What California’s Recall Election Says About America
Gavin Newsom’s struggles could spell trouble for Democrats everywhere.
We did not meet at the French Laundry.
Gavin Newsom, the California governor who faces a recall election on September 14, hasn’t been back to the extravagantly expensive Napa Valley restaurant since he dined there with lobbyists last year in violation of his own COVID-19 restrictions. We met instead at a café in a nonprofit bookstore in the Mission District—much more on message.
Newsom had just made the first stop on his Delta-constrained campaign to persuade Californians to vote no on the recall. He’d spoken with volunteers who had been helpfully positioned for the media at five tables along the sidewalk. He’d scolded reporters at a press conference, reminding them that the recall effort was funded by right-wing Republicans who—according to Newsom—completely misunderstood what makes California great. He’d tried for Jed Bartlet–style lines in his aging Sam Seaborn body. At the café, he quickly ate a banana and slurped the top of his coffee. He’d dropped his breakfast on the floor before I arrived. More bad luck, he said.
“I was always that lucky one, too,” he said, shaking his head. “Just the whole damn thing flipped on me.”
How did things go sideways for a governor who three years ago won his first term by the biggest margin in California history? The recall vote shouldn’t be close. It shouldn’t even feel close. Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one in California, and the state is home to nearly as many Democratic-leaning independents as Republicans. Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by almost as many votes here last November as there are people in Wisconsin. But aside from a few scattered campaign events and an Elizabeth Warren TV ad for Newsom in heavy rotation on local news, there’s almost no sign that a recall election is coming.
But with less than a month to go before September’s extra Election Day, Newsom told me he feels as though he’s fighting not only for his own political existence, but for California’s future and for the entire Democratic agenda. He’s been obsessing over right-wing TV, wondering about the future of democracy, and he says he’s staying up late agonizing over COVID-19 deaths. He has watched Fox News pounce on his 10-year-old son for not wearing a mask. He overheard his 11-year-old daughter tell her brother, “You’re going to lose the recall for Daddy.” “You did nothing wrong,” Newsom said he told his son later. He has since pulled his children from the not-always-masking camp they were attending, wary of another COVID-hypocrisy scandal. The recall effort started as a protest against Newsom’s positions on immigration and the death penalty, and was propelled by Trump-inspired amateur stunt politics (a radio call-in show, hosted by recall organizers, called “Friday Night at the French Laundry,” for example). And it exploded because of wider frustration with Newsom’s handling of the pandemic. How this ends depends on how many of California’s 22 million registered voters fill out recall ballots mailed to them earlier this month. In theory, recalls are supposed to be distilled democracy, a way for voters to change their minds and hold their leaders accountable in the long periods between regularly scheduled elections. Many don’t realize, though, that the ballot contains two separate questions: first, yes or no on the recall, and then, in case a majority votes to recall Newsom, a ballot that does not include the governor’s name but does include 46 others. Newsom noted, he could receive 49.9 percent of the vote, lose the recall, and be replaced by a governor elected with 14 percent of the vote. This is the way democracy could play out in the largest state in the union—home to 40 million people—and the fifth-largest economy in the world.
Newsom’s aides worked hard in the spring to dissuade other well-known Democrats from entering the recall race, in the hopes of delegitimizing the process. He’s telling voters to vote no on the recall and skip voting on the second question altogether. If Newsom is recalled, his potential replacements include the radio host Larry Elder, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the 2018 GOP gubernatorial nominee John Cox, and the assembly member Kevin Kiley, all Republicans who have embraced Trumpism to varying degrees. Newsom, meanwhile, has the support of pretty much every Democratic official and group in the state. Big-name donors have gotten involved on Newsom’s behalf too: The Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has donated so much money to the anti-recall effort that his name appears at the bottom of the governor’s commercials. (Laurene Powell Jobs, the chair of the board of The Atlantic, has donated $400,000 to a committee called Stop the Republican Recall of Governor Newsom.)
A poll released at the end of July showed that Newsom was on the edge, and that set off a round of concern. Critics point out that the poll included a relatively small number of Democrats, in an attempt to simulate what appears to be their still-lower enthusiasm for voting in the recall. This may have made the race look closer than it is.
When I met with Newsom, he was taking the polls seriously. “I’m now feeling the weight of this decision, and a weight of responsibility to defeat this, and also the responsibility that if we fall short, I’m going to own that,” he said. He mentioned to me some of his recent initiatives, including the injection of billions of dollars of federal relief money into the state budget and signing a bill to expand health care to undocumented workers. “If I do fall short, I’ll regret every damn one of those decisions. And I don’t want to have any regrets for putting everything out there and doing … what I think is right and what I think is in the best interest of California.”
Newsom has reason to be anxious. Recalls can deliver immediate emotional satisfaction to dissatisfied voters, and there are many dissatisfied voters in California. You can be mad at Newsom because you never liked him in the first place. You can be mad about his ego, his peevishness, and his sense of entitlement. You can be mad because Donald Trump is your model of what a leader should be; you can be mad because of the way Newsom’s handled wildfires and drought; you can be mad at him because you’re tired of pandemic shutdowns. You can be mad about anything. All those angry Californians’ votes will go on the recall pile. And if that pile is big enough, Newsom will be out before Halloween.
His replacement would probably be someone who opposes strict anti-coronavirus measures; the end of California’s mask mandates and COVID-19 lockdowns would quickly follow. Then another potential ripple: If Dianne Feinstein, the state’s aging and ailing senior senator, was unable to finish her term, whoever wins the recall—if not Newsom then most likely a Republican—would appoint her replacement. The Senate is split 50–50, and Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote. How much Californians care to keep Newsom, a governor who often provokes only tepid support even among his voters, could end up deciding the fate of the Democrats’ Senate majority and the entire Biden agenda.
California tends to preview America’s political future. Richard Nixon started out red-scaring here; Ronald Reagan redefined conservatism here. Proposition 187 racked the state in the 1990s, before immigration became the main fissure in our politics. Arnold Schwarzenegger leapt from celebrity personality to surprise winner in the state’s most recent gubernatorial recall, a year before the first season of The Apprentice went on the air. Climate policy, redistricting reform, the fights over legalizing gay marriage and marijuana—the state’s size and diversity mean political trends happen here first. “We are America’s coming attraction,” Newsom said on a call with supporters at the beginning of this month. He meant that in a positive way. His opponents, he said, don’t want voters to see proof that his policies—progressive tax rates, action on climate change, and taking COVID-19 science seriously—can result in a growing economy. “California proves them wrong,” he told me. “And if they can somehow assault this state and diminish it, then their argument holds more water.”
Analysts and operatives are looking at the recall as a test case for the midterm elections. Newsom knows he can’t yet declare victory over the pandemic. Like the Democrats in next year’s midterm elections, he’s going to have to get voters to give him more time in power even though much of what he said he’d fix won’t be fixed by the time people vote. Will he be able to convince voters that their lives are a bit better—and that kind of better is good enough for now? Will he be able to convince them that Trump and Trumpism would be worse? Will he be able to convince Democrats to vote now that the president they loved to loathe is no longer on the ballot?
Newsom has occasionally seemed to compare the recall to the Capitol insurrection on January 6. He told me he distinguishes between that kind of violence and what he’s facing. But the riot and the recall are manifestations of the same “general narrative, a connective tissue of voter suppression, of the conspiracy theories,” he said. “Tucker Carlson in Hungary, I mean, what the hell is that? Celebrating autocrats? It’s not fringe anymore within the Republican Party. It’s mainstreamed,” he added, snapping his fingers for the full effect. “And maybe it’s been there, but it’s been brought to the surface in ways that are so alarming.”
Newsom is a Democrat trying to get Democrats to vote, so he often describes the people who hope to replace him as pro-Trump extremists. This seems to be both a smart political strategy and an essentially correct analysis, as one leading candidate’s pro-Trump turn demonstrates. Faulconer, a popular, two-term former mayor of San Diego who has perhaps the country’s most accomplished record on combatting the homelessness crisis, was for years seen as the California GOP’s best hope of winning statewide office for the first time since Schwarzenegger won reelection in 2006. But Faulconer announced, after the 2020 election, that he had gone from Trump critic to Trump voter; he’s since come out against mask mandates. Elder is a Trump-friendly libertarian radio host whose opposition to a minimum wage, legal abortion, and climate-change policy can make him seem as though he was dreamed up by Newsom’s political consultants as a foil. He once said he’d thought Biden had won the election “fair and square,” but recently backtracked: “Give me a mulligan on that one … No, I don’t,” he said.
Even in the midst of the pandemic, Newsom probably wouldn’t be in trouble against this semi-hapless slate of challengers, if not for his own bumbling. In addition to the French Laundry episode, he has a habit of boasting about good news before later acknowledging that it was not quite as good as he’d said. His supporters urge understanding: “There’s no off-the-shelf manual of ‘How to Govern in a Pandemic,’” Scott Wiener, a state senator who represents San Francisco, has said. But others believe that Newsom’s pileup of problems is exactly the kind of no-confidence situation the recall law was meant to address. Jordan Cunningham, a moderate Republican assembly member from about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, told me that he’s fed up with what he feels was Newsom’s arbitrary, political approach to closing schools and businesses, insisting on blanket policies and not listening to local leaders. Though Cunningham doesn’t usually discuss how he’ll vote, in this case he was proud to say he supports the recall and is endorsing Faulconer. He offered a baseball metaphor to explain his openness to the potential chaos that the recall could set off, especially because Faulconer doesn’t look likely to win. “If your pitcher’s getting shellacked, you’re better off putting anybody else in,” he said. “If they’re giving up homer after homer and they keep throwing meaty pitches over the plate, if you want to win that game, change your pitcher.”
Relief pitchers are typically called up from the bullpen, not picked from the crowd booing in the stands. Yet this year’s replacement-governor field feels like a knockoff of California’s last recall, in 2003, when Schwarzenegger won out among a group of 135 candidates that included Arianna Huffington and Gary Coleman. In 2003, at least, Schwarzenegger was popular in his own right, and the recalled governor’s own lieutenant governor ran against him. This year, though, the lack of a prominent non-Newsom candidate from either party has intensified the contest’s sideshow vibes. Cox, the Republican candidate who lost to Newsom in a 2018 landslide, kicked off his campaign in the spring traveling around the state with a 1,000-pound Kodiak bear, prompting an investigation by the Humane Society. Earlier this month, Cox was served with a subpoena in the middle of a candidate debate over unpaid bills from his 2018 effort. One poll showed Kevin Paffrath, a 29-year-old Democrat who made himself a millionaire by giving financial advice online, leading the recall race. Paffrath, who was insistent that I refer to him not as a YouTuber but as “a JFK-style Democrat with common-sense ideas,” has a simple message: He wants to make California the fourth-largest economy in the world.
Schwarzenegger, who is a recall fan and remains a proud Republican despite breaking forcefully with his party’s Trump turn, isn’t buying Newsom’s pitch. “Their strategy is to make the people not focus on the problems but to switch the focus onto ‘This is a Donald Trump takeover, a Republican Party takeover,’ and that they basically don’t believe in a recall process, and they think it’s too easy to get it on the ballot and blah, blah, blah,” Schwarzenegger told me in a FaceTime chat last week. Still, the man who warned in 2007 that his party was “dying at the box office” in California isn’t too impressed with the Newsom alternatives; hearing their positions on COVID-19 protections and climate change has been “horrible,” he said. “Anyone that says they’re anti-mask or anti–environmental progress, to me, is not where California’s at. That’s the wrong direction.” I asked him whether he’d be voting for the recall, and whether he had a favored replacement candidate. He told me that he hasn’t made up his mind, but that he’s told Newsom and the Republicans who have reached out to him that he’s not getting more directly involved.
How do Republican politics play out when the party’s candidates can win by simply revving up the base for a low-turnout election, rather than appealing to a majority of voters? Here’s California’s preview: The state Republican Party strongly backs the recall, but pointedly declined to endorse a candidate. The state GOP chair responded to an interview request by forwarding me to an aide, who declined to speak on the record and declined to make the chair available, but did forward a statement from the chair that trashed Newsom as “the worst governor in California history,” “a failed leader,” “a shameless politician,” and “arrogant,” using just three sentences.
Those sorts of statements are unlikely to move many votes. Few Californians will be turned into recall supporters or recall opponents because of a press statement, an ad, an event, or the tens of millions of dollars Newsom and his opponents are pouring into this campaign. This is the sixth recall effort against Newsom in his two and a half years as governor. But as politicized as the process is, I asked Newsom, does he feel that some of the backlash is just about him?
“How can you not? How do you walk the streets? Walk in front of my house, there’s protests 24/7, recall signs, your picture as Hitler,” he said. Newsom spent Christmas in quarantine, after a member of his security detail tested positive for the coronavirus. He’d also spent Thanksgiving in quarantine, after two of his children were exposed. He lived the whole year with four children younger than 11 at home and anti-lockdown protesters occasionally standing in his driveway, or chaining themselves to his fence. Newsom carries around months’ worth of handwritten notes he’s taken during morning briefings of COVID-19 positivity rates, hospitalizations, and vaccine percentages. Note-taking helps Newsom, who has dyslexia, absorb information. But it also helps him analyze what he’s reading and hearing. “The patterns are repeating themselves. I know these patterns,” he told me. Coronavirus cases were rising. Wildfires were burning again. The state economy was creaking. “I mean, no one has any empathy for elected officials. And I get that. We love to hate elected officials. We’re things; I get that. But we’re also parents. We also have loved ones. We absorb. I would like to think most of us are empathetic souls, and the experiences are difficult; you stack them up over the course of months and months and months. You try everything in your power. Iterate. Good decisions, bad. Things you tried—didn’t work. Things that exceeded expectations—did work. And yet you still see those numbers go up.”
I asked Newsom whether those numbers of infections and deaths in California suggest that he has failed. He was frank. “At the end of the day, if you don’t take responsibility, everyone’s going to assign it to you. So you own it.” The way the state response is playing out gets at him. His experts tell him that if everyone got vaccinated and wore masks, in just four to six weeks, the virus and the shutdowns and the masking would be done—“and if you don’t like me, come back to me in the next election a few months away. That’s the absurdity of this thing.”
California polling has revealed that pandemic politics is more complicated than recall supporters insist. Large majorities of Californians believe that the state’s latest wave was preventable. But most Californians don’t blame Newsom for it—or Trump, for that matter. They blame holdouts who have refused to get vaccinated. And polls are also showing that the vaccinated are much more likely to vote, which is precisely why Newsom’s campaign has been leaning into pro-vaccination arguments lately, with an ad directly aimed at Elder, calling the recall “a matter of life and death.”
Those polls will offer Newsom little comfort if he’s booted from office. And if this recall fails, Newsom acknowledged, another will probably follow, and more after that if he goes on to win another term next year. If he hangs on, he told me, he’ll consider changing the law in order to make recalls harder, and have the reform take effect for governors who succeed him.
He unfolded from his chair at the end of our interview, and buttoned his suit jacket for a picture with the café staff. He left the banana peel and the coffee, barely touched, on the little table beside him. He was supposed to go on a bus tour and hold rallies with Democratic stars such as his old San Francisco–politics rival Harris, but that plan was derailed by Delta too. (After several delays, she announced that she would campaign for him this week, before canceling the appearance hours after an attack in Afghanistan killed U.S. service members.) Still, he had to get moving—he was driving to Los Angeles, not flying, so that he could make stops along the way and talk with voters on his own. Flying over California his whole life, he had “never fully absorbed and appreciated it,” he told me. He’s hoping that the state cares enough to appreciate him, at least a little longer.