value for Democrats in running against Trump. McAuliffe did that repeatedly in Thursday’s debate, trying to link Youngkin to the former president at every opportunity. Democrats also hope that Trump’s endorsed candidates will prevail in competitive GOP primaries, on the theory that they will be easier to label as extreme in a general election.
For the past four years, Trump has been the principal motivator for Democratic campaigns. That worked in 2018, when Democrats made big gains. It also worked in 2020, though with Trump on the ballot, there was also a surge of his voters. The former president will not be on the ballot in 2022, but as Newsom showed, making the race about him can still pay dividends.
The big caveat about reading too much into what happened in California is what was missing, which was anything about Biden. Newsom never had to defend Biden or worry about any baggage the president might carry with some voters. California’s Democratic tilt made the standing of the president largely irrelevant. Based on incomplete returns, Newsom won by a margin about equivalent to that of Biden’s in 2020. Full returns might show something different in a few weeks, but maybe not much.
Next year, the focus will be very much on Biden — his policies, his leadership and how people feel about the state of the country under his presidency. That’s the case in every midterm election, especially the first for any new president. Those first midterms are when the party that holds the White House is most vulnerable. No Democrat will be immune from that.
Right now Biden and the Democrats are building the record that will be the focus of the midterms, as they struggle to come together on the big social policy and climate reconciliation bill, and as they continue to sputter on the issue of voting rights, which is of vital importance.
The mood of the country a year from now could be lousy for Democrats or decent for Democrats. It could fit the narrative that Republicans are trying to build — that Biden is not a strong leader and that his party has veered far to the left. It could fit another reality, which is that the Republican Party has succumbed to Trumpism, with all the negatives attached to that. It could be a combination of both.
In a divided country, that means the dynamics that propelled Newsom to victory will be at work in the fall of 2022, which is to say activating the parties’ bases will be the essential ingredient in shaping the outcome. But California, though a nation-state, is not the nation. Its politics are not those of other states. There are lessons to be learned from how Newsom prevailed, but they are not the only factors that will apply next year.