California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, has prevailed in a rare recall election that left him battling for his political life.
The Associated Press has projected the results about 45 minutes after polls closed, signalling that voters have eschewed the choice to replace Newsom with his most popular challenger, the rightwing radio host Larry Elder. While the race was called by the AP on Tuesday night, the vote count is not yet final, and election officials have 30 days to count all the ballots.
Newsom, the Democratic governor of the deep-blue state, found himself in a peculiar position after a Republican-led recall gained steam amid the worst of pandemic, fueled by frustrations over school and business closures.
Gubernatorial recall petitions are very common in California, but only one other such recall has made it on to the ballot in state history. Newsom initially dismissed the recall election as a costly distraction – indeed, it cost the state about $276m. But Democrats kicked into high gear in the late summer as polls indicated that apathetic and angry voters could cost him his position at the helm of the most populous US state.
In the lead-up to the election, Newsom – who struggled to live down missteps and connect with young progressive voters – reframed the recall as a referendum on Trumpism – focusing on Elder.
The day before the 14 September deadline to vote, Joe Biden campaigned alongside Newsom, telling voters “the eyes of the nation are on California”.
Calling Elder “the clone of Donald Trump,” Biden asked: “Can you imagine him being governor of this state? You can’t let that happen. There is too much at stake.”
Among early voters, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by two to one – though gap was expected to shrink on election day with a greater proportion of Republicans expected to cast their ballots day-of. Polls that had initially placed Elder within striking distance of Newsom began to widen ahead of election day. As his chances of victory slimmed, Elder began following in Trump’s footsteps by spreading conspiracy theories to falsely suggest that the election was rigged against him.
The results will have national reverberations. Although the governor prevailed, the Republican challenge in Democrat-dominated California is likely to embolden fundraising efforts and appeals ahead of the 2022 midterms.
The race has also given Elder, an already popular fixture in rightwing media, a more prominent national stage. “I have now become a political force here in California,” he said in a recent radio interview, on KMJ Now radio. “I’m not going to leave the stage.”
Newsom’s other Republican challengers included the former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulkner, the businessman John Cox – who also lost to Newsom in 2018 – and the reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner.
The governor, who was elected by historic margins nearly three years ago, worked throughout the recall campaign to live down his pandemic-era missteps. Parents were frustrated when public schools remained closed in California for far longer than they did in other states. Under Newsom, the state’s unemployment department struggled with major backlogs, and paid out an estimated $31bn in fraudulent claims. The governor also faced harsh criticisms over the state’s initially slow vaccine rollout and its ineffectual sign-up site. An ill-timed, lobbyist-laden dinner at the Michelin-starred French Laundry restaurant amid the state’s Covid-19 surge last November gave his opponents further ammunition against him.
Having survived the recall, Newsom will serve one more year before he is up for re-election.
More details soon.