LOS ANGELES — An Olympian-turned-reality-star. A Donald Trump-supporting conservative radio host. A wealthy businessman who has carted along a Kodiak bear on the campaign trail.
California voters will soon decide whether any of them – or another of the more than 40 candidates on the ballot – will replace Gov. Gavin Newsom in a recall election that could mark only the third time in U.S. history that a sitting governor is removed from office by voters.
The state's challenges, from the housing crisis to homelessness, crime and climate change that's fueled water and electricity woes, figure to be hot topics in a string of four debates leading to the Sept. 14 election.
The first standoff among Newsom's challengers was Wednesday night, minus Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympian who has been in Australia filming a reality TV program, and Larry Elder, the right-wing talk show host who instead attended a fundraising event. At least four other debates are scheduled throughout August.
Shifts in polling, along with the recent surge of COVID-19 cases and dozens of challengers vying to replace him – a list that also includes John Cox, the bear-toting Republican businessman who was easily defeated by Newsom in the 2018 gubernatorial election – further muddle the governor's odds of keeping his job.
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The voting process, unlike typical elections, also poses a greater risk for Newsom, whose support has dwindled through the COVID-19 pandemic as the state enacted some of the harshest restrictions in the country.
The recall election is being watched nationally as a barometer of the public mood heading toward the 2022 elections, when a closely divided Congress again will be in play. A Republican upset in the heavily Democratic state would be a stunning rebuke, and Newsom has warned that his ouster would have national implications in politics and policy-making.
Here’s what you need to know about the election:
Why is Gavin Newsom facing a recall vote?
Only 19 states have laws that allow mechanisms for governors to be recalled. While successful recall efforts are incredibly rare, attempts are not. The recall against Newsom, for instance, is the sixth attempt to have him removed from office in the two years since he was elected.
The well-funded effort has been promoted by determined Republicans – including big names like Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee.
COVID-19 and the strict policies impacting Californians offered the effort momentum. Newsom started off the pandemic being praised for being ahead of the rest of the country in issuing the first stay-at-home order and managing to keep infections low at the beginning of the pandemic when other states were seeing an explosion of cases.
But as the pandemic wore on, fatigue grew.
The recall effort grew due to several factors, most notably a judge extending the period that proponents had to get signatures by four months, from November to March, due to the virus. The additional time allowed the group to further organize and raise additional money.
During that time, the effort garnered more attention and supporters as Newsom drew headlines for public flubs, including his attendance at a dinner party at The French Laundry – one of the world's most exclusive restaurants – at a time when he was discouraging Californians from traveling to see family during the holidays. Support continued to grow as the Golden State saw an alarming spike in cases over the winter, notably in Los Angeles, even with Newsom's strict safety measures in place.
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The push against Newsom began in February 2020 and before COVID-19 had fully altered everyday life. Proponents justified the recall based on the governor's position on a number of political issues, including taxes and immigration. It was conducted, though, amid frustration over pandemic-related shutdowns.
Proponents called for Newsom to be removed from office based on his actions to implement laws they say harm California citizens, according to the petition circulated to voters. They also object to his moratorium on executions of death row inmates and his positions on tax matters, water rationing and parental rights.
When is the recall election? How does it work?
Newsom opponents turned over more than a million petition signatures to California's secretary of state, forcing the state to put the recall effort on the ballot.
The 1.6 million signatures turned over in April were about 100,000 more than needed to force a vote on the first-term Democrat.
Voters in California will begin receiving ballots in the mail later this month ahead of election on Sept. 14.
The process is unlike other elections. The ballot will ask voters two questions: Do they want to recall Newsom, yes or no? And if more than 50% of voters agree, then, who should replace him?
There was no limit on the number of candidates who could run in the recall and 46 qualified for the ballot. The election says whoever gets the most votes wins – even without a majority, so it’s entirely possible that someone could be elected in a recall while winning less than half the votes.
In fact, with 46 candidates, it’s possible a winner could emerge with as little as 20% of the vote should Newsom be recalled – a fraction of what a candidate would need in a typical statewide election.
That’s what happened in 2003. Then-Calif. Gov. Gray Davis was recalled by 55% of California voters, with movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger winning the election to succeed him with 48.6% of the vote.
Who is running for California governor?
It’s a much shorter list than the 2003 recall election, which included more than 100 candidates. That should be good news for Newsom, especially the lack of big-name Democrats who could have split the liberal vote. Among the 46 who qualified, 24 were listed as Republicans, nine as Democrats, 10 with no party preference, two members of the Green Party and one Libertarian.
The most well-known candidate is Jenner, the former Olympic gold medalist who starred on the reality series "Keeping Up with the Kardashians." But Jenner has been overshadowed in recent polling by Elder, a Black radio host who fiercely supports Trump and opposes the Black Lives Matter movement.
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Other prominent names who have polled well include Cox, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, former Rep. Doug Ose, California State Assemblyman Kevin Kiley and California State Board of Equalization Member Ted Gaines.
Republican candidates have depicted Newsom as incompetent and argued his bungled leadership inflicted unnecessary financial pain during the pandemic. Democrats have sought to frame the contest as driven by far-right extremists and Trump supporters.
While nine Democrats did qualify for the ballot, the most prominent among them is Kevin Paffrath, a moderate who argues Newsom has led the state astray with broken policies. Paffrath works as a personal finance influencer with 1.68 YouTube subscribers.
How successful are recall elections ?
Only four times in U.S. history has a recall effort against a governor garnered enough signatures to force an election like this one. And only two governors have been removed from office in a recall election – one in North Dakota in 1921 and Davis' ouster in California in 2003.
While it’s incredibly rare, Newsom has lost some of his once-comfortable edge, polling shows, though he has still managed to keep a majority. For months, Newsom appeared well-positioned to beat back the recall attempt. But his standing has slipped slightly and polls show Republicans are eager to vote, while many Democrats have shrugged off the election.
And now, COVID-19 – the issue that initially bolstered the recall effort – is once again posing a problem for Newsom’s political future. The delta variant has surged in the state, as it has nationally, and many communities have reinstated mask mandates indoors regardless of vaccination status. The state has also started mandating vaccines or weekly COVID-19 tests for many employees.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gavin Newsom, California governor, faces recall election: What to know