California voters will soon decide whether to recall and replace Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom — and the sitting executive’s closing message is clear.

“What’s at stake in the Sept. 14 recall?” the narrator asks in Newsom’s latest television ad. “It’s a matter of life and death.”

Newsom has made his handling of the coronavirus pandemic central to his anti-recall pitch, highlighting his decision to impose a vaccine mandate for health workers and school employees and accusing his top GOP opponent of “peddl[ing] deadly conspiracy theories.”

Those running to replace Newsom seem to agree that COVID is a central issue in this race, arguing that Newsom’s aggressive response amounts to executive overreach and advocating for a more laissez-faire approach to public health.

“I don’t drink coffee, I drink tea,” leading GOP challenger Larry Elder told a crowd at a recent rally in Fresno. “When I become governor, assuming there are still mandates for vaccines and mandates for face masks, they will be repealed before I have my first cup of tea.”

Though the partisan split on pandemic response measures is evident across the country, the California recall marks the first statewide race in which the salience of COVID policies will be tested in the post-vaccine era. How voters respond may help determine the future of political messaging on the topic.

Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist-turned-independent who now teaches political communication at several California universities, said the recall represents the “first chance to see how the [Republican] Party intends to navigate its post-Trump future.”

“This has been all about the coronavirus from the very beginning and it’s going to be all the way through,” Schnur added.

Every top Republican running in the recall has promised to end statewide vaccine requirements and mask mandates, while some have gone so far as to suggest following in the footsteps of Republican governors in states like Florida and Texas and banning local jurisdictions from imposing such requirements.

“What we need to do is look at what other states have done. I mean, I compare California to Florida,” Republican candidate John Cox said in a recent recall debate.

In the last week, there have been 58,688 new COVID cases in California, compared to 148,544 in Florida over the same time period, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Elder, who leads the GOP field by a wide margin according to all major polls, has spread misinformation about the pandemic on conservative radio, failing to correct a doctor who called into his nationally-syndicated program to argue baselessly that COVID-19 vaccines were dangerous and could be a form of “population control” by Bill Gates.

Even more moderate candidates like former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer have seized on GOP voters’ enthusiasm against COVID safety policies. “I have consistently urged my fellow Californians to join me in getting vaccinated, but mandates are not the solution,” Faulconer said in a recent statement to the Los Angeles Times.

This “hedging and hemming” on mandates is illustrative of the larger problem facing the Republican Party, said Mike Madrid, a longtime GOP political consultant and co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.

“They have to speak to their own base to be viable, but that same act … limits the upside potential and [the party’s] ability to expand beyond its own core Republican base,” Madrid added. “So you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And most of the Republican candidates are choosing ‘damned if you do.’”

Polls have shown overwhelming support for vaccine mandate policies among California voters more broadly: More than two-thirds believe health care workers should be required to get the shots, while 61% say customers patronizing large, indoor restaurants and entertainment venues should be required to be vaccinated to enter those facilities.

Yet pro-recall voters appear to have consolidated around anti-mandate messaging. A Saturday rally organized by the San Diego Young Republicans featured speakers from ReOpen San Diego, an anti-mandate group, who warned of “tyranny in California” unless Newsom was recalled, according to the San Diego Union Tribune.

“Even though voters who oppose mask and vaccine mandates are vastly outnumbered here, they’re very ardent in their beliefs,” Schnur said. “It’s not surprising that an outnumbered resistance is going to be more motivated than the majority.”

Despite his challengers’ near-ubiquitous criticism, Newsom is not backing down from pushing tough COVID measures.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve done on COVID,” Newsom said recently in a Bay Area TV interview, claiming that his administration’s “approach of being the first to lead with that stay-at-home order a year-and-a-half ago, I believe, saved lives.”

He added that he has “no interest in taking us off the COVID cliff.”

Yet the pandemic is a key reason why Newsom faces the very real prospect of being recalled in the first place.

This latest recall effort, which began during the summer of 2020 and marks the third such attempt since Newsom took office in 2019, only took off in November after a judge extended the deadline to collect the 1.5 million signatures needed to force the election. Citing the impact of the pandemic on canvassing efforts, the judge gave challengers an extra four months to gather signatures.

And last fall, Newsom handed his challengers an easy shot against him when he broke his own COVID rules and was seen maskless, dining inside the upscale Napa restaurant The French Laundry at a reception for a top political adviser.

Now, with less than three weeks until the recall ends, polling averages show Newsom eking out a victory against his detractors by just a few percentage points, a shockingly-close result in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans in party registration by a 3-1 margin.

“The path of the recall has almost perfectly traced the path of COVID for over a year now,” Schnur said. “Recall organizers were having a very difficult time collecting the signatures until the shutdown last fall. This past spring, when it looked like the world was opening up, Newsom seemed to be in a very strong position. But as the Delta variant has begun to change our lives again, the race is looking much closer.”

Vice President Kamala Harris was scheduled to visit the state Friday to help boost Democratic turnout, though her rally with Newsom was canceled following twin suicide bombings in Kabul, where Afghan civilians are hoping to be evacuated with U.S. troops amid the Taliban takover. The White House has said President Joe Biden may campaign for Newsom soon as well.

Meanwhile, Democrats within California and across the country are sounding the alarm.

“The other side is enthusiastic,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) warned at a recent press conference in San Francisco. “We have to make sure that everybody knows that we have to get out, we have to vote, and we have to reject the recall.”

There’s also been consternation within the party about the decision not to support any of the Democratic candidates running in the recall. Instead, Newsom, his allies, and California Democratic leaders have urged voters to ignore the second question altogether, and simply vote against recall without weighing in on who should replace Newsom if he’s ousted.

“It was political malpractice,” Madrid argued of the decision, claiming Democrats “absolutely should have had a ‘Plan B.’”

Early voting data appears to put Newsom in a slightly better position than polls indicate. Of the 1.5 million ballots returned thus far, 57% have come from registered Democrats, with just 21% from registered Republicans, according to California-based Political Data Inc.

Still, political observers and soon-to-be candidates are watching the race with eager eyes.

“It’s a cautionary tale, particularly for incumbent Democratic governors next year,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political consultant who worked as a communications aide to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“They can’t sue Trump, they can’t be fighting against Trump, they can’t try to be the alternative to Trump,” Stutzman said of Democrats seeking reelection. “They’re gonna be judged for what the quality of life actually is in the states that they’ve governed.”

Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on political messaging, was hesitant to draw too much from the race in terms of nationwide implications, given the uniqueness of California as a state. But she did note that “we haven’t had an election in an environment like this before.”

“These are not ordinary times,” echoed Dr. Jack Citrin, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley and longtime analyst of state politics.

Citrin said it was “surprising” how close the race appears to be, but noted that for those seeking to oust the governor, “there are many tributaries that run into a river of discontent.”