The young mother peeked out through her screen door at three volunteers in matching union t-shirts holding pamphlets touting the embattled California Gov. Gavin Newsom. With five weeks before the special election to recall him, this woman was exactly the sort of voter the door-to-door canvassers with the Service Employees International Union had hoped to reach in their first, mass neighborhood outreach to stop the Republican-led effort to oust the Democrat from office.
“We’ve just gotta reach them,” said Victoria Mackey, an SEIU local 2015 member, as the voter promises to vote ‘No’ on turning Newsom out of office.
For many months, the effort to recall the Democratic governor was viewed as having little chance of success in a state where no Republicans hold statewide office and Democratic voters outnumber Republican voters by nearly two-to-one. But in this final month before the September 14 special election, Democrats are facing some unforeseen hurdles that are creating a lot of unexpected handwringing as election officials get ready to mail out ballots to every voter in the state.
Like many other governors around the country, Newsom is once again dealing with surging Covid-19 cases due to the rapid spread of the Delta variant, which has hamstrung traditional get-out-the-vote efforts and put parents on edge as their children get ready to head back to school. The wildfire season has also begun early with a vengeance — testing voters’ faith in Newsom and other state leaders. And the state is dealing with a historic drought, leading to water shortages and the declaration of a drought emergency in 50 of the state’s 58 counties last month, covering 42% of the state’s population.
But while the four governors who lead the most populous states find themselves in varying degrees of political trouble and scandal at the moment, Newsom is the only one facing a recall challenge.
Most worrisome for Democrats is the fact that the potential removal of Newsom has been met with a collective yawn by many voters in their party who have much more pressing concerns in their lives.
Poll after poll has shown feverish enthusiasm about ousting the Democratic governor among Republican voters. But despite near frenetic texting, emailing and breathless cries of ‘Stop the Republican Recall’ by Newsom’s forces, the Democratic base appears at most, uninterested.
“Oh, they want to remove him?” asked Christian Gutierrez, a young, registered Democrat in South Pasadena. And he is not alone. Despite television ads featuring Democratic stars like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren warning her party’s voters to pay attention and get ready to fill out their ballots, Democratic strategists are becoming increasingly concerned that a lot of voters will simply throw them in the trash because they don’t see the recall as a real threat — or don’t even know that it’s happening.
“They’re not focused on it,” said longtime California Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. “They’re happy about (President Joe) Biden. They’re happy about … having control of Congress, so they’re not coming down off that high to be depressed about a recall.”
“Turnout is a problem,” Carrick added. “If you’re a Democrat, it’s scary.”
Both Carrick and Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California, note that it’s hard to predict voter turnout in any special election, let alone one that is unfolding as voters are distracted by a pandemic and other crises like wildfires and drought.
“It’s very hard to get people’s attention, about a special election on September 14 and therein lies the biggest challenge for Governor Newsom,” Baldassare said. “At this point, we’re seeing more engagement and enthusiasm on the part of the people who want to recall Governor Newsom than those who want to keep him. That’s raised a lot of questions even in a blue state like this about what the outcome is likely to be.”
Though they don’t have a candidate with the magnetism of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who was elected in 2003 when voters recalled Gov. Gray Davis, GOP leaders believe the anger directed at Newsom for his initial handling of the Covid pandemic last year created a real opportunity for their side.
The grassroots effort to collect recall petitions took off after Newsom drew reams of unflattering news coverage for attending a birthday party at the exclusive French Laundry restaurant last year unmasked at around the same time that he was urging the state’s residents to stay home and avoid large gatherings.
Many voters, including independents and some Democrats, were angry by what they viewed as that act of hypocrisy on Newsom’s part and that heightened the frustrations about the Covid restrictions that he put into place, which some viewed as overly restrictive and sometime erratic.
Voters will be asked two questions on the ballot: First, yes or no on whether they want to recall Newsom and second, to select from a list of candidates to replace him. Forty-six contenders — of all parties — have qualified for the ballot, but there is no well-known Democrat vying to replace him.
Recently much of the attention on the GOP side has focused on conservative talk show radio host Larry Elder. But four of the other major Republican contenders vying for the job also sought to draw voters’ attention by voicing their criticisms of Newsom’s leadership on Covid-19 and other state crises during a debate last week.
“I think Governor Newsom is worried and he ought to be,” said Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego who was one of the Republican contenders to participate in the debate. “I think Californians are angry, and frustrated.”
Newsom’s allies are playing up the support of the Republican candidates for former President Donald Trump, who is deeply unpopular in this state, as they look to galvanize Democrats.
The real concern about being tainted by association with Trump was on full display this past weekend in the interview that Elder did with CNN’s Michael Smerconish when Elder objected to being referred to as a “Trump-supporting radio host.”
“I have not voted for a Democrat since 1976 — and that was Jimmy Carter, and I regret that,” Elder told Smerconish.
“I voted for Bob Dole, I voted for Mitt Romney. I voted for George Bush. I voted for George Herbert Walker Bush. And whoever the standard bearer is in 2024, I’m going to vote for him or her as well. So I’m a Republican and I’ve consistently voted Republican. So to call me a Trump-supporting radio host — a little unfair, is my opinion,” he said.