What Did We Learn From the California Recall?

(Red = “no on recall” county.)

The September 14, 2021, California recall is over and Governor Gavin Newsom won a resounding victory.  What does this portend for California politics? There are four takeaways:

1. Democrats demonstrated they can mobilize their base in an off-election year.  The Republican recall “logic” had two aspects: first, Republicans wanted to get rid of Governor Newsom because of his strong response to the Coronavirus pandemic (the lockdown and mask mandates) and, second, they believed the recall would succeed because  Democrats would not be bothered to vote in an “off” election year.  However, Democrats did mobilize and blocked the recall with 63 percent of the vote.

There had been concern that California’s Latino voters might not show up.  However, Latinos did participate in the recall election and overwhelmingly supported Newsom; that is, voted “no.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/09/15/california-newsom-recall-latino-voters-democrats-lessons/ )

Republicans made three miscalculations.  First, because they didn’t like Newsom, they assumed that some Democrats and many Independents also did not like him.  That turned out not to be the case.  Second, they assumed that most Californians were also anti-vaccination, anti-mask, and anti-mandate.  That was also not the case; most Californians are tired of the pandemic and mad at those who will not get vaccinated, who will not take Coronavirus seriously.  Third, Republicans assumed they could mobilize behind a Trump clone, Larry Elder, and voters would prefer him to Newsom.  That was not the case; a strong majority of voters were horrified by Elder. Check out the CNN exit polls: (https://www.cnn.com/election/2021/exit-polls/california/recall )

(There were moderate Republicans who might have gotten traction with independents and some Democrats; for example, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.  However, Faulconer is now too moderate for mainstream Republicans.)

2. Most of Southern California voted “No” on the recall. This surprising result has consequences for six Republican held congressional seats.

California has 53 Congressional seats, 11 are held by Republicans: 4 of these are in Northern California — above San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield– and the remaining 7 are in Southern California: CA8 (Obernolte), CA 23 (McCarthy), CA25 (Garcia), CA39 (Kim), CA42 (Calvert), CA48 (Steel), and CA50 (Issa). Except for CA 23 (in Kern County), all of these districts opposed the recall. Before the recall, 3 of those congressional districts (CA25, CA39, and CA48) were already prime Democratic targets; perhaps CA8 and CA42 have been added to the list.

If Democrats continue to mobilize Latino voters, this will increase the likelihood of these Republican congressional seats flipping.

3. As a Republican candidate, linking yourself to Trump may be the most expedient thing to do, but it’s not a viable strategy, in California, because it doesn’t attract any crossover votes.  Trump is not popular in California.  For this reason, it didn’t make much sense for Larry Elder to run as a Trump “clone.”  In the upcoming midterm elections, all 11 Republican incumbent members of Congress will be linked to Trump and to Larry Elder.  This may help those incumbents who are in deep red districts, but it won’t help those who are in toss-up districts.

4. Republicans aren’t interested in most of the issues that concern the general California electorate.  One of the factors that hindered Larry Elder was his cavalier attitude about the pandemic.  Elder’s position appeared to be “We don’t need mandates to deal with Coronavirus, this is a matter of personal responsibility. I trust Republicans to do the right thing.”  Most Californians don’t trust individual Republicans to do “the right thing.”  Most Californians feel that individual Republicans have prolonged the pandemic by their irresponsible behavior. ( https://www.cnn.com/election/2021/exit-polls/california/recall)

Elder expressed opinions on a wide-variety of issues: crime, homelessness, education, immigration, etcetera.  His problem was that his positions never gained traction — outside the Republican base — because he didn’t have a realistic plan to deal with the pandemic.  (Elder also took extreme positions on social issues that diverted media attention from his bread-and-butter policy positions; for example Elder said that if he became governor, he would immediately issue an executive order banning all abortions.)

Summary: On November 8, 2022, Gavin Newsom will be up for reelection.  Based upon the September 14th recall results, Newsom will have no viable Republican opponent.  This suggests that Democrats will make a strong showing, in the 2022 midterm election, and probably pickup several house seats.