LOS ANGELES — Donald Trump could swing the California governorship to a Republican. Merely by his absence.
Democrats turned out in record numbers when they had Trump to vote against. But in one of the first, large-scale tests of voter enthusiasm for Democrats in the post-Trump era, California’s surprisingly close gubernatorial recall election is laying bare just how hard it may be for the party to motivate its base without Trump as a foil.
Even in this bastion of progressive politics, ominous signs for the Democratic Party are everywhere. A CBS News-YouGov poll last week found voters who cast ballots for Joe Biden were less likely than Trump supporters to be very closely following the recall — and less motivated to vote. In a Berkeley-IGS survey, registered Democrats and independent voters were nearly 30 percentage points less likely than Republicans to express a high level of interest in voting in the election.
The lack of enthusiasm is so concerning to Democrats that Gavin Newsom, the state’s Democratic governor, has been furiously working to yoke his main Republican opponent, Larry Elder, to Trump, while volunteers working with the progressive advocacy group Courage California texted voters a plea last week not to throw their mail ballots away.
“Can Democrats win without having Trump as their foil? This is the challenge,” said Gray Davis, the former California governor who was recalled in 2003.
“We’re going to find out pretty soon,” he said in an interview.
In a heavily Democratic state where Newsom, a first-term Democrat, beat his Republican opponent in 2018 by 3 million votes and where Joe Biden clobbered Trump by nearly 30 percentage points two years later, the recall stands within a few percentage points of passing next month. That once-unthinkably close margin is almost entirely the result of tepid Democratic interest in the race. And even if Newsom prevails, as is widely expected, the competitiveness of the contest is the latest indicator that turnout gains made by Democrats nationally during the Trump era may be unsustainable — with significant implications for Democrats ahead of the midterm elections next year.
It isn’t just California. In a special election in May in a Texas House district Trump carried by just 3 percentage points in 2020, the top Democratic candidate in the field failed in a low-turnout contest to even advance from the all-party primary. Last week in Connecticut, a Republican won a special election for a state Senate seat in a district Biden carried by 20 percentage points in November.
As the returns came in from that race in Connecticut, David Keith, a Democratic strategist who has worked on House contests around the country, called it “very much a barometer.”
Turning out Democratic voters without Trump on the ballot, he said, is “is a big deal problem for Democrats … They ran as hard as they could run [in Connecticut] and still came up short.”
In California, the FiveThirtyEight polling average late last week had Newsom retaining his job, but by a narrow margin, at just more than 1 percentage point. His job approval ratings remain above water, and all registered voters in the state are being mailed a ballot. The widely held belief of political professionals of both parties in California is that Newsom will likely win. But it is far closer than most expected.
“I think he pulls it out,” Antonio Villaraigosa, the Democratic former mayor of Los Angeles, said of Newsom. “But it’s going to be close. It shouldn’t be. But it’s going to be very, very close because Republicans are animated, and we’re not.”
Explanations for a lackluster Democratic electorate are wide-ranging. Democrats who expect Newsom to win may be complacent. Democrats who object to the recall in the first place may simply not participate. The resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic is consuming public attention. And the election is unfolding in late summer in an off-election year, when voters are not conditioned to be casting ballots.
But the absence of Trump is a significant enough factor that Newsom is working to both raise Elder’s profile and tie him to the twice-impeached former president. In a recent campaign ad, a narrator highlights Elder’s opposition to coronavirus restrictions, calls the election “a matter of life and death” and offers a photograph of Elder standing beside Trump with their thumbs up. Newsom, campaigning recently in San Francisco, called Elder “to the right of Donald Trump,” and he said, “That’s what’s at stake in this election.”
“They want Trump to be on the ballot. That’s the whole thing. That’s the whole premise of the campaign,” said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist and publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which handicaps elections in the state. “From the beginning, the fundamental premise of the anti-recall strategy has been that this is a referendum on Donald Trump, not on Gavin Newsom.”
In a normal election with multiple candidates and issues on the ballot, that might be enough. But in the recall, there are only two questions — first, whether a voter wants to recall Newsom and second, if he is ousted, which of 46 candidates they want to replace him, including Elder, 2018 Republican candidate John Cox, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner. Newsom is encouraging voters — who have already received their ballots in the all-by-mail election — to check “no” on the first question and leave the second part blank.
“What voters have to take into consideration, and what’s at stake in this Sept. 14 recall election,” said Mark Gonzalez, chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, is that “if Democrats don’t vote in the recall election … we could wake up with a Trump supporter as governor of California.”
Newsom has a massive financial advantage, raising about $57 million since the start of the year, and his campaign says it is assembling the largest in-person get-out-the-vote operation in state history, with more than 600 paid field staff throughout the state. In its internal surveys, the campaign said it’s seen an uptick in recent days in voter familiarity with the recall and interest in turning out.
“Given the fundamentals of the state and the electorate, it would take a remarkable change in voter behavior for the Republicans to recall Newsom,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a Democratic strategist and adviser to former Sen. Barbara Boxer.
But Newsom has not run a seamless campaign. There was the dinner party for a top political adviser that he attended last year at the upscale restaurant The French Laundry, just as he was discouraging Californians from gathering for the holidays. There was the error that left him appearing on the ballot without the Democratic Party label after his name. When news broke last week that Newsom had sold his $5.9 million Bay Area home in May, Republicans reading the headlines could hardly believe their good fortune.
“The guy is his own worst enemy,” said Tom Del Beccaro, a former state Republican Party chairman who now chairs Rescue California, a group that has raised and spent close to $5 million in support of the recall. “What’s he doing selling his $5.9 million house in the middle of the recall? He can’t help himself.”
Del Beccaro’s Republican Party in California represents less than a quarter of the electorate. But “these problems Democrats are having with turnout more than level the playing field,” he said.
That is probably overstating Republicans’ case. But Democrats and political observers in California are no longer laughing the recall off, as many did for much of last year.
One reason it’s hard to discount the possibility of an upset-inducing swing in voter behavior is that in a post-Trump, off-year election conducted amid a lingering pandemic, it’s almost impossible to accurately interpret the composition of the vote, even as strategists begin to track the partisan breakdown of mail ballots. That’s because no one knows if voting in the recall or in the midterms in 2022 will follow the pre-Trump template of Republicans turning out in higher numbers earlier than Democrats — or if Republicans will hold onto their ballots, as many did in 2020, because of baseless concerns stoked by Trump about the integrity of absentee voting.
“We don’t know what world we’re in,” said Paul Mitchell, an elections expert who tracks vote-by-mail ballots in California. “Are we in the universe of Republicans wanting to vote early because they always vote early … or are we in the universe where Republicans vote late because they don’t trust vote by mail?”
He said, “We might think we know something, but we don’t even know what universe we’re in.”
Davis, the former governor, cited Newsom’s job performance rating, Democrats’ massive voter registration advantage, the benefit of ballots being mailed to every voter and the endorsements of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, a Californian, in the governor’s favor.
But no one expects turnout to meet levels they did when Trump was on the ballot and Democrats were paying more attention.
“What he has working against him,” Davis said of Newsom, is that “people are generally tuned out in August.”
“I doubt if half the people in the state know there’s an election in 30 days,” Davis said. “That is complicating the problem for Democrats.”
He said, “We have to rise to the challenge.”
Colby Bermel and Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.
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