How Gavin Newsom survived the recall

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LOS ANGELES — For a moment this summer, Gavin Newsom’s inner circle feared the effort to recall him could be drawing uncomfortably close.

In late July and early August, the Delta variant of the coronavirus was raging, threatening school reopenings in the fall. Public polling showed many Democrats were so apathetic about voting that it was possible — if turnout was low enough — that a Republican could win.

“Clearly there was a time in the summer where the thing went from … this optimism [about Covid] like, ‘Oh, the war is over, it’s ended,’ to ‘Oh, shit,’” said Ace Smith, Newsom’s lead strategist.

Against that backdrop, principals involved in the campaign detailed a furious effort by Newsom's campaign to put the race out of Republicans' reach. The turning point for the campaign, according to Newsom’s strategists, came in the governor’s adoption of aggressive mask and vaccine mandates — both widely popular in California — and in Newsom’s avalanche of spending depicting his top Republican opponent, Larry Elder, as an anti-science clone of former President Donald Trump.

“It was about making the campaign a referendum on the opposition, not just a kind of a dunking booth exercise on the incumbent,” said Sean Clegg, a senior Newsom strategist who oversaw paid media and messaging for the campaign.

Clegg reduced the Newsom campaign’s closing argument not to a rejection of the alternative: “A ‘Yes’ vote for this recall means electing a pro-Trump, anti-vaccine Republican who is going to reverse the mandates on Day One.” It was the presentation of that “simple choice,” Smith said, that marked the “turning point” in the campaign, cementing Newsom's victory.

By Labor Day, Newsom had turned what started as an up-or-down vote on his governorship into a choice between him and Elder, the radio show host Newsom relentlessly tethered to Trump — with a predictable outcome in this staunchly Democratic state. For Newsom, the emergence of Elder as the GOP's standard bearer was an unexpected gift, so beneficial to the governor that many Republicans came to resent Elder for turning the race into a traditional — and unwinnable — choice election.

Within 50 minutes of voting centers closing Tuesday night, Newsom’s defeat of the recall was called by four television networks and the Associated Press, ending a race that began as an almost laughable longshot, became unexpectedly competitive, then settled where it began, with Newsom prevailing in a blowout.

Even before the final ballots were cast, Newsom’s advisers were selling his campaign as a template for Democrats nationally in the midterm elections. Mask and vaccine mandates such as those embraced by Newsom are viewed favorably by a majority of Americans, polls show. For Democrats, Smith said, “there’s a huge thing to take away, which is don’t be timid on Covid. That was the turning point in this campaign, when Newsom came out and took bold action on vaccine mandates. … We go out and we figure out that not only is it really good policy and bold policy, which he was going to do no matter what, but it’s actually really good politics.”

If Newsom’s response to the coronavirus ultimately helped him beat the recall, it was also one of the primary reasons that he faced the threat of ouster in the first place. Late last year, Newsom’s opponents, citing difficulty collecting signatures during the pandemic, successfully petitioned a Sacramento judge last year to extend their signature-gathering window for an extra 120 days, giving them enough time to turn what would likely have been a doomed signature-gathering effort into a successful one. That same month, Newsom was caught attending a dinner party at The French Laundry, a world-famous restaurant in California’s Napa Valley, just as he was discouraging the state’s residents from gathering for the holidays.

Newsom later called his outing a “bad mistake,” and months later, advisers still had difficulty explaining it. One adviser simply shook his head. Another said, “When you’re the governor of California, you’ve got advance teams, you’ve got people who can figure this shit out for you, and it wasn’t done.”

“It was incredibly damaging. Maybe not in the end. But that was the boost that the recall organizers needed,” the adviser said. “Most political news doesn’t get to the awareness of quote-unquote real people, and that one broke through, because it was easy to understand, and it’s easy to get upset about no matter what your political affiliation is.”

Republicans hammered Newsom for the hypocrisy. Yet even then — even after the recall qualified for the ballot — the numbers were on his side. This is a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1, where Newsom beat his Republican opponent in 2018, John Cox, by 3 million votes, and where Joe Biden, who campaigned for Newsom in Long Beach on Monday, beat Trump by nearly 30 percentage points two years later.

With the power of incumbency Newsom raised more than $70 million, dwarfing his Republican opponents. And Newsom’s allies successfully dissuaded any other prominent Democrat from joining the race. Unlike in 2003, when then-Gov. Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger — with Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante also on the ballot — Democratic-leaning voters on Tuesday had no viable alternative to siphon votes away from Newsom.

In an interview, Davis said he thought before California’s filing deadline this year that a celebrity might get into the race, a wild card that he said could have “greatly improved” Republicans' prospects.

“In California, celebrity is the coin of the real,” Davis said. “If you have Oprah Winfrey running, or you have ‘The Rock’ [Dwayne Johnson] running, or you have George Clooney running, you have some megastar. … It’s the currency of the realm, and it matters more in California than some other place.”

But no megastar got in. One celebrity who ran, Caitlyn Jenner, was a non-factor. And the other, Elder, was nothing short of a boon to Newsom’s campaign — a ready-made highlight reel with his opposition to gun control and the minimum wage, an ex-fiancee who said he brandished a gun at her and his suggestion that it could be argued slave owners were owed reparations.

The entrance of Elder into the race — and his vaulting ahead of every other Republican contender — “woke everybody up, and just at the right time,” a Newsom adviser said. “That made it real.”

Even many Republicans recognized the damage Elder was doing. In a race where the GOP was desperate to train the public’s attention singularly on Newsom, a strategist for recall proponents said, “Elder’s entry into the race killed us because it gave Newsom the ability to take the focus off himself and put it on the crazy anti-vax guy.”

The strategist said, “You combine that with Delta virus exploding and in the news every day, it was a perfect storm.”

Despite the benefit of having Elder to pummel, Newsom still had to persuade Democrats that it was worth turning out. As recently as last month, public polling suggested Democrats were far less motivated than Republicans to vote in the election — and less likely to participate in the all-mail election. Complicating Newsom’s effort was the election being held in an off year.

Newsom’s internal polling had never showed him trailing. But Clegg said the “profound enthusiasm gap was real … It’s what we worried about the most.”

“For us, this was always a question of are we going to wake up the blue giant or are we going to sleep through this thing,” he said. “The challenge for the campaign from the very beginning was to create a sense of urgency on our side.”

But Newsom’s advisers believed public polls that put the race within the margin of error were incorrectly assuming unenthusiastic Democrats wouldn’t vote. Democrats, Smith said, may not have been excited about voting in a recall election, but “it was more like taking out the trash. They’re just going to do it.”

Still, the attention those public polls drew to the race were invaluable for Newsom, creating a sense of urgency among Democratic voters.

Smith said, “Every time something wakes up your base, you want to send them a thank you note.”

By Labor Day weekend, the Newsom campaign’s internal polling had him defeating the recall by 10 percentage points or more, according to multiple advisers. And after that, their numbers barely moved. Before Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vice President Kamala Harris and Biden came to the state to campaign with Newsom, the race was already over.

Newsom was simply trying to run up the score.

The margin may matter. Before initial results were tallied Tuesday, Newsom’s aides were pressing reporters not to lock in the first reported margin of victory, believing it would expand as late-arriving mail ballots are counted.

Newsom will be up for reelection in just more than a year, and some of the same Republicans who challenged him in the recall may run again, but now with a drubbing to their names. They include not only Elder and Cox, who were pulling 42 percent and 4.8 percent of the vote, respectively, in early returns, but also Kevin Faulconer, the former San Diego mayor who was once viewed by moderate Republicans in California as one of the party’s most credible candidates for statewide office in an otherwise thin bench. He was drawing 9.8 percent of the vote in early returns.

What Republicans failed to do in the recall, said Rob Stutzman, a GOP political strategist in California, was elevate “someone who can appeal beyond the base. And there’s a road map for this. It’s been done, frankly, in blue states for decades … But you have to put forward a moderate.”

Stutzman, who advised Schwarzenegger, said Faulconer “was the great hope” for Republicans this year but never pivoted to independents and moderate Democrats after Elder got in the race and captivated the party's pro-Trump base.

“Now,” Stutzman said. “he'll have to somehow regain confidence of the donors that next year would be any different.”

Of the prospects next year of every Republican who ran in the recall, he said, “all are worse” after the outcome on Tuesday.

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