California’s governor recall election is heating up. Here’s what you need to know

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California voters will decide on 14 September whether the governor, Gavin Newsom, gets to keep his job. With mere weeks to go, the governor has started making his way around the state to argue his case, as Republican challengers including talkshow host Larry Elder, reality star Caitlyn Jenner and former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer attempt to channel pandemic upheaval and deep political partisanship into an unlikely upset.

Here’s what you need to know about California’s gubernatorial recall:

Why is this happening?

That the Democratic governor of a resolutely blue state is facing a recall election may seem peculiar. Although Newsom remains fairly popular among Californians overall, a small but vocal minority of Republicans successfully collected the signatures required to hold a recall election.

Leveraging frustrations over lockdowns, school closures and mask mandates, the campaign was able to rally some 1.7 million voters to endorse an election. Their success was a rare feat.

California makes it easier to call a recall than almost any other state, requiring signatures from enough voters to equal 12% of the turnout in the prior governor’s race. And every governor since 1960 has faced one or more recall attempts. But only one other governor – Democrat Gray Davis – has seen a recall go to the ballot. This September will mark only the fourth time in US history that a state has held a midterm gubernatorial recall election.

Gavin Newsom announces a school vaccine mandate at Carl B Munck elementary school in Oakland on 11 August.
Gavin Newsom announces a school vaccine mandate at Carl B Munck elementary school in Oakland on 11 August. Photograph: Santiago Mejia/AP

How does the recall work?

On election day, voters will be asked two questions: whether they want to recall Newsom, yes or no – and if more than 50% say “yes”, who should replace him? If the majority of voters choose to recall the governor, the challenging candidate with the most votes will become governor, for the remainder of Newsom’s term.

Who’s challenging the governor?

There’s no limit to the number of candidates who can challenge the governor in a recall – and this year 46 candidates will appear on the ballot. Conservative radio host Larry Elder is leading the polls among Newsom’s challengers. Other frontrunners include businessman John Cox, who toured with a domesticated Kodiak bear; Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego; Doug Ose, a former US representative and Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympic athlete and reality TV star who initially drew a lot of press but has seen interest in her candidacy fade.

Related: California’s recall election: how does it work – and will Gavin Newsom survive?

Recall elections frequently draw out celebrity candidates. In the 2003 recall election, bodybuilder and film star Arnold Schwarzenegger was able to leverage his celebrity to ultimately win the governor’s seat.

“The recall can be a rallying cry, in California and across the county,” said Mindy Romero, the founder of the Center for Inclusive Democracy, a non-partisan research organization. “For the Republican candidates running against the governor, it can raise their national profiles.”

Although 10 self-identified Democrats, including the YouTube-famous real estate broker Kevin Paffrath, are running, no mainstream, party-endorsed candidate is on the ballot. State and national Democrats have largely coalesced around Newsom.

A big challenge for the governor facing such a wide field of challengers is that he lacks a singular opponent. “Really his main opponent is himself,” said Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College and an expert on recalls.

Gubernatorial candidate Caitlyn Jenner talks to reporters about homeless issues as she campaigns in Venice, California.
Gubernatorial candidate Caitlyn Jenner talks to reporters about homeless issues as she campaigns in Venice, California. Photograph: Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images

How likely is the recall to succeed?

Newsom’s popularity peaked early in the pandemic, with an approval rating of 63% in May 2020. That figure dropped precipitously amid the last coronavirus surge but is rising again as the state recovered and reopened.

Newsom, who was elected to office with the support of more than 60% of voters, remains in a strong spot. But recent polling from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, found that 47% of likely California voters supported recalling the Democratic governor, compared with 50% who opposed removing Newsom from office.

“The most likely outcome is still that Newsom stays in office,” said Spivak. But with polls tightening, Newsom needs to be careful, he added.

Most Californians approve of his job performance, despite high-profile scandals including an unemployment check backlog and his attendance at a pandemic-time dinner party the Michelin-starred French Laundry. However, Democrats who feel the governor has done a good enough job appear far less likely to vote in the recall than the Republicans seeking to oust him. “Newsom really needs to make sure his people get in there and vote,” Spivak said.

Who does support the recall?

The recall campaign, spearheaded by Orrin Heatlie, the Republican former sheriff’s deputy, opposed the Newsom administration’s pandemic-era lockdowns, aid to undocumented immigrants and homeless residents, relatively high taxes and spending on social programs.

The effort picked up financial support from big business donors and a few Silicon Valley venture capitalists, including the former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya. Far-right movements including QAnon have also bolstered the effort – though recall organizers tried to distance themselves from those groups after the deadly 6 January attack on the US Capitol.

The recall garnered the most support in California’s rural Republican strongholds, such as Calaveras county in the Sierra Nevada foothills, which Donald Trump won by nearly 20 points during the last presidential election.

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