Why you should care what happens in California’s recall election
This could be a GOP dress rehearsal.
“Now let me welcome everybody to the Wild Wild West,” goes the first verse in my favorite California paean, Tupac’s “California Love.” When it comes to the Golden State’s politics, at least, Tupac was spot on.
Today California voters will decide whether to recall Governor Gavin Newsom, and if so, with whom to replace him. How we even got to this point is a long story, owing in some part to California’s permissive recall process and Newsom’s own folly involving a fancy meal without a mask during the height of California’s lockdown.
A California gubernatorial recall effort requires petition signatures from 12% of the number of votes cast for the office of governor in the previous election. That amounts to just 1.5 million signatures — in a state of nearly 40 million people. Once the petition passes, voters are asked two questions at the polls:
“Shall GAVIN NEWSOM be recalled (removed) from the office of Governor?”
A list of potential replacements.
Now California is famously liberal, with voter registration showing a 22-point advantage for Democrats. And current polling shows a comfortable margin of support for retaining Newsom. That said, it’s hard to predict who’s likely to vote in an oddball election like this one, taking place in September the year after a presidential election.
The ballot inherently disadvantages the sitting governor because it frames the election not as a choice between several candidates, like most elections, but rather as an up or down vote, followed by a choice of alternatives. Just take a look at this confusing thing yourself.
To retain his seat, Governor Newsom needs 50% + 1 “No” votes. If he yields anything lower, he’ll be replaced by the highest voter getter of the other … 46 registered candidates. Yes, there are 46 registered candidates — this is the process that gave the world “the Governator,” after all. They include everyone from Caitlyn Jenner to Angelyne, a Los Angeles Billboard icon, to the apparent frontrunner to replace Newsom if recalled, conservative radio host Larry Elder. It’s not out of the realm of possibility — in fact, it’s likely — that Governor Newsom could come away with 49% of the vote, and be replaced with a candidate, likely Elder, who earned no more than 20% of the vote.
Elder is a regionally-known Rush Limbaugh wannabe who’s made his name panning straw-man liberal arguments in the most offensive ways (and right now he’s polling more than 20 points ahead of the other challengers). Here’s Elder on sexual harassment in the workplace: “Smart women simply overlook some boorish behavior by men. Off-color jokes and stupid remarks may be irritating, but a smart woman deals with this.” He also said that employers should be able to discriminate against pregnant women, arguing that employers who ask about pregnancy plans in an interview were just “protecting an investment.” In response to a conversation about reparations, Elder, who is Black said, “You could make an argument that the people that are owed reparations are not only just Black people but also the people whose property was taken away after the end of the Civil War.”
Now imagine that guy governing America’s largest and most progressive state. If Newsom is recalled, that’s who Californians will get. Chances are, you don’t live in California, and you might be asking yourself why you should even care. Here are three reasons.
1) California’s policies affect you, even if you don’t know it.
Your car’s tailpipe emissions are cleaner because of California. For decades, California’s tailpipe emissions standards have been the most stringent in the country. And because California is the country’s largest state — the fifth largest economy in the world on its own — automakers were forced to comply or risk not being able to sell their cars in the state. Indeed, the Trump administration launched an effort to challenge California’s right to set emissions standards, with support from the world’s largest automakers. That effort fizzled after Trump lost.
Similarly, the Biden Administration recently announced a full-bore effort to remake America’s energy system around solar, hoping to rely on it for 40% of America’s energy needs. That, of course, depends on the availability and cost of solar panels. The cost of solar panels have dropped consistently in large part because of a growing customer base. And again, we have California to thank for that. California has offered some of the most generous rooftop solar subsidy programs in the country. Though the particulars of the program have come under justifiable scrutiny for failing to account for broad inequities in solar access and electricity costs, the program has helped prop up America’s solar industry, making Biden’s ambitious goals even viable in the first place.
2) The GOP is betting on the culture war … and against democracy.
I already gave you a flavor of how noxious Elder, the alternative to Newsom, might be. That guy’s raised nearly $12 million dollars in his election bid. How? He’s tapped into a national network of GOP donors who believe that Larry Elder — another media celebrity with no filter — is the kind of GOP politician who can win. The national GOP is doubling down on mini-Trumps because they believe the culture war is a winner.
But they’re also betting against democracy. Already, Republicans are offering an infamous ultimatum: either we win or we’ll label it a fraudulent election. Indeed, Larry Elder’s candidate committee posted a website fabricating that “Statistical analyses used to detect fraud in elections held in 3rd-world nations (such as Russia, Venezuela, and Iran) have detected fraud in California resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor,” — before the election was even called. That’s not a position anyone with any belief in democracy could stomach, which tells us just how much use the modern GOP has for democracy.
Run mini-Trumps and run against democracy: this is the new GOP playbook. And if it can win in California, they believe, it can win anywhere. If Newsom is recalled and Elder is elected governor, you better believe that playbook is coming to a community near you … and back to the presidential election in 2024.
3) Senator Diane Feinstein.
Diane Feinstein was elected to her sixth term in the Senate in 2018. Her term ends in 2024, when she will be 91 years old. Open questions linger about her health. Should Larry Elder win in the recall, he’ll have the authority to appoint her successor should she be unable to complete the term, potentially upsetting the delicate balance of power in the Senate and throwing control to Mitch McConnell … again.
If you happened to be reading this in California and you haven’t voted NO on the recall yet, what are you waiting for? If you’ve got family or friends in the Golden State — send them a note to make sure they’ve done their civic duty.
And the rest of us? Pay attention. Movies, TV, fashion … what starts in California has a tendency to spread. For better or worse, tonight’s political outcome may be a sign of things to come.