SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Despite warnings the race would be close, California Gov. Gavin Newsom decisively defeated efforts to kick him out of office, a win the Democrat cast as an endorsement of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his party’s liberal values.
Newsom cruised to victory in the recall election Tuesday, boosted by healthy turnout among an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate, ensuring the nation’s most populous state will remain a laboratory for progressive policies.
With an estimated two-thirds of ballots counted, the “no” response to the question of whether to recall Newsom was ahead by a 30-point margin. That lead was built on votes cast by mail and in advance of Tuesday’s in-person balloting. While likely to shrink somewhat in the days ahead as votes cast at polling places are counted, Newsom’s lead couldn’t be overcome.
“‘No’ is not the only thing that was expressed tonight,” Newsom said. “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.”
Republican talk radio host Larry Elder almost certainly would have replaced Newsom had the recall succeeded, an outcome that would have brought a polar opposite political worldview to Sacramento.
The recall turned on Newsom’s approach to the pandemic, including mask and vaccine mandates, and Democrats cheered the outcome as evidence voters approve of their strategy. The race also was a test of whether opposition to former President Donald Trump and his brand of conservative politics remains a motivating force for Democrats and independents, as the party looks ahead to midterm elections next year.
Republicans had hoped for proof that frustrations over months of pandemic precautions would drive voters away from Democrats. The GOP won back four U.S. House seats last year, success that Republican leaders had hoped indicated revived signs of life in a state controlled by Democrats for more than a decade.
But a recall election is an imperfect barometer — particularly of national trends. Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1 in California, so the results may not translate to governors in toss-up states or reflect how voters will judge members of Congress next year.
Trump, who had largely stayed out of the contest, made unsubstantiated claims that the election was rigged in the closing days that were echoed by Elder’s campaign. Elder did not mention fraud as he addressed his supporters after the results were in — while hinting his first campaign may not be his last.
“Let’s be gracious in defeat. We may have lost the battle, but we are going to win the war,” he said, later adding that the recall has forced Democrats to focus on issues such as homelessness and California’s high cost of living.
Newsom for months had likened the recall to efforts by Trump and his supporters to overturn the presidential election and a push in Republican-led states to restrict voting access.
“Democracy is not a football, you don’t throw it around. It’s more like — I don’t know — an antique vase,” Newsom said after his win. “You can drop it, smash it into a million different pieces — and that’s what we’re capable of doing if we don’t stand up to meet the moment and push back.”
He became the second governor in U.S. history to defeat a recall, cementing him as a prominent figure in national Democratic politics and preserving his prospects for a future run. Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall in 2012.
California voters were asked two questions: Should Newsom be recalled, and, if so, who should replace him? Only a handful of the 46 names on the replacement ballot had public recognition, but most failed to gain traction with voters.
Elder entered the race just two months ago and quickly rose to the top of the pack. But that allowed Newsom to turn the campaign into a choice between the two men, rather than a referendum on his own performance.
Newsom seized on Elder’s opposition to the minimum wage and abortion rights as evidence he was outside the mainstream in California. The governor branded him “more extreme than Trump,” while President Joe Biden, who campaigned for Newsom, called him “the closest thing to a Trump clone I’ve ever seen.”
Though the contest didn’t quite bring the circus-like element of California’s 2003 recall — when voters replaced Democratic Gov. Gray Davis with Republican movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger — it featured quirky moments.
Reality TV star and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner entered the race but gained little momentum and left the state for part of the campaign to film a reality show in Australia. Businessman John Cox, who lost badly to Newsom in 2018, hired a live bear to join him, branding himself as the “beast” to Newsom’s “beauty.”
Newsom will soon be campaigning again; he’s up for reelection next year.
Orrin Heatlie, the Republican who launched the recall effort last year, cast it as a “David and Goliath” battle and said it was telling that Newsom had called on national Democrats like Biden to “salvage his damaged political career.”
The president and other prominent Democrats offered Newsom support in the race’s closing days, while national Republican leaders largely kept the contest at arm’s length.
The recall needed 1.5 million signatures to make the ballot out of California’s 22 million registered voters. It never would have come before voters if a judge hadn’t given organizers four extra months to gather signatures due to the pandemic. That decision came the same day Newsom attended a maskless dinner at the lavish French Laundry restaurant with lobbyists and friends, stirring outcry.
Supporters of the recall expressed frustration over monthslong business closures and restrictions that kept most children out of classrooms. Rising homicides, a homelessness crisis and an unemployment fraud scandal further angered Newsom’s critics.
But the broader public stayed on his side. Polling from the Public Policy Institute of California showed his approval rating remaining above 50% throughout the pandemic. With weeks to go, the institute’s poll showed 60% of Californians approved of Newsom’s handling of the pandemic.
The rise of the highly contagious delta variant led Newsom to frame the race as one of “life or death” consequences. He pointed to Texas and Florida, which were seeing worsening surges as their Republican governors rejected mask and vaccine mandates, as cautionary tales for what California could become.
Newsom has been viewed as a potential White House contender since at least 2004, when he defied federal law to issue marriage licenses to LGBT couples as mayor of San Francisco. His victory maintained those prospects, though he will still have to navigate around the ambitions of Harris, who came up through San Francisco politics alongside Newsom.
He came to the contest with advantages. California’s electorate is less Republican, less white and younger than it was in 2003, when voters booted the Democratic Davis. Newsom was allowed to raise unlimited funds, dwarfing his competitors while flooding TV screens with advertising. Public worker unions and business and tech executives poured millions into his campaign.
Associated Press writers Julie Watson in San Diego, Jocelyn Gecker in Lafayette, Don Thompson in Lincoln, Christopher Weber in Los Angeles and Adam Beam in Sacramento contributed.