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By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) -California Governor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday handily beat back a Republican campaign to oust him from office, sending a decisive message that voters in the deeply Democratic state supported his policies for tackling COVID-19, immigration and crime.
Newsom, who won his first term in 2018 by a landslide, again claimed a resounding victory in the special recall election. That means he will remain in office through his term ending in January 2023 and see his chances significantly bolstered in next year's regularly scheduled election.
With 100% of precincts reporting late Tuesday and some mail-in ballots yet to be counted, Newsom was ahead by 28 percentage points, with 64% of voters saying he should stay in office and 36% saying he should be removed.
"I'm humbled and grateful to the millions and millions of Californians that exercised their fundamental right to vote," Newsom said in a victory speech Tuesday night in the state capital of Sacramento.
His win and the high turnout in Tuesday's election came as a relief to national Democrats, who already were bracing for a tough fight in the 2022 elections that will decide control of Congress. A loss in one of the party's stronghold states would have set off alarms across the country, particularly given the leading Republican challenger was a supporter of former President Donald Trump with a track record of controversial statements about women and minorities.
Newsom and Democratic leaders including President Joe Biden characterized the recall effort, heavily supported by state and national Republican groups, as part of a broader Republican agenda to oust Democrats from power and expand conservative restrictions on voting, civil rights and abortion.
"Economic justice, social justice, racial justice, environmental justice, our values where California has made so much progress, all of those things were on the ballot this evening," Newsom said in his speech.
His decisive win holds lessons for national Democrats, who will be fighting next year to keep majorities in Congress and seats in governor's mansions, said Democratic strategist Steven Maviglio.
Newsom mounted a massive get-out-the-vote effort that mobilized Democrats who typically are not engaged in off-year elections.
His embrace of strong COVID-19 protections such as mask and vaccination mandates, and his messaging around the threat Trumpism posed to his liberal policies, resonated with Democratic voters, Maviglio said.
"Nationalizing this election was the smartest move he could have made," said Maviglio, who was press secretary for former Governor Gray Davis.
Davis, a Democrat, remains the only California governor to lose his job in a recall, having been replaced by action star Arnold Schwarzenegger in a 2003 special election.
Newsom, a 53-year-old former lieutenant governor and San Francisco mayor, faced just the second gubernatorial recall election in state history despite 55 attempts. During his first term in office, he was beset by challenges including the pandemic, homelessness, extreme drought and severe wildfires.
Though he remained popular in the nation's most populous state, conservatives angered by his liberal policies on LGBTQ rights, immigration and crime mounted a campaign to unseat him.
The effort gained momentum amid the pandemic, with many Republicans infuriated by Newsom's decision to close schools and require masks and vaccinations against COVID-19. Backers of the recall collected 1.5 million signatures from Californians who favored holding a special election.
The leading Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder, a Black radio talk show host and Trump supporter, had vowed to remove requirements for COVID-19 vaccines and mask wearing.
In the days leading up to the recall vote, he and Trump pushed the narrative that Democrats planned to steal the election. Elder garnered nearly 47% of the vote on the portion of the ballot asking which of 46 candidates should replace Newsom if he were recalled.
Elder conceded Tuesday night, telling supporters, "Let's be gracious in defeat. We may have lost the battle, but we are going to win the war."
That Newsom's political fate would ever have been in doubt might seem unlikely in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1.
But Democrats worried that complacency among their voters could have tilted the election toward motivated Republicans. Newsom tried to boost Democratic turnout with a flurry of late campaigning after mid-summer polls showed many in his party were not engaged in the election and large numbers did not plan to vote.
He appeared in the final days of the race alongside Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who formerly represented the state as a U.S. senator and attorney general.
Malia Cohen, an elected member of the California Board of Equalization, spent several days at the end of the campaign aiming to raise turnout among African American voters. She said the effort was key to Newsom's success.
"You can feel the energy," Cohen said on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento; Additional reporting by Tim Reid in Los Angeles, Daniel Trotta in Carlsbad and Oceanside; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Cynthia Osterman, Jonathan Oatis, Kim Coghill and Richard Pullin)