How a sharp contrast on Covid has reshaped the California recall race

How a sharp contrast on Covid has reshaped the California recall race
Genaro Molina/AFP/Getty Images

The effort to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom took off last year amid a backlash to his aggressive restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But when the last ballots are cast in Tuesday’s special election, it may be the fears about the surge of the Delta variant that allow him to keep his job.

For more than a year, the Covid-19 pandemic has been the dominant theme in the Republican-led effort to oust the Democratic governor — and it is still the central factor in the closing days of this race. Day after day in his ads and his public appearances, Newsom frames the recall vote as a “life and death” choice for voters, while his leading GOP opponent, conservative talk radio host Larry Elder, promises to do away with Newsom’s mask and vaccine mandates as one of his first acts in office.

Ironically, it’s that contrast on the issue that at first seemed to make Newsom most vulnerable that has shifted the trajectory of the race in his favor. In late July and early August, California Democratic leaders were worried as the polls tightened and Newsom appeared to be in trouble. Despite running in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2 to 1, his party’s voters were disinterested in the recall, while Republicans were enthusiastic as Elder emerged as the GOP frontrunner to replace the governor.

But around that same time, the highly contagious Delta variant was taking hold in California and across the nation. Cases in children began rising at an alarming rate just as parents were preparing to send them back to school. The power of governors came into sharper focus as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, both Republicans, tried to prevent school districts from enforcing mask mandates in schools. Suddenly the prospect of a governor like Elder, who might eliminate pro-active measures that have helped mitigated the surge, seemed frightening to many Democratic voters who might have otherwise sat out the special election.

In the most recent polling from the Public Policy Institute of California, only 39% of likely voters said they would vote “yes” on recalling Newsom, while 58% said they’d vote “no.” A majority of voters would have to support the recall effort in order for it to be successful, but if it does succeed, a replacement candidate could win with a mere plurality.

Newsom’s advisers note that he played “offense rather than defense” on the Delta variant and that they were able to run on policy by highlighting his aggressive approach to stopping the spread of the virus rather than shying away from it — a message that national Democrats have helped him deliver in the final weeks of the race. For Vice President Kamala Harris, who was with the governor on Wednesday, and President Joe Biden, who unveiled new vaccine mandates Thursday and is expected to visit the state on Monday, leaning into the Democratic governor’s management of the pandemic is also a defense of their own strategy and a test of the party’s messaging heading into a midterm election year.

A sharp messaging contrast

Elder has tried to channel the anger at Newsom, who was hazed by his opponents as “a tyrant” during the height of the pandemic last year, by pledging to make his first action as governor the repeal of Newsom’s mask mandates and required testing for state workers.

He often, to applause at his events, pledges to do this before he has his “first cup of tea” as governor — something Newsom has mocked him for. Elder and other GOP candidates have repeatedly reminded voters about Newsom’s unmasked visit to an elite Napa Valley restaurant last November for a birthday party at a time when he was urging Californians to stay home and avoid large gatherings outside their household — a mistake Newsom acknowledged and apologized for.

While Elder says he has been vaccinated because of his age and an “underlying co-morbidity,” he told reporters on Wednesday in Los Angeles that more people should accept and respect other Californians who choose not to get vaccinated.

“What I’m opposed to are vaccine mandates and face mask mandates,” Elder said. When pressed on whether he, as governor, would punish businesses that have mask or vaccine mandates, the Republican demurred and said he didn’t believe his power would extend that far.

“I do believe that virtually everybody in California who wants to be vaccinated has been able to be vaccinated,” Elder said. “If you’re poor, you can get vaccinated for free. A lot of people have made a very different decision. And I think we ought to respect that decision.”

Newsom, by contrast, warned at a Wednesday rally with Harris that Elder would “walk us off that same Covid cliff as Texas, and Florida, Tennessee and Alabama and Georgia,” where cases have been surging among unvaccinated people.

“It’s true California has among the lowest case rates in America, and among the highest vaccination rates in America. Because we believe in science, we believe in public health,” Newsom continued. “All that is on the ballot in the next week.”

The Democratic governor hammered that message again at an appearance in Fresno Thursday: “The consequences couldn’t be more pronounced; couldn’t be more sharp. This is about life and death.”

Last year, it was not just Republicans, but also some Democrats and independents, who were frustrated by what they viewed as erratic Covid protocols from the governor that were confusing and hard to follow — including a four-tiered, color-coded system that he ultimately abandoned that guided phased re-openings of everything from shopping centers to places of worship. Many parents also felt Newsom had catered too much to the teachers’ unions and did not do enough to get schools reopened during the 2020-2021 academic year.

For all of the complaints about Newsom’s Covid shutdowns and varying regulations last year, the majority of Californians agree with him — not his GOP rivals — on mask and vaccine mandates. And there is a growing fury among some vaccinated Californians about how the unvaccinated are putting them and their children in danger. As of Thursday, 56.8% of Californians were fully vaccinated and the seven-day case positivity rate was 4.5%, according to the California Department of Public Health.

In a CBS News/YouGov poll in early August, 67% of Californians said private businesses or employers should be allowed to mandate vaccines for their employees and 69% said vaccines should be mandatory for health care workers.

In Public Policy Institute of California’s recent survey, Californians named Covid-19 as the top issue facing the state, outpacing jobs and the economy, homelessness and housing. Among likely voters, 58% approved of the way Newsom was handling the coronavirus outbreak.

National Democrats echo Newsom’s message

As Newsom has nationalized the race and warned that California could go the way of Florida and Texas, so too have the top Democrats who have come to the governor’s defense.

Rallying for the governor last weekend, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren framed the race as a “life and death choice” where the “consequence can’t be more pronounced” because of the coronavirus. Harris on Wednesday lauded Newsom as someone who “stepped up to the moment” on Covid and “did not say this problem is too big for me.” And former President Barack Obama, in an ad released on Wednesday, said the race was as a decision “between protecting our kids and putting them at risk” of getting Covid.

“Governor Newsom has spent the past year and a half protecting California communities,” Obama said. “Now Republicans are trying to recall him from office and overturn common-sense Covid safety measures for health care workers and school staff.”

The strategy gets at something Democrats have believed from the outset of the race: While anger at Newsom over Covid may have fueled the recall fire, Californians would ultimately side with him when deciding who would best handle decisions about their health and the health of their families.

Conversations with Newsom supporters at his events have highlighted this.

“A huge part of it for me, and for other people I know, is Covid,” said Kayla Dobson, a 33-year-old who lives in Los Angeles and is supporting Newsom. “It is really Covid. It is so clear — obviously with a lot of political issues there is so much nuance, but with Covid it is really unnuanced in a lot of ways. … I am not a single-issue voter, but on this I can be a single-issue voter.”

Even Cindy Mediavilla, a 67-year-old Democrat who voted against Newsom in the 2018 gubernatorial election, said she believes he has done a “very admirable job as governor” when it comes to tackling the virus.

“For me, the whole four years under the previous White House administration — a person whose name I never mention — living in California was like ‘thank God we live here, in a sane state,'” Mediavilla said. “So just the idea of a Republican in Sacramento, I can’t stand it.”

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