Gavin Newsom’s California Recall Strategy: It’s Me or the Abyss

Ahead of the vote on Tuesday, the governor is running not so much on his own policies as against the influence of a certain former president.,

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Newsom’s Strategy for California Recall: It’s Me or the Abyss

Gov. Gavin Newsom campaigning in San Francisco on Tuesday.
Gov. Gavin Newsom campaigning in San Francisco on Tuesday.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times
  • Published Sept. 11, 2021Updated Sept. 13, 2021, 10:15 a.m. ET

SACRAMENTO — As the campaign to oust him heads into its final weekend, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California is hammering home the choice he has presented to voters since the start of the recall — Donald J. Trump or him.

“We defeated Trump last year, and thank you, but we haven’t defeated Trumpism,” the governor has repeated for the past two weeks in a blitz of campaign stops and Zoom calls. From vaccine resistance to climate denial, he says, everything that terrified California liberals about the last president is on the ballot. And far more than his own personal future hangs in the balance: “This is a matter of life and death.”

His opponents dispute that. The governor, they say, is the problem, and the recall never would have come to an election had a critical mass of the state not resented his pandemic restrictions on businesses and classrooms, even as his own finances were secure and his own children got in-person instruction. The former president, they note, is not a candidate. “Newsom is scaremongering,” David Sacks, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist supporting the recall, tweeted recently.

Only three governors have faced recall votes in the United States before Mr. Newsom, and he and the Democratic establishment are going all-out in presenting the effort as a radical power grab, with some partisans even comparing it at one point to the violent Jan. 6 attempt to block President Biden’s election.

By invoking Mr. Trump as his opponent of choice, Mr. Newsom is reprising a message that he has used in the past to blunt criticism effectively, while also testing a strategy that is likely to be echoed by Democrats seeking to mobilize voters in midterm races across the country next year.

In effect, the leader Californians elected in a 2018 landslide is running less on the Democratic policies of a Democratic incumbent than on an urgent if familiar call to action against an existential threat to blue state values.

Polls suggest Mr. Newsom is making his case and has pulled ahead of his opponents — an abrupt focusing of Democratic minds after likely voters indicated earlier this summer that the race might be tightening. A survey released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California found that only 39 percent of likely voters, mostly Republican, support the recall, while 58 percent plan to vote no.

His edge among female voters has been especially strong, buttressed by campaign appearances in recent days by Vice President Kamala Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar. President Biden will campaign with him on Monday and former President Barack Obama and Sen. Bernie Sanders appear in his campaign ads.

He has amassed some $70 million in anti-recall contributions. That’s less than the hundreds of millions of dollars unleashed last year, for instance, in a fight over an initiative involving labor protections for gig workers, but still far more than the money amassed by the other 46 challengers on the ballot. And his team has mobilized a massive get-out-the-vote effort with tens of thousands of volunteers texting tens of millions of voters and canvassing for him in seven languages.

The governor also has had progress against Covid-19 to tout, with new cases plateauing across the state as 80 percent of eligible Californians report having gotten at least one vaccine dose. In contrast, Orrin Heatlie, a retired Republican sheriff’s sergeant from rural Northern California and the recall’s lead proponent, has not been able to campaign lately for the initiative he started. In a text message interview, Mr. Heatlie said he was sick at home with Covid-19.

The landscape has bolstered the governor’s claim that his removal would undermine the will of a majority of Californians, and reminded voters that the recall was a long shot until the pandemic. Initially supportive of Mr. Newsom’s health orders, Californians wearied of the governor’s complicated directives. Dissatisfaction boiled over in November, when Mr. Newsom was spotted mask-free at an exclusive wine country restaurant after urging the public to avoid gathering. A court order extending the deadline for signature gathering because of pandemic shutdowns allowed recall proponents to capitalize on the unease.

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Vice President Kamala Harris at a rally for Gov. Gavin Newsom in San Leandro, Calif., on Wednesday.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

California has 5.3 million Republicans, and while the state does not release the party affiliations of people who sign petitions, Democrats note that only 1.5 million voter signatures were required to bring the recall to a special election. Most of the early energy and funding came from the far right: Fox News regulars such as Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee promoted the recall. Early rallies were heavily attended by anti-vaccine activists, QAnon devotees and demonstrators in “Make America Great Again” gear.

And, Democrats note, the right stands to gain nationally if Mr. Newsom is recalled. If Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat opens prematurely, California’s governor will appoint her replacement, and a Republican would shift control of the chamber to the G.O.P.

Longtime observers note, however, that the governor’s approach also is time-tested.

“Newsom’s strategy has been to remind voters what would be taken away if he were gone rather than what he’s given while he’s here,” Joe Eskenazi, a San Francisco political writer, recently wrote in the news site Mission Local, noting that the governor similarly framed a progressive opponent as “Gavin Newsom vs. The Abyss” in his 2003 San Francisco mayoral campaign.

It is also a variation on a strategy deployed in 2012 by Scott Walker, the former governor of Wisconsin and the only governor in U.S. history to have beaten a recall. A tea party Republican, Mr. Walker faced backlash for efforts to curtail collective-bargaining rights for most public workers. Rather than assume a defensive posture, Mr. Walker portrayed the attempt to remove him as a public employee union power grab.

The portrayal supercharged the state’s Republican base and unleashed a torrent of money from out-of-state conservative donors. The victory not only saved Mr. Walker’s job but also boosted his national political profile.

Mr. Newsom’s political future now rides on that kind of mobilization. The math is on his side.

Democrats outnumber Republicans almost two to one in California. His campaign acted early to deter any strong Democratic challengers. And even with his critics, Mr. Newsom appears to have more support than when Californians recalled former Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003. At the time, seven in 10 voters disapproved of Mr. Davis’s performance.

Pandemic voting rules that boosted turnout to a record 81 percent of registered voters in 2020 remain in place, allowing all of the state’s 22 million-plus registered voters to vote for free by mail.

Paul Mitchell, vice president at Political Data Inc., a nonpartisan supplier of voter information, said more than a third of the electorate has already voted, with participation by independent voters significantly lagging and far more Democratic than Republican ballots so far.

“If they get to 60 percent turnout,” Mr. Mitchell said, “it’s almost mathematically impossible for Newsom to lose.”

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Orrin Heatlie, the recall’s lead proponent, at his home in Folsom, Calif., in February. Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

But there’s no guarantee they’ll hit that “golden number.” Participation among young and Latino voters has been “paltry,” he said. Until recently, polls showed that many Democrats were unaware there was a recall.

And Mr. Newsom, notwithstanding 53 percent job approval ratings, has lacked the personal popularity of, say, former Gov. Jerry Brown, his predecessor. The governor must beat back the recall decisively, said Steve Maviglio, a California Democratic political consultant, “because if the margin is close, there’ll be blood in the water,” potentially complicating Mr. Newsom’s re-election in 2022.

The recall ballot asks Californians to answer two questions: Should Mr. Newsom be recalled, and if so, who should replace him? If a simple majority votes no on the first question, the second is moot. But if the recall passes, the governor’s post will go to the challenger with the most votes, even if only a tiny sliver of the electorate chooses that person — a feature that has prompted calls for reform from critics.

Nathan Click, a former spokesman for the governor who is now working against the recall, said Mr. Newsom’s team understood early that they would need to make their case quickly. As early as December — six months before the recall would officially qualify for the ballot — the governor’s supporters were echoing the language of their official petition responses, decrying proponents as “anti-vaccine pro-Trump extremists.”

In January, the state Democratic Party chairman called the recall “a California coup,” comparing it to the Jan. 6 insurrection. And in March, Mr. Newsom used his “state of the state” speech to denounce “California critics out there who are promoting partisan political power grabs.”

Now, the very name of Mr. Newsom’s campaign — “Stop the Republican Recall” — aims to mobilize the state’s dominant party. His television ads and social media implore voters to stop the “boldfaced Republican power grab.”

In speeches, Mr. Newsom attacks the front-running challenger, the conservative talk radio host Larry Elder, as a Trump clone who would recklessly undo the state’s progress in curbing Covid-19 infections and “vandalize” California’s identity.

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Larry Elder, front-running challenger to Gov. Gavin Newsom, at a campaign event in Thousand Oaks, Calif., on Monday.Credit…Allison Zaucha for The New York Times

As it did for Mr. Walker, the strategy has inspired gushers of funding. State campaign finance law caps donations to individual challengers but treats recalls as voter initiatives, allowing unlimited contributions. Mr. Elder, whose Trumpian rhetoric has been described as a gift in itself to Mr. Newsom, has so far raised about $13 million; checks to the anti-recall effort for more than $100,000 have alone totaled more than $50 million. Public employee unions and progressives have been especially generous to the governor.

Recall proponents predict a closer-than-expected finish, but either way, they say, they have succeeded. Mike Netter, who helped launch Mr. Heatlie’s petition, said their grass roots group has grown to some 400,000 Californians already organizing ballot measures on school choice and other conservative causes.

“No one believed in us, but we got on the ballot, we have all these people and we’re not going away,” said Mr. Netter. “I don’t think anyone ever expected Gavin Newsom to have to spend $68 million just for the race to be this close.”

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