Democrats are sounding the sirens, trying to shake like-minded voters from their complacency: Wake up! Polls show Gov. Gavin Newsom could be recalled in less than three weeks and a Trump toady installed in his place.
For Donald Trump, it would be revenge on the state he most loved to hate. But “the political ramifications will echo far beyond the Golden State’s borders,” as Dan Pfeiffer, a California transplant and the former chief strategist in the Obama White House, warned in his newsletter this week.
The national implications of Newsom’s recall are real, and not just for the standard political reasons.
First, the standard sort: If Newsom is ejected, Republicans everywhere will be even more emboldened as they mobilize to recapture Congress next year and the presidency in 2024. California? If we can make it there, we can make it anywhere! More money will flow to their party war chests. The national media, which hasn’t paid all that much attention, suddenly would see in a Newsom loss a stinging rebuke more broadly for the Democratic agenda of President Biden, who’s already reeling from coverage of the collapse of Afghanistan.
That could further weaken the president just as he needs a strong hand to pass his legislative program in a Congress that Democrats barely control. Their hold on the 50-50 Senate could be at stake should anything happen to cause 88-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein to vacate her seat; California’s governor would name her replacement.
Newsom backers have been emphasizing these partisan national stakes, to attract donors and marquee surrogates and to motivate voters. Though Democrats in California outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, polls show Republicans are far more enthusiastic about voting in the recall. Biden plans to visit the state sometime after Labor Day to campaign for Newsom. Even in sprawling California, a presidential visit can grab attention and remind voters to return the recall ballots, marked “no” by Sept. 14.
Now set aside the usual political considerations about this election. The biggest national consequence of Newsom’s ouster — and the best reason for anyone, not just Democrats, to be opposed — is this: Recalling him would add to the dangerously anti-democratic drift in this country.
This recall would be idiotic at any time, but it is especially so at this moment in American history. California’s recall process, created in 1911, grew out of Progressive populism, but it’s being used in an era defined by a polarized politics that has one of the two major parties leaning toward authoritarianism and cultishly following the first president to refuse to accept defeat. Two-thirds of Republicans still deny that Biden was legitimately elected.
Don’t like the outcome of an election? Challenge it.
And so, we get the Jan. 6 insurrection, the ballot-counting madness in Arizona and copycat efforts in other states, and new laws in Republican-controlled states to empower partisan officeholders to decide future elections.
Trumpian Republicans might counter with the usual whataboutism — pointing to Trump’s two impeachments as evidence that Democrats also take extraordinary action if they don’t like the voters’ choice. But if you think inciting an insurrection and extorting a foreign leader to find dirt on a political rival aren’t impeachable offenses, answer this honestly: Would you think the same if the president were a Democrat?
Against this backdrop, the very real possibility of the recall yielding an anti-democratic result is deeply unsettling.
Newsom won in a landslide less than three years ago. A recent poll found that 57% of voters approved of the job he’s doing. Yet on the question of whether he should be recalled, an average of recent polls by the website FiveThirtyEight showed a virtual dead heat: 48.8% against removing Newsom, 47.6% for it.
Under the recall process, he could be unseated if just over half of the voters say yes, and he would be replaced by the candidate (among 46 mostly unfit alternatives) with the most votes, no matter how few. That means 49.9% of the voters could oppose Newsom’s recall, yet he’d forfeit the governorship to someone who gets less than 20% support.
It’s a sign of the sorry state of the Republican Party that the front-runner is Larry Elder, a right-wing radio host and Trumpist — one who has denied climate change, opposes a minimum wage and rejects any vaccine and mask mandates to counter COVID-19.
For Republicans, a recall is virtually the only way they can take the governorship these days. At least they’re playing by the rules, even if those century-old rules make it too easy to force a recall and way too easy to get on the ballot. In 2003’s gubernatorial recall election, Gov. Gray Davis’ successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, did win more votes than the number opposing Davis’ removal, averting controversy over voters’ will.
But this is a different time, and a different Republican Party. Democracy is on the ballot.
For the record:
11:28 a.m. Aug. 29, 2021: An earlier version of this article inadvertently stated that the governor could be unseated if just under half of the voters say yes. It is just over half.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.