As voters go to the polls in the most watched and analyzed non-election election in years — the attempted recall and replacement of the governor of the nation’s largest state — there is an obvious takeaway: If the effort succeeds and any of the Republicans on the ballot, most likely outspoken libertarian gadfly Larry Elder, takes the place of Gavin Newsom, it would be a disaster of epic proportions for the Democratic Party — and not just in California.
But few have contemplated the consequences if Newsom wins out, and voters reject the recall by the healthy margin now predicted: “Do not remove” is leading “remove” by an average of 17% in the five polls conducted over the last week.
Crisis being the co-author of opportunity, the governor can do far more than simply survive this recall. He can use his survival to declare himself a martyr for the progressive cause. He can turn a liability — the embarrassment of the first recall to hit the ballot in 18 years — into an asset, proclaiming himself the light holding back the lingering darkness of Trumpism.
And why shouldn’t Newsom be able to survive? He is the most powerful official in a state with 40 million people, and he has called in markers from every major Democrat-leaning entity in his gigantic jurisdiction. He has outraised recall organizers by roughly ten to one in a state with twice as many Democrats as Republicans. Every major Democrat, from Barack Obama on down, has come directly to his aid. On top of that, unlike the successful recall of 2003, when the options to replace Governor Gray Davis at least included a familiar name, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elder is largely unknown, inexperienced in government, and easy to pick apart based on the sheer volume of his controversial media rants over the years.
An $80 million war chest, the outgoing support of every major Democrat, labor union, and public union, on top of the reliable progressives of Silicon Valley, and a vulnerable opponent atop a pack of disappointing challengers sound like a winning formula.
But Newsom’s personal martyrdom would serve a concrete purpose far beyond the Golden State.
Consider the sorry prospects for the potential Democratic presidential field for 2024. Who comes to mind as a truly promising candidate to send up against the Republicans? Biden will be 82 years old. Kamala Harris is even more unpopular than when her presidential campaign hit the skids in the first inning. Most of the remaining prospective candidates, outside of perhaps Pete Buttigieg, have either disgraced themselves or at least devalued their political brands in 2020. If Newsom survives this challenge, he could almost instantly become the go-to guy for ‘24 — young, handsome, dynamic, articulate, and authentically progressive. Most observers on the left coast believe he’s had his eye on the White House for years, and being governor of California and a martyr for the cause to boot provides an instant high-visibility launching pad. In addition, Biden placed several key officials from California tied to Newsom in his fledgling administration, suggesting that an eventual Newsom presidential candidacy is already in the cards.
On the other hand, it could be argued that the fact he is from California — viewed by much of America as, shall we say, an alternative culture — would actually disqualify him in the eyes of those crucial heartland voters who put Trump over the top in 2016 and Biden in 2020. But many factors will intervene before we know how he will play across the land.
The sheer imagery of Newsom’s infamous highbrow dining experience in 2020, violating his own strict masking standards, might have been enough to make the effort to put this recall on the ballot a success, especially since, thanks to a 100-year-old law, only 12% of the state’s voting population’s signatures were necessary; for most other states that allow such a process, the requirement is 25%. And that infamous French Laundry dinner, in honor of a lobbyist for the hated energy industry no less, came on top of gathering controversy over his handling of schools during the pandemic, the rise of critical race theory, wildfires destroying some four million acres across the state, and no less than 160,000 homeless serving as a national embarrassment. All this as Californians try desperately to survive confiscatory taxation rates and a contraction of California’s economy, which has been squeezing the life out of the state’s middle class and leading to a once-unthinkable decrease in population for the first time.
Recall organizers have appealed directly to rank-and-file voters, the people in between the very rich and very poor who are increasingly the only socioeconomic groups thriving under the California state of order. They have decried:
“Unaffordable housing. Record homelessness. Rising crime. Failing schools. Independent contractors thrown out of work. Exploding pension debt. And now, a locked down population while the prisons are emptied. Hold Gavin Newsom accountable. Gavin Newsom must go.”
At the same time, don’t undersell Newsom’s appeal to Californians over the years before the pandemic. He rose the political ladder on the strength of his ties to the state’s most powerful families, becoming mayor of San Francisco and lieutenant governor before winning the gubernatorial race in 2018 by the largest margin of any non-incumbent since the Great Depression.
Newsom certainly won’t roll over and, given his many structural advantages, will likely survive this effort to all but end his political career before it heads on the express train to Pennsylvania Avenue. And if he does, it might feel less like he survived a recall and more like he just won the first presidential primary of 2024.
Read more from Tim Donner.