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‘A political wild card’: California governor Newsom fights for survival

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On a blazing afternoon in the South Park neighbourhood of Los Angeles, few were braving the heat except for a handful of union volunteers on a mission to save California governor Gavin Newsom’s neck.

Wearing the purple-and-yellow colours of their union, the four canvassers were going door-to-door to urge residents of this majority Latino neighbourhood to vote against recalling Newsom, a Democrat who has held the office for nearly three years, on September 14.

“Did you vote ‘No’ [to the recall]”? asked Zoila Toma, one of the Service Employees International Union volunteers, after greeting a woman who proudly said she had already voted by mail.

“Of course,” the woman replied. “We can’t have them taking over, right?” she said, referring to the California Republicans who pushed for the vote to recall Newsom.

But many of Newsom’s backers worry that there is not enough of this kind of enthusiasm to keep him in his job, despite the fact that Democrats far outnumber Republicans in California.

The governor has seen his approval rating drop from 64 per cent last September — when he and other state leaders such as New York’s ex-governor Andrew Cuomo were lauded for their coronavirus pandemic performance — to about 50 per cent in July.

“There’s definitely an enthusiasm gap,” said Mark Baldassare, president and chief executive of the Public Policy Institute of California. “Republicans haven’t won a statewide race in California since 2006. If you’re a Republican voter, you’re going to be enthusiastic about voting in the recall election . . . This is a real political wild card.”

The main contenders for Gavin Newsom’s job

LARRY ELDER

Larry Elder, 69, is considered to be Newsom’s strongest challenger. He is host of ‘The Larry Elder Show’, a nationally syndicated conservative talk show

Caitlyn Jenner

Caitlyn Jenner, 71, is an Olympic gold medallist and reality television personality

Kevin Faulconer

Kevin Faulconer, 54, is the Republican former mayor of San Diego. Before entering politics, he was in public relations

John Cox

John Cox, 66, is a San Diego property developer who was the Republican nominee for governor in 2018, losing to Newsom in a landslide

The recall election marks a dramatic change in fortunes for Newsom, who won in a landslide in 2018 and styled himself as a leader of the anti-Donald Trump resistance. But almost from the moment he took office, Republicans in the state began efforts to recall him.

The risk for Newsom is that some Democrats and independents could be less motivated to vote for him after a hard year marked by death, disruption and job losses. Many have been frustrated by the state’s Covid-19 restrictions, with parents upset by lengthy public school closures and restaurant owners angry about bans on dining outdoors.

As the governor faces the electorate, broader issues are mounting. Homelessness has skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic. Property prices have also soared, pushing home ownership out of reach for most first-time buyers. Much of California is battling drought and wildfires.

But Newsom also handed ammunition to his critics when he dined mask-free at the Thomas Keller-owned French Laundry restaurant in November, just as he was publicly urging citizens to stay at home. Republicans had failed five times to get a Newsom recall effort off the ground, but the three-Michelin-star dinner set things in motion.

“The French Laundry really created a sense of detachment” around Newsom, said Fernando Guerra, a political-science professor at Loyola Marymount University. “It was politically tone deaf, where you say one thing and do something else yourself.”

In a typical election, Newsom would nonetheless appear to be cruising towards victory. He has a formidable war chest of $54m, thanks to support from unions such as the SEIU and his top individual donor, Netflix chief Reed Hastings. Meanwhile, the state’s political make-up is in his favour: Joe Biden took 63.5 per cent of the vote against Trump in 2020.

A sign opposing Gavin Newsom in Huntington Beach, California © ae C. Hong/AP

But the recall election has an unusual formulation. The ballot asks voters to answer two questions: “Should Newsom be recalled?” and “Regardless of how you voted on the first question, who should he be replaced by?”

If more than 50 per cent of voters agree with the first question, then the candidate with the most votes in the second will serve out the rest of Newsom’s term. Critics of the process note that Newsom has to win a majority of votes, but his potential replacement could become governor with far less than a majority.

Leading the field of contenders is Larry Elder, a conservative talk radio host who is using his syndicated show as a platform to attack Newsom on homelessness, crime and the effect his Covid policies have had on business. Also on the ballot is reality star and Olympic gold medallist Caitlyn Jenner, former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer and businessman John Cox, a Republican who was trounced by Newsom in the 2018 election.

Recall efforts are not unusual in California — they have been launched against every governor since 1960 — but only two have met the threshold number of signatures for an election: this year and in 2003. Back then, Democrat Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who already had money and name recognition. Baldassare from the Public Policy Institute of California notes that no one in the current field has comparable advantages.

A recent poll by FiveThirtyEight showed a slight edge for Newsom, with 50.6 per cent of California voters wanting to “keep” the governor and 46.3 per cent wanting to “remove” him.

For his supporters, that might feel too close for comfort. But some longtime Democratic strategists are confident he will prevail. Garry South, a veteran consultant, said claims of an enthusiasm deficit in his party were “completely overblown”, noting that early voting patterns show a strong advantage for Newsom.

“Of course the Republicans are more jacked up — they’re trying to commit regicide here,” he said. “But there are more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans in California. Math doesn’t care about enthusiasm.”

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