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Politics & Government

Gov. Newsom Keeps His Seat As A Majority Of California Voters Reject The Recall

Josh Hodas and partner Serena Delgadillo cast their votes in the historic Los Angeles Union Station Ticket Hall on Monday.
Josh Hodas and partner Serena Delgadillo cast their votes in the historic Los Angeles Union Station Ticket Hall on Monday.

The attempt in California to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has failed, according to a call by The Associated Press, allowing the governor to stay in office until at least 2023.

Tuesday's vote ends a campaign against Newsom that began before the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the U.S.

"I am humbled and grateful to the millions and millions of Californians that exercised their fundamental right to vote," Newsom said Tuesday night, speaking almost somberly to a group of reporters.

"We [have] so much more in common in our state than we give ourselves credit for," he added, expressing how difficult life has been for Californians during the pandemic.

The governor's victory serves to vindicate his leadership of the state through COVID-19, but he won't be off the campaign trail for long. He'll have to run for reelection next year if he wants to keep his seat after his term ends.

This recall petition was one of six circulated by the governor's opponents to remove him since he took office in January 2019. Getting the vote to the ballot took an unlikely synchronization of political fortune and Newsom's own missteps. Last year, a judge gave the recall campaign an additional four months to collect signatures, citing the difficulties in distributing petitions during the pandemic. Later that day, Newsom dined at the upscale French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley, ignoring his own guidance to avoid gatherings as the spread of the coronavirus picked up.

The dinner became the enduring symbol of the recall campaign and fodder for the most convincing attack against the governor: that he failed to practice what he preached.

Instead of waiting for the 2022 gubernatorial election, thousands of the governor's detractors signed petitions to put Newsom's fate on the ballot this year. The resurgence of the virus also allowed Newsom to draw his clearest contrast between the candidates hoping to replace him, most notably conservative radio talk show host Larry Elder, who conceded the race late Tuesday local time.

In late July, Newsom announced vaccine mandates for California state employees, health care workers and school staff, along with a mask requirement for schoolchildren — orders that Elder promised to revoke on Day 1 if elected. But Elder's emergence as the clear favorite on the ballot's second question — who should replace Newsom if he's recalled? — allowed the governor to turn the race from a referendum into a choice. The governor spent the final days of the campaign slamming Elder's conservative positions on climate policy, abortion and minimum wage.

Elder has been a vocal supporter of former President Donald Trump and, in response, Democrats linked the recall effort to Trumpism and to the national Republican agenda on issues such as reproductive rights and voting access. Elder, like the former president, has claimed without any evidence that Trump lost last year's election to election fraud. "There are all sort of reasons the 2020 election, in my opinion, was full of shenanigans," Elder said earlier this month. "And my fear is they're going to try that in this election in the recall."

California Gov. Gavin Newsom delivers remarks after a helicopter tour with U.S. President Joe Biden of the Caldor Fire area on Monday in Mather, Calif. Biden toured the wildfire-damaged area before heading to Los Angeles to participate in a No on Recall campaign event with Newsom.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
California Gov. Gavin Newsom delivers remarks after a helicopter tour of the Caldor Fire area with President Biden on Monday in Mather, Calif. Biden then went to Los Angeles to participate in a No on Recall campaign event with Newsom.

What was the recall effort about?

The effort to recall Newsom began in February 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic had a firm grip on the U.S. The first complaint listed in the recall petition against the governor is that he favors the interests of people in the country "illegally."

But that argument has largely faded into the background as the spread of COVID-19 allowed the campaign to gain momentum. The governor angered Republicans with his public health restrictions. Because of the pandemic, a judge gave recall proponents four extra months to gather the required signatures to put the question before voters.

Further complaints from the "yes" campaign:

  1. Newsom mismanaged the COVID-19 pandemic using inconsistent executive power that negatively affected businesses.

  1. Newsom bowed to the powerful teachers union by not ordering public schools to open quickly during the pandemic.

  1. Newsom was arrogant and hypocritical when he ate at a fancy Napa Valley restaurant without a mask last year while urging Californians to stay home.

  1. The governor is to blame for rising rates of homicide, homelessness and other quality-of-life issues.

The "no" campaign's main points:

  1. The recall is a partisan attempt to seize power, initiated by right-wing Republicans, including supporters of Trump, in an effort to overturn Newsom's election.

  1. Newsom has successfully managed the pandemic response by following the science in making difficult decisions on masking, social distancing, closing businesses and carefully reopening public schools.

  1. Newsom's orders and policies helped California achieve lower rates of infection and death compared with states such as Florida.

  1. Under Newsom's leadership, California has vaccinated tens of millions of people, leaving the state with one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation.

  1. Newsom used a massive state budget surplus to issue stimulus checks to residents and assist renters and small businesses in their recovery from the pandemic.

Was the recall constitutional?

The short answer: Federal judges allowed for the recall election to move forward.

The long answer: Some legal scholars questioned the process in recent weeks because the two-question recall ballot makes it possible for the governor to be replaced by a candidate who earns fewer votes than he does.

That's because the governor — or any elected official facing a recall in California — needs a majority vote in the first question, which asks if they should be removed, to stay in office.

That means if Newsom wins only 49% support in the first question, he will be recalled. His replacement would then be the candidate with the most votes on the second question, even if that candidate wins less than 50%. With 46 candidates on California's recall ballot, it's likely no one will earn a majority vote, or even close to it.

In late August, a federal judge declined to stop the recall. The lawyer who brought the suit appealed to the Ninth U.S Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, but a panel of judges declined to halt the election. They will take written arguments through mid-October.

And California voters may be supportive of changing the procedures around recall elections, according to new research out this week from UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies.

How does this recall compare to 2003?

Every California governor since 1960 has faced a recall attempt, but only two have successfully made it onto the ballot. The process to get there involves signature gathering, legislative approvals and millions of dollars in election expenditures.

The first recall election in the state happened in 2003 when more than 55% of voters decided to remove Gov. Gray Davis months after he was reelected to a second term. He was replaced with Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won nearly 49% of the votes on the second question. He then won a full term in office in 2006 when he was reelected.

Davis, speaking to NPR's All Things Considered, called the recall process, "a game of Russian roulette." It's "fundamentally unfair," he said, because the governor must achieve more than half of the votes to stay in office, while their challengers can win with a small percentage of the vote. (For more on this, see the section above.)

"I believe that Gov. Newsom will win," he said. "At some point, a governor will get 49% of the vote. The winner on [question] No. 2 will get 38% of the vote, and the person with 38% of the vote will become governor."

Who was on the ballot to replace Newsom?

There are 46 candidates on the ballot looking to replace Newsom, but only a handful are likely to get even a percentage of the vote. Newsom has encouraged those who vote "no" on the first question not to choose a candidate on the second question. Here are the top five names in the most recent polling.

Republican conservative radio show host Larry Elder speaks at a rally for the California gubernatorial recall election on Monday in Monterey Park, Calif. Recent polls show Elder has the support of more than a quarter of likely voters.
Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP
Republican conservative radio show host Larry Elder speaks at a rally for the California gubernatorial recall election on Monday in Monterey Park, Calif. Recent polls show Elder has the support of more than a quarter of likely voters.

Larry Elder: Elder, a Republican, has brought his libertarian views to the Los Angeles talk radio airwaves for decades, landing a spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Elder says that as governor, he would pursue a rollback of the recent gas tax increase, which funds road improvements and transit projects. Elder derided Newsom's efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change and has vowed to suspend some of the state's environmental regulations to spur development.

Kevin Paffrath: Paffrath, a Democrat, has garnered millions of viewers for his YouTube videos, which share tips for investing in real estate. Paffrath has promised a centrist governorship. In an interview with KQED, he described himself as "51% Democrat, 49% Republican" and lists his top priority as housing all of the state's unhoused residents within 60 days, though details remain scant. Paffrath has also unveiled out-of-the-box proposals such as enlisting prison inmates to clean the state's streets; offering 14-year-olds the opportunity to attend a "future school" that includes a focus on career training; and building an aqueduct to the Mississippi River to bolster California's water supply.

Kevin Faulconer: Faulconer, a Republican, was the mayor of San Diego from 2014 to 2020. At the time, it was the largest city in the U.S. to have an elected Republican mayor. If elected governor, Faulconer says he'll eliminate state income taxes for certain individuals and families in California. Faulconer has also vowed to withhold funds from local governments that don't build homeless shelters and then clear tent encampments. Critics in San Diego accused him of failing to respond urgently to homelessness until 2017, when a hepatitis A outbreak among the city's homeless population killed 20 people.

John Cox: Cox, a Republican, ran and lost decisively to Newsom in 2018. Cox is a millionaire former public accountant, housing developer, lawyer and investment manager who has run for office unsuccessfully in both California and Illinois. As governor, Cox says, he would cut income taxes by $30 billion and eliminate wasteful state spending. He has also promised to cut homelessness in half by increasing treatment for unhoused people and enforcement against those who refuse help, and vowed to build more housing by cutting red tape and regulations. Cox's plans are light on specifics.

Caitlyn Jenner: The Republican reality TV star — a former Olympian most recently known for her turn on Keeping Up With the Kardashians — is promising to focus on cutting red tape and regulations, and says she would veto any tax increase. She's also attacked Newsom's COVID-19 response and has pledged to make sure schools and businesses are fully open if she's governor. Jenner has spent much of the summer in Australia filming a reality TV show and has drawn heat for her apparent lack of understanding when it comes to the fundamentals of running government.

What happens next?

Newsom will have to run for reelection next year if he wants to stay in office after his term ends in early 2023. Counties must finish counting ballots and certify their results by Oct. 14. The secretary of state will certify the results on Oct. 22.

Scott Shafer is KQED's senior political editor, Nicole Nixon is CapRadio's politics reporter and Libby Denkmann is KPCC's senior political reporter. Acacia Squires, NPR's state government editor, also contributed to this story.
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