‘All you need is the filing fee and a dream’: who are Gavin Newsom’s recall challengers?

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Maanvi Singh
·5 min read
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<span>Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As the California gubernatorial recall effort heats up, Gavin Newsom is preparing to face off against a motley mix of political challengers – including a reality TV star, a former Facebook executive, a Los Angeles billboard model and a Republican businessman who lost the last gubernatorial race by 24 points.

California election officials are expected to verify by the end of April that Newsom’s opponents have collected enough signatures to force a recall later this year – probably sometime in November.

Related: California governor gears up for recall fight as critics say they’ve reached 2m signatures

But the political opportunity it offers has already drawn out all manner of “celebrities, billionaires and multimillionaires, gadflies”, as well as some serious contenders, said Fernando J Guerra, a political scientist at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

The race has so far attracted three traditional Republican candidates: John Cox, a businessman who lost to Newsom by 24 points during the last gubernatorial election, the largest margin in a California governor’s race since the 1950s), Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego and Doug Ose, a former US representative.

Then there’s everyone else. Caitlyn Jenner, a former Keeping Up with the Kardashians star and Olympic champion, is working with former Trump campaign figures to plot out a potential run. The porn actor and reality TV star Mary Carey, who ran against the Democrat Gray Davis in the 2003 recall, has also thrown her hat in. And Angelyne, the model who rose to prominence in the 1980s after she was featured in a series of billboards around LA, is also running.

“All you really need to run is $4,200 for the filing fee and a dream,” said Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L Carey Institute for Government Reform who studies recall elections. The 2003 recall election against Davis attracted 135 such dreamers, including the HuffPost founder Arianna Huffington, the former child actor Gary Coleman and the pornographer Larry Flynt. The actor Arnold Schwarzenegger won that year, in the first successful recall of a US governor.

The latest recall campaign, spearheaded by Republicans who opposed the governor’s Covid-era business shutdowns, as well as his immigration and tax policies, gained steam in the winter as California faced its most severe phase of the pandemic. But as the pandemic abates, and the economy shows promising signs of recovery, Newsom remains fairly popular among Californians despite scandals and setbacks. He was elected to office in 2018 with a whopping 62% of the vote and recent polling from the Public Policy Institute of California found that he remains fairly popular. Fifty-six per cent of likely voters oppose recalling the governor, and 5% are unsure – only 40% would vote to remove the governor from office

“I am convinced that Newsom is going to beat the recall,” Guerra said, though, he added, a stagnating economy or major political blunder (say, a repeat of Newsom’s infamous dinner party at the Michelin-starred French Laundry at the height of the pandemic) could knock the governor off his sturdy perch.

Notably missing from the governor’s cast challengers is a Democrat. So far, the party has formed a united front, with moderates and progressives, including the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, backing Newsom. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, warned Democrats not to turn against one of their own, dismissing the idea of a Democratic challenger to Newsom as an “unnecessary notion” that doesn’t even rise “to the level of an idea”.

That hasn’t squashed speculation that the former LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who ran against Newsom in 2018, could join the race. The former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya, a big Democratic donor who recently redirected his wealth toward the amplifying petition to gather signatures for the recall, also says he wants to run. And Tom Steyer, the billionaire former hedge fund manager and climate change campaigner who ran in the Democratic presidential primaries, is also reportedly considering a candidacy.

A liberal candidate who wouldn’t outshine Newsom could serve as an insurance policy for the state’s Democrats, Guerra said. “A Democratic candidate would not peel off enough votes from Newsom in the recall, but could beat out Republicans if voters choose to remove Newsom could be strategic,” he said. “Because what happens if there’s another one or two scandals that drag Newsom down – without another Democrat in the race, you’re left with Caitlyn Jenner or John Cox as governor.”

But Spivak said that based on recall history, Democrats would do well to avoid such a strategy. In the 2003 recall, Davis’s lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, tried the campaign line “No on Recall, Yes on Bustamante”, and it failed spectacularly. Bustamante trailed Schwarzenegger by 17 points. “And it killed his political career,” Spivak said. The Democrat spectacularly tanked his only other bid for political office since the recall, losing the 2006 election for insurance commissioner to a Republican by 12 points.

On the other hand, for Republicans hoping to gain a foothold in deep-blue California, the only chance comes from the chaos and confusion of a crowded, messy election, Spivak said. “Republicans can’t win a straight, regular election – so having 400 candidates, including maybe some Democrats, running against Newsom helps them,” he said.

In a recall, voters are asked two questions: first, whether they want to recall Newsom, and then, who should replace him? If at least 50% of voters agree to remove Newsom from office, whichever of is opponents gets the most votes would replace him – even if they’ve collected a tiny fraction of the total ballots cast.