Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks with union members and volunteers at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 6 union hall in San Francisco on Sept. 14, 2021, just hours before polls closed in the state's second-ever gubernatorial recall election. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom beat back a recall election effort Tuesday, ending a months-long campaign with a resounding victory that served to vindicate his leadership of the state through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Less than an hour after polls closed, a tally of mostly early returns showed voters had decisively rejected the recall effort — by an almost 2-1 margin — according to results from the California Secretary of State's Office, prompting the Associated Press to call the race.
"'No' is not the only thing that was expressed tonight. I want to focus on what we said yes to as a state. We said yes to science, we said yes to vaccines, we said yes to ending this pandemic," Newsom told reporters in Sacramento minutes after the results were announced.
"I’m humbled and grateful to the millions and millions of Californians that exercise their fundamental right to vote and express themselves so overwhelmingly by rejecting the division, by rejecting the cynicism, by rejecting so much of the negativity that’s defined our politics in this country over the course of so many years," he said.
Tuesday's vote brings to a close a campaign that in politics began a lifetime ago — in the early weeks of 2020.
The petition to remove Newsom from office, launched by retired Yolo County sheriff's deputy Orrin Heatlie, was one of six that had been circulated by the governor's opponents 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. In early November, a Sacramento judge gave the recall campaign an additional four months to collect signatures, citing the difficulties in distributing petitions during the state's coronavirus stay-at-home order. Later that same day, Newsom dined at the upscale French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley, against his own guidance to avoid gatherings as the spread of COVID-19 picked up pace.
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.
While that sentiment did not ultimately prove strong enough to convince a majority of voters to support his ouster, polls show it continues to trail him.
In a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS) survey conducted this month, 56% of likely voters agreed with the following statement: "Through his own actions, Newsom has demonstrated that the strict policies and behaviors that he wants others to follow during the pandemic don’t apply to him."
Voter discontent snowballed in early December when Newsom instituted a second round of sweeping closures of businesses and activities, even shuttering outdoor dining, as COVID infection rates soared statewide. And midway into the academic year, as most California kids were still attending classes virtually, many faulted the governor for not doing more to open schools — and lambasting him for sending his own four children back to private school.
Those mounting frustrations spurred his detractors into action. Instead of waiting for the 2022 gubernatorial election, thousands of voters signed petitions to put the governor's fate on the ballot this year.
"A few months ago, I mean, there was a great opening where Republicans really could have taken advantage of the situation in California and introduced a candidate that could have been able to triangulate with the electorate," Luis Alvarado, a Republican consultant, told KQED. "But once again, I think as Republicans, we sometimes just don't understand the map or we just truly believe that miracles can happen."
"You have to really look back and say that late July period when Republicans were engaged and really not so much the other voters was an aberration," IGS Director Mark DiCamillo said. As Democratic and independent voters became more engaged over the last month, he noted, the race reflected "that big Democratic advantage that you usually see in statewide elections."
Polling of the entire electorate on the recall question has remained remarkably steady, and notably similar to the results of the 2018 governor's race. The last IGS preelection survey put support for the recall at 38% of likely voters — the same percentage of votes received by Republican John Cox (a current recall candidate) three years ago when he ran against Newsom and was handily defeated.
"It's pretty much playing out as we expected," said DiCamillo, who anticipated Newsom’s margin would narrow slightly — to about a 25-point advantage — as more day-of votes, in support of the recall, were tallied. "Still, it's a big win for Gavin Newsom."
But over the summer, as a total of 46 candidates threw their hats into the ring, pollsters predicted a smaller and more conservative electorate for the recall election — a dynamic that could pose a threat to Newsom, with the thinking that many Democrats would skip the off-year vote.
Fears of a low-turnout election were exacerbated by the decision of Democratic state lawmakers to speed up the recall process. In June, as COVID rates plummeted and vaccines became widely available, they approved a change in state election law that allowed the vote to be moved up, to mid-September, in the hopes of capturing the post-pandemic goodwill of voters.
Instead, the start of voting coincided with the rise of the coronavirus delta variant in the state, largely affecting the unvaccinated. And by early August, polls suggested Newsom faced the real risk of being removed from office.
But the resurgence of the virus also allowed Newsom to draw his clearest contrast between himself and the candidates hoping to replace him, most notably conservative radio talk show host Larry Elder.
"This [recall] is something that is bigger than any of this election stuff, which is that we are in a pandemic," state Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, told KQED Tuesday night, referring to the last 18 months as "the most traumatic time in American history."
"Gavin’s had his stumbles in this space, but he also has led in this space. And the consequences go beyond partisanship," Glazer said. "It's bigger than the recall. It's trust in government, it's trust in science."
Elder’s dominance of the replacement candidate field also presented Newsom’s campaign with the foil it was desperately searching for — after previous attempts to try to link the recall to Republican voter suppression efforts or the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack fell flat.
But Elder's emergence as the clear favorite for replacing Newsom — on the second question on the ballot — allowed the governor to turn the race from a referendum to a choice: Newsom spent the final days of the campaign slamming Elder's conservative positions on climate policy, abortion and the minimum wage.
"[Republicans] don't understand that when you have a candidate that is truly aligned with Trumpism ... that doesn't actually resonate with Californians," Alvarado, the GOP consultant, said.
Although Elder remained the overwhelming favorite among voters who filled in the second question — garnering the support of well over 40% of those voters — he received nowhere near the number of votes needed to oust Newsom. Even before the votes had been counted, he and his supporters blamed the outcome on election fraud.
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"I think the rhetoric we heard about, that Mr. Elder was espousing, is antiquated and racist and classist and sexist," said Holly Mitchell, a Democratic Los Angeles County supervisor. "And that white supremacist ideology lost tonight. And I couldn't be more proud of my fellow Californians."
Mitchell said the vast number of challenges California faces, from creating more affordable housing to addressing environmental and health crises, is what "for me, made this recall effort and the money wasted so deeply offensive."
"We have real work to do," she said, calling the contest an unnecessary distraction. "But we're back on track and we'll all be back to work first thing in the morning, representing the needs of California residents."
Tuesday's vote could end up being the last gubernatorial recall held under the current rules, which were enacted by voters and added to the state constitution in 1911, an effort by Progressives to curb rampant political corruption.
Leading state Democratic officials, including Secretary of State Shirley Weber, have already voiced support for reexamining the process. Advocates for reform note that other states with recall provisions have much higher thresholds for reaching the ballot, such as requiring a greater percentage of signatures or sanctioning it only if an official is convicted of an act of malfeasance or a serious crime.
Tuesday's vote is only the fourth gubernatorial recall election in U.S. history. Two of those challenges have been in California — the last in 2003, when actor Arnold Schwarzenegger successfully ousted then-Gov. Gray Davis.
And while three-quarters of the voters surveyed in the IGS poll said they support retaining the recall provision, most said they were open to various changes that would make it harder to remove state officials from office.
"I think the legislators coming out of this may choose to do what is most advantageous to perhaps the majority party. I mean, that's the way politics works. The winning side gets to decide the next move," DiCamillo, the director of IGS, said.
"But I think for voters, they do want to see some reform. So it really becomes a question of what those specific reforms are and whether they seem fair."
KQED's Matthew Green contributed reporting to this post.