Republicans Vying to Replace Newsom Face Off in First Recall Debate

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Paul Von Lutzow signs a petition in a recall effort against California Governor Gavin Newsom near Pasadena City Hall in Pasadena, California, on Feb. 28, 2021. (Photo by David McNew/AFP via Getty Images) (David McNew/AFP via Getty Images)

Four Republicans vying to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom in California's Sept. 14 recall election lobbed relentless attacks at the incumbent governor in a televised debate Wednesday, while largely avoiding direct confrontation with one another on a host of state policy issues.

Kevin Faulconer, former mayor of San Diego; businessman John Cox; former U.S. Rep. Doug Ose; and state Assemblymember Kevin Kiley of Rocklin appeared onstage at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Orange County.

With less than two weeks until ballots are mailed out ahead of the election, all four Republicans vowed to change the course of state government if elected to replace Newsom.

But with a Democratic supermajority in both houses of the state Legislature, the candidates also acknowledged the limits of their ability to move California in a more conservative direction.

"Whoever wins this race is going to have one year to offer a viable alternative and set our state on a new course before the next election," said Kiley, who pledged to end California's state of emergency enacted in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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The candidates' criticisms of Newsom went beyond the pandemic to his handling of housing production, water management and criminal justice policy.

Ose excoriated the governor for ongoing problems at the state's Employment Development Department, which has struggled to issue payments or even respond to questions from unemployed residents.

“This really does lay right at Gov. Newsom's feet," said Ose, who demanded that agency employees "just answer the damn phone” in one of the debate's more lively moments.

Despite a rise in coronavirus cases driven largely by infections of unvaccinated residents, only Faulconer offered viewers a full-throated plea to get the vaccine.

"I urge everyone to get vaccinated," Faulconer said. "Vaccinations are how we get our way out of this — I'm vaccinated, my family is vaccinated."

While all candidates opposed a state mandate for vaccines, Cox went further, arguing that residents who have contracted the coronavirus should not get vaccinated, despite Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance to the contrary.

"I don't think we should do mandates," said Cox, who lost to Newsom in the 2018 gubernatorial election. "I think the governor's COVID management was an absolute disaster."

The debate veered at times from discussion of state policy on issues like homelessness and crime to national topics like China relations, critical race theory and cancel culture.

"This is not a Republican primary debate," moderator Elex Michaelson of Fox 11 Los Angeles reminded the participants at one point.

The recall ballot will ask voters two questions: whether Newsom should be removed from office and who should replace him if a majority votes yes on the recall.

The debate, broadcast across the state, comes amid growing alarm among California Democrats that Newsom may be politically vulnerable if he doesn't motivate his Democratic base in California.

Recent polling from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found that among voters most likely to participate in the election, 47% support removing Newsom from office. An Emerson College poll released this week finds that a similar 46% of likely voters support the recall.

While the candidates all made their case for Newsom's removal, they mostly evaded direct confrontation with each other during Wednesday's 90-minute debate.

Ose, who represented the Sacramento area in Congress from 1999 to 2005, was the most aggressive of the quartet — criticizing Faulconer's handling of homelessness in San Diego and arguing that his own experience as a rice farmer makes him uniquely suited to deal with the state's perennial water issues.

"Water is not theoretical to me," he said. "These fellas, they know the story, they don't know the reality."

Notably absent from the stage was Larry Elder, the conservative talk show host who led the field of potential replacement candidates in both recent surveys. Elder opted to attend a fundraiser in Bakersfield instead of the debate.

While he's been in the race for just three weeks, Elder trails only Cox and Faulconer in campaign fundraising. If elected, Elder has vowed to take aim at California's environmental protections in order to spur development and economic activity.

Twenty-four of the 46 candidates who will appear on the ballot as potential replacements for Newsom are Republicans, and the all-GOP debate lineup could bolster one of the governor's key accusations about the recall effort: that it's simply a Republican attempt to bring conservative leadership to California.

Earlier Wednesday, that argument received another boost when a Sacramento Superior Court judge issued a tentative ruling allowing Newsom to label the recall campaign a "Republican recall" in the state's official voter guide.

Recall proponents contested the description in a lawsuit, but the judge ruled that they failed to prove the branding was "false" or "objectively untrue."