As a resident of Southern California, I’m sometimes asked to comment on my state’s politics by friends and family who live elsewhere. Lately, a lot of them have been expressing disbelief at the ongoing recall election that is currently underway to decide the fate of Governor Gavin Newsom.
While I appreciate the sympathy, my response is to issue a warning: All of this is coming to your state very soon.
Newsom is only the second California governor to face a recall election but according to the state’s website, the idea has been tried 55 times. Gray Davis is the only one thus far to have been removed from office, a 2003 event which ushered in the term of the last California Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Prior to that, the last GOP gubernatorial win in the Golden State took place in 1994 when Pete Wilson won a second term with 55 percent of the vote.
Ever since then, Republicans have been shut out of the governor’s mansion, hampered to a huge degree by Christian supremacist and anti-government policies pursued by the national GOP which have rubbed most California voters the wrong way. Instead of pushing back against the far-right wing of their party the way that Govs. Larry Hogan (R-Md.), Phil Scott (R-Vt.), and Charlie Baker (R-Ma.) have done, California’s Republican elites have remained silent or even cheered as anti-immigrant activists and religious bigots cemented control over the state party.
Golden State voters of all races have responded in kind, overwhelmingly rejecting Republicans in elections and in party registrations. Not one of them has held statewide office since 2010. Republicans haven’t had a majority in the California Senate since 1970. They’ve fared only slightly better in the state assembly, last holding a majority of representatives in 1996.
The capstone to the California GOP’s failure came last year when Meg Whitman, the GOP gubernatorial candidate in 2010, endorsed Joe Biden for president.
As things currently stand, just 24 percent of California’s registered voters are Republican, one of the GOP’s worst tallies in the entire country. However, that 24 percent is poised to force its will on everyone else thanks to the state’s bizarre recall law which forces officials to face a recall election if a mere 12 percent of the total voters in the last election petition for it. In the current recall, anti-Newsom activists cited Covid-19 safety restrictions (which they themselves opposed) to allow them extra time to collect signatures. Thanks to a judge’s leniency, they got their wish and obtained the signatures of 13.8 percent of voters, enough to force the recall.
As a result, Newsom must now persuade over 50 percent of all California voters to vote “no” on their recall ballots in order for him to remain in office. Should he fail to do so, the highest vote getter among the 46 candidates running to replace him will automatically become governor.
Based on current polling, Newsom is likely to receive far more votes to remain in office than any of the candidates vying to take his place. But that doesn’t mean he will remain the governor. Right now, the top contender to replace Newsom is Larry Elder, a Trump-loving radio host who works for the sprawling Christian content juggernaut Salem Media.
Currently, Elder leads the massive field with 23.5 percent, according to a polling average compiled by the statistics website FiveThirtyEight. The same average puts Newsom narrowly defeating the recall attempt among likely voters 52 percent to 43.7 percent, a split that is undoubtedly much too close for comfort for Newsom.
The math is astonishing. If Newsom fails to beat the recall, the totally unqualified Elder could become the governor with ballots cast by less than 6 million of the state’s 24.9 million eligible voters, nowhere close to a majority or even a plurality.
While most people would regard this situation as absurd and utterly undemocratic, it is exactly what California Republicans want. And whether they succeed or not, recall schemes will almost certainly become a lodestar for conservatives nationwide as they seek every possible avenue to power in order to avoid moderating their rigid and unpopular ideological agenda.
Across the country, Republicans in states like Georgia and Texas have made headlines for using legislation to shape their local electorates more to their liking by passing laws to disqualify demographic groups that vote disproportionately Democratic like college students and black Americans. Lacking the legislative power to do the same in California, the GOP here has decided to shape the electorate through the recall, betting that while it is unable to get elected in normal elections, the state’s far-right remnant could be motivated enough to overwhelm Democratic voters who are famously unmotivated about local and state politics.
The enthusiasm gap appears to be very real. In a University of California-Berkeley poll commissioned by the Los Angeles Times and released July 27, 51 percent of about 5,800 registered voters said they would keep Newsom in office. Only 36 percent said they would vote to recall him.
But when researchers applied traditional metrics to weed out people unlikely to participate in the election, recall support jumped to 47 percent while opposition declined to 50 percent. Further analysis by the Berkeley researchers found that while Republicans were about 25 percent of registered voters, they were 33 percent of likely recall voters.
This dynamic is not new, as Jane Coaston’s 2018 exploration of California conservatives demonstrates. Coaston traveled the state to learn what makes right wingers tick in one of the allegedly most liberal states in the nation. Her conclusions agreed with the recent UC-Berkely polling:
“Conservatives living and working in California view themselves as philosophically, culturally, and demographically under siege, and the political movement they are ideating, advocating, and building reflects that fully.”
Republicans in general and the ultra conservative faction that controls the party have become increasingly opposed to democracy as the GOP has failed to win the national popular vote in presidential elections, particularly after Donald Trump’s 4 percent loss last year and his numerous lies about supposed election fraud. However, it cannot be emphasized enough that conservative Republican elites have long been aware that Americans disagree with their far-right ideology. And they have a long and dishonorable tradition of trying to rig elections in their favor to circumvent this fact.
Paul Weyrich—a highly influential activist who co-founded the conservative Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and was one of the lead figures in the creation of the Religious Right—laid out the strategy in a 1980 speech to a group of extremist pastors.
“Many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome, good government,” he said. “They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Since Weyrich’s exhortation, national and state-level Republicans have launched countless initiatives to purge voter rolls of citizens they suspected of being Democrats, tried to block or abolish same-day voter registration, and imposed demanding requirements on organizations trying to help people get registered to vote. It’s important to remember that today’s voter suppression efforts are merely continuations of the strategies that have been in place for decades, which were themselves inspired by Jim Crow-era laws used to keep black citizens from their franchise rights.
The California GOP’s minoritarian scheme was laid bare earlier this month when the Associated Press reported that Republican National Committee members Harmeet Dhillon and Shawn Steel had abruptly reversed their initial support for the idea of the state party endorsing a preferred recall candidate.
“The polls are showing that the recall is in a statistical tie, and we cannot afford to discourage voters who are passionate about a particular candidate, yet may not vote because their favored candidate didn’t receive the endorsement,” they warned in an email to Golden State Republican activists.
Shortly thereafter, 90 percent of the delegates to the 2021 party convention declined to endorse a candidate for the recall. The plot to seize control of the governor’s mansion with a small minority of voters can’t afford to lose any of them.
In recent days, polls have shown that Californians who want to keep Newsom in office have been solidifying their interest in the election. But recall elections are notoriously hard to poll, largely because they are usually low-turnout affairs in which most eligible voters don’t choose to participate. But because all California voters have been sent a mail ballot for the recall, Newsom may ultimately manage to remain in office.
Whatever happens, there’s no doubt that, just as legions of far-right legislators have been inspired by Arizona Republicans’ destructive attempt to cast doubt on vote totals in the Grand Canyon State, the California GOP’s recall scheme is going to inspire a lot of imitation.
Right now, the swing states of Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Colorado have recall laws in place that are similar to California’s. They too would allow a small minority of voters to force a recall election and potentially choose their state’s governor. If the Newsom recall succeeds, you can bet that Republicans in places like Georgia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina will start pushing similar laws to further block Democrats from building upon the gains they’ve made in these states, just as the Wisconsin GOP moved to take away powers from the Badger State’s governor shortly before Democrat Tony Evers took office.
As Republicans cling desperately to their far-right opinions and authoritarian methods, recall elections are almost certain to become a part of their minoritarian plans. Pay attention to what’s happening here in California. Because your state just might be next.