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Republicans And Democrats Agree: California’s Future Is At Stake In The Recall Election

 The California State Capitol in Sacramento August 28, 2020.
Andrew Nixon
The California State Capitol in Sacramento August 28, 2020.

Now that a date has been set for a highly anticipated recall election against Gov. Gavin Newsom, his often starkly divided supporters and critics appear to agree on one thing: California’s very future is at stake in the election.

Pro- and anti-recall teams paint very different pictures of the state’s direction if Newsom is ousted in the September 14 election.

If the governor loses, Democrats warn that California will forfeit progress made on housing access, protections for immigrants and securing broad voting rights.

“This Republican recall effort is powered by the same Republican forces who still refuse to accept results of the presidential election in 2020, and are pushing voter suppression efforts in statehouse after statehouse across the country,” U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla said at a press conference held by Democratic officials Friday.

Padilla was appointed by Newsom to fill the Senate seat left by Vice President Kamala Harris.

“It threatens our values and seeks to undo important progress made in California under Gov. Newsom,” he added.

The day after the recall was set for mid-September, the message of urgency from Democrats was clear as they sought to tie the recall to right-wing extremists and Donald Trump’s supporters.

“Do we want to go on the dark path put forward by supporters of former President Trump? Or with Gov. Gavin Newsom, toward a brighter future?” asked Assemblymember David Chiu, a San Francisco Democrat.

On the flip side, Newsom’s critics are pitching the recall as a chance to start fresh with new leadership at the top.

Anne Dunsmore, campaign manager for the pro-recall group Rescue California, says Newsom hasn’t delivered on solutions for homelessness, crime and the state’s high cost of living.

“Those three things are just going to really, really come home to roost and he can’t fix those between now and September,” she said in an interview.

Dunsmore said Newsom is also out of touch with Californians outside the state’s political elite. It’s a symptom she called “the dome zone.”

“When people are in the Capitol dome, they tend to hear themselves and pretty much nothing else. And I think that’s what we’re looking at here with Gavin Newsom,” she said.

Polls have shown Republicans are much more energized by the recall than Democrats and independent voters. A May survey by the UC Berkeley Institute for Governmental Studies found 75% of Republicans reported a high level of interest in the recall, compared to just 36% of Democrats and 35% of No Party Preference voters.

“They’re not going to come out in the numbers Republicans will,” Dunsmore said. “I think [Newsom] knows that. I think that’s why he scheduled the election sooner rather than later.”

Democratic leaders brushed off the numbers.

“Every day there are more and more Californians who are fired up about the fact that this is an incredible waste of time and effort,” Chiu said. “But we can’t take anything for granted. We have to get the word out.”

If Newsom is recalled and replaced by a Republican, that new governor would likely face stiff resistance for new proposals from the Legislature, which is held by a Democratic supermajority. They would also have to begin campaigning almost immediately, as the office is up for election again in 2022.

The high-stakes, everything-is-on-the-line message could be seen as a way to energize voters to turn out for a special election in an off year. But Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, said he agrees the consequences are significant.

“You're gonna hear it from me too, that our future is at stake,” he said, adding that he’s more concerned about voter engagement than candidate results.

Baldassare said turnout in the 2003 recall of former Gov. Gray Davis, also a Democrat, boasted higher turnout than the previous election the year prior.

“Whether [voters] participate in this process is going to be very important to the future of our democracy and California,” he said. “I’m going to be looking at it from the standpoint of, ‘Do we have a participation level? Is it representative of the state's electorate? And will all sides view this as legitimate, particularly in this time in which we are recognizing just how fragile democracy is?’”

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