The attempted recall of California Gov. Gavin Newsom will reach its crescendo on Tuesday, with polls and ballot return data so far showing the Democratic governor in a strong position to stay in power in the nation’s largest Democratic state.
The recall effort is a largely a mail-in ballot election. All active voters in the state receiving have been sent a ballot in the mail ahead of Election Day, but people who would like to vote in person have been able to do so, as well. In-person polls close at 8 p.m. PT on Tuesday in California.
A string of recent surveys have shown Newsom and the anti-recall effort with a strong lead. The most recent survey from the Public Policy Institute of California found that 58% of likely voters favor keeping Newsom in office, compared to 39% who would like to remove him.
But if a majority of Californians vote to remove Newsom, the second question on the ballot will determine who replaces him. Republican talk radio host Larry Elder is running away with the contest, according to the same polls.
Newsom has closed the attempted recall by nationalizing the contest, focusing on what it would mean for California — one of the most liberal states in the country — to be represented by a Republican, comparing Elder to former President Donald Trump and slamming the way other Republican governors have led their states during the coronavirus pandemic. Elder has repeatedly hit Newsom for more local issues — ranging from homelessness to drought to crime — but has ended his campaign by baselessly suggesting “shenanigans” in the contest, claims that have been echoed, without evidence, by Trump and right-wing media.
Newsom’s ouster would be a massive blow for Democrats, but if he is able to win on Tuesday, the recall failure could ding Republican plans to run against Democratic overreach in combating the coronavirus pandemic — especially in a series of competitive California House races in 2022.
Here are six things to watch for on Election Night in California:
Does Newsom run it up?
Newsom was blunt when asked on Sunday whether the margin of his potential victory on Tuesday mattered.
“A win is a win,” Newsom said. “We are just trying to get our people out.”
But national Democratic officials and operatives across the country will be watching the results with an eye on lessons to take away for the 2022 midterms and beyond. Recalls are unique elections — they are far more about the incumbent, less about the national environment and this election is happening at an uncommon time for people to vote — but if the “no” on recall vote only wins by single digits in deep blue California, several top Democrats will worry about what that portends for the party in 2022.
Newsom’s team was well aware of this headed into the recall. Early polls showed Republicans were far more animated to vote in the recall, even if they were outnumbered nearly 2-to-1 in the state. That gave Newsom’s top operatives a bit of agita, with their nightmare scenario being a fired up Republican base and a depressed — or unaware — Democratic base.
Based on ballot return data — Democrats appear to be overperforming their party registration in ballots that have already been returned — that worst-case-scenario has not been realized.
Will Elder accept the results?
Before the results are even announced, leading Republican candidate Elder has seized on former President Donald Trump’s lies about election fraud and baselessly raised the prospect of “shenanigans” in California.
Casting doubt on the integrity of elections — despite the reality that there is no evidence of widespread fraud anywhere in the United States — has become popular in GOP politics and is almost demanded by a base still loyal to Trump.
And Elder — who had previously said President Joe Biden won in 2020 “fairly and squarely” — has more recently embraced those same lies.
“The 2020 election, in my opinion, was full of shenanigans,” Elder said recently on Fox News. “And my fear is they’re going to try that in this election right here and recall.”
Elder is being egged on by Trump, who said in a statement filled with falsehoods on Monday, the day before the election: “Does anybody really believe the California Recall Election isn’t rigged?”
Elder said his campaign has a team of lawyers that will “file lawsuits in a timely fashion” if problems arise.
Did Newsom’s nationalization work?
Newsom may have been looking to keep his job as the top executive of California. But his message in the closing days of the campaign has been notably national.
Newsom repeatedly warned Democratic audiences that Elder was “to the right of Donald Trump,” invoking the former President who remains deeply unpopular in California. The governor also compared his leadership to that of Republican governors in Florida and Texas, accusing the two taking their states off a “Covid cliff.” And the Democratic leader called on numerous national Democrats — from President Joe Biden to Vice President Kamala Harris to former President Barack Obama to Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar — to come to his aid in the final weeks of the campaign.
Elder, too, has taken a national tone on his campaign by noting that he, in the possibility of a US Senate vacancy, could appoint a Republican and end Democratic control of the legislative body.
This strategy has turned Tuesday’s election into a pseudo-referendum on whether Trump — and the ongoing specter of Trumpism — can still turn Democratic voters out a little less than a year removed from the 2020 election.
Based on conversations with numerous Democratic voters in California, it is clear Trump remains front of mind.
“When you have another candidate who’s very similar to what we had 4 years ago, that’s not what we want in California,” said Maria Morales, an elected official in El Monte, California. “We want to be as progressive as we had in the past.”
A test of tough coronavirus measures’ popularity
Republicans had hoped a recall election in deep-blue California would reveal a national playbook on how to run against Democratic overreach in combating the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, if polls are accurate, it could have the opposite effect — revealing broad public support for measures like the vaccine mandates Newsom has imposed on teachers and health care workers. Newsom has not only run toward strict coronavirus measures, he has made them central to his closing argument to voters and used Elder’s pledge to roll back the rules against the Republican gubernatorial hopeful.
Other Democrats on the ballot this year, including New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and Terry McAuliffe in Virginia, have also embraced vaccine mandates.
Though all three are running in blue states, their approach showcases the increasing belief among some Democrats that the tide of public sentiment is turning against Republicans who are advocating for the personal rights and choices of those whose refusal to get vaccinated is helping prolong the pandemic.
If Newsom wins by a healthy margin, it could strengthen Democrats’ belief that tough measures intended to stop the spread of Covid-19 will pay off this year and in next year’s midterm election.
The impact of mail in voting
It could be a long night.
If the recall is close, California is not known for speedily counting ballots, meaning the eventual outcome of the contest could take some time to determine.
Every active voter in California has been mailed a ballot for this recall and, for those ballots to be counted, they must be returned either in person by the close of polls on Tuesday, or they must be postmarked by Election Day and received by county officials by September 21, seven days later.
California was one of only a few states to change their election rules for the 2020 election and require that all voters receive a ballot in the mail before Election Day. That practice continued for the recall and Democrats in the state’s legislature have advanced a bill that would ensure all active registered voters receive a ballot for all elections going forward.
Newsom did not say whether he would sign the bill during a conversation with reporters on Saturday, but did say, “The prospect of California extending it is afforded the governor of California and I hope to be there to consider the signing that.”
No celebrity winner likely
Rarely has a candidate garnered as much attention, while registering as little interest from voters, as reality television star and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner.
Jenner began the recall campaign with one major asset: In a massive field of little-known candidates, she had widespread name recognition. After all, California had seen political novices leverage their celebrity status before: In 2003, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger emerged as the Republican winner after the state recalled unpopular Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
Jenner, though, at times faced hostile and transphobic treatment — including at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas.
She stumbled in interviews, both early and late in the race, including saying on CNN last week that she supported abortion rights but also supported Texas’ decision to outlaw abortion beyond six weeks — before many women even know they are pregnant.
And she left the state, and the country, in July, in the middle of her campaign, to film a reality television show in Australia.
Jenner now enters Election Day barely registering in the polls.
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