The California Recall Could Be a Road Map for Democrats

Gavin Newsom’s strategy has momentum, and it provides a crucial template for his fellow Dems in 2022.

Gavin Newsom
Damian Dovarganes / AP

California Governor Gavin Newsom is confronting the toughest challenge Democrats may face in next year’s midterm election—and guiding his party toward a possible solution as the Republican-driven recall against him enters its final days.

One key reason the president’s party historically fares so poorly in midterm elections is that its supporters turn out at lower rates than voters of the party not in the White House. Polling earlier this summer showed that Newsom faced an especially acute version of that challenge; California Democrats displayed far less interest in, or even awareness of, the recall than did Republicans.

But the large number of mail ballots already returned by Democratic voters, as well as the latest poll results, signal that Newsom has mostly closed that enthusiasm gap, placing himself in a strong position to defeat the recall when balloting concludes next Tuesday. And he has done so in a manner that could provide a crucial template for Democrats nationwide in 2022: Newsom has focused less on selling his accomplishments than on raising alarms that his Republican opponents will exacerbate the coronavirus pandemic by repealing the public-health protections, such as vaccine and mask mandates, that he has imposed to fight it. He’s linked the GOP candidates running to replace him not only to Donald Trump but also to Republican governors such as Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbott in Texas, who have blocked mandates and other measures to combat the disease.

“People are rightfully freaked out at the Delta variant. They are angry at people who refuse to get vaccinated, and extremely angry at leaders who enable anti-vaxxers to endanger everyone else,” says Nathan Click, the spokesperson for the anti-recall campaign. “They see what’s going on in Texas, they see what’s going on in Florida, and they don’t want that happening here.”

Across the country, Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee in Virginia’s November governor race, is hitting similar notes in his campaign against the Republican Glenn Youngkin. “Like Donald Trump,” McAuliffe’s latest ad insists, “Glenn Youngkin refuses to take coronavirus seriously.” In this November’s other gubernatorial contest, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, has criticized his Republican opponent, Jack Ciattarelli, for opposing the governor’s mandates requiring masks in schools and vaccines for teachers.

These strategies show that Democratic candidates—albeit in blue-leaning states that all rank near the top in vaccination rates—are moving more forcefully than President Joe Biden to pressure the remaining roughly one-fourth of American adults who have refused to get vaccinated. The emphatic embrace of mask and vaccine mandates by Newsom, McAuliffe, and Murphy reflects a growing consensus in the party that the majority of Americans who have received at least one shot are receptive to tougher measures on those who have not. By contrast, in each of these states, the leading Republicans are stressing the “rights” and “choice” of the unvaccinated. “When I win I will fight any and all vaccine and mask [government] mandates at state and local level,” Larry Elder, a conservative talk-radio host who has surged to the top of the GOP field vying to replace Newsom in California, tweeted recently.

For Democrats, pushing for tougher mandates “is not just good policy; it’s good politics right now, and Republicans seem to have opted for bumper-sticker phrasing in order to rile up their base,” says David Turner, the communications director for the Democratic Governors Association. “Doing what DeSantis did in Florida, taking away salaries from superintendents [who require masks for students], voters view that as crazy, and rightfully so.”

Newsom has moved as aggressively as any governor to push vaccination. He’s mandated vaccines or regular testing for teachers and staff in K–12 public schools, all health-care workers, and state employees. He’s also placed his support for those requirements at the center of his campaign to defeat the recall, lashing his Republican opponents for pledging to repeal such mandates and persistently linking them to GOP governors, particularly DeSantis and Abbott.

In an ad released this week, Newsom looks directly at the camera and condemns those positions. “Republicans want to take us backwards with this September 14 recall,” he declares. “They’ll eliminate vaccine mandates for health and school workers on day one, threatening school closures and our recovery.” At a rally with Vice President Kamala Harris yesterday, Newsom insisted that Elder would “walk us off that same COVID cliff as Texas and Florida, Tennessee and Alabama and Georgia.” To underline the point, Newsom’s campaign released an ad in which former President Barack Obama delivers similar arguments.

Organizers for labor and other liberal groups say these arguments have been central to stirring Democratic-leaning voters who earlier seemed either unaware of the recall or dubious that they needed to turn out against it in such a solidly Democratic state. Oscar Lopez, the state political director for the Service Employees International Union, is coordinating 120 full-time organizers who are targeting the union’s 700,000 members (majority women and plurality Latino) as well as neighborhoods with large Latino populations. He says his organizers knocking on doors report that their most effective messaging has centered on highlighting the calls from GOP candidates to repeal Newsom’s vaccine mandates, particularly those for teachers and other school staff.

The most powerful message, Lopez told me, has been that “we can continue with Newsom, who has been working hard to keep us safe during the pandemic, or we could have an extreme Republican governor who would put our kids in danger at a time when they are starting school.” From families answering the doors, Lopez said, organizers are most frequently hearing concerns about the GOP candidates imposing bans on mask or vaccine requirements similar to those that Abbott and DeSantis have implemented.

“A lot of people feel their kids have been troopers, staying home for a year,” Lopez said. “They want their kids to learn in school, they want them socializing with other kids, but above all they want them to be safe.”

Polling reinforces Lopez’s anecdotal evidence on the appeal in California of tougher measures against the unvaccinated. A late-August survey by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California tested an idea that goes beyond even the mandates Newsom has imposed so far: requiring proof of vaccination to enter “large outdoor gatherings” or “restaurants, bars, and gyms.” Almost exactly three-fourths of state residents who have taken shots (including more than two-fifths of the vaccinated Republicans) supported such a mandate, according to detailed results PPIC provided to The Atlantic. More than 90 percent of Californians who have not been vaccinated opposed such requirements. But because more than four-fifths of all adults in California have received at least one shot, that division translated into a solid 62 percent overall majority support for such a “vaccine passport” mandate. A Monmouth University poll in Virginia released yesterday likewise found that two-thirds of registered voters there supported outgoing Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s mask mandate for schools, and nearly three-fifths would back a vaccine requirement for students 12 and older. (Among the vaccinated, support was even higher for these mandates, and more than three-fourths backed the mask requirement.)

In both states, vaccination status was a sharp dividing line in the governor’s contest itself. In Virginia, McAuliffe’s narrow overall lead in the Monmouth poll was grounded in his 20-percentage-point advantage among the roughly three-fourths of registered voters who have been vaccinated; Youngkin’s big lead among the minority who are considering, or opposed to, getting vaccinated couldn’t overcome that cushion. In California, the PPIC poll found that two-thirds of those who have received a vaccine were against the recall; even slightly more than one-fifth of vaccinated Republicans said they opposed it. Although the overwhelming majority of the unvaccinated supported removing the governor, they constitute such a small minority in the state that Newsom held a commanding overall lead: 58 percent of those polled opposed the recall and 39 percent supported it. If those numbers hold, after all of the optimism among Republicans and the anxiety among Democrats earlier this summer, the result would represent little change from Newsom’s 62 percent to 38 percent victory over the Republican John Cox (who’s now running to replace him) in 2018.

Gene Ulm, a Republican pollster who has worked in California and Virginia, agrees that most Americans—especially the big majority who have been vaccinated—support more mandates and pressure on the unvaccinated. But he doesn’t believe that opposition to such mandates will hurt Republicans much, because voters are more concerned about other issues, such as rising consumer prices. Mandates are “one of those things, it sounds good, because functionally everybody is [vaccinated],” he says. “I just don’t know what it gets you.”

Democratic strategists, though, say the emphasis on vaccine and mask mandates, and the linkage of Republican candidates to Trump and the anti-mandate GOP governors, not only appeals to independent voters but also energizes the Democrats’ base. That latter impact may be the most important for Democrats through the elections in 2021 (highlighted by the California recall and the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races) and 2022 (when control of Congress and 36 other governorships will be at stake).

Low turnout among their base voters keyed the disastrous Democratic losses in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, when Obama held the White House, according to analysis by the Democratic targeting firm Catalist. Faltering turnout among voters who surged to the polls for Trump in 2016 also contributed to the GOP loss of the House in 2018, Catalist found.

In California, the key to Republican hopes of recalling Newsom has been the possibility that, with Biden in the White House and Trump mostly out of the headlines, Democratic voters would slumber through the recall election because of its unusual September-of-an-off-year timing. That risk probably peaked in late July when UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies released a poll showing Newsom with a minuscule advantage among likely voters and Republicans displaying far more awareness of the race than Democrats.

“Before that Berkeley poll came out, I think a lot of Democrats were kind of lazily thinking, This is never going to [succeed],” says Paul Mitchell, the vice president of Political Data, a California-based Democratic targeting firm working with the Newsom campaign. But “once they observed it, the environment changed. So as soon as that happened, you got to see this conversation on the activist left of progressives, saying, ‘Oh shit, this is serious, and the governor could be Larry Elder.’”

In the weeks since, Newsom’s campaign has unleashed a barrage of television, radio, and digital ads; in-person events and campaign ads featuring a who’s who of national Democrats (besides Obama, the list includes Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Amy Klobuchar as well as Vice President Harris, and President Biden is expected to appear with Newsom before voting ends); and a massive organizing campaign that includes 900 paid staffers, cooperation with 80 partner groups, and millions of phone calls, texts, and door knocks. “We have what is amounting to the largest field campaign in the state of California history,” Click says.

The emergence of Elder, a doctrinaire conservative firebrand, as the Republican front-runner has provided the final ingredient for Democrats to motivate previously disengaged voters. Whereas organizers earlier tried to energize Democrats by warning about “general extreme beliefs that exist in the Republican Party,” SEIU’s Lopez says, Elder’s rise has made the choice “more crisp and tangible now.” That became even clearer last week when Elder told another conservative talk-radio host that a victory for him could tip control of the U.S. Senate to the GOP by allowing him to name a Republican replacement if aging Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein can’t continue to serve.

All of this has contributed to a substantial early turnout. As of Tuesday, more than 6.4 million ballots had already been returned, according to tabulations by Mitchell’s firm. Registered Democrats have returned more than twice as many ballots as registered Republicans, and turnout is especially high in the well-educated, preponderantly blue San Francisco area where Newsom’s base is. Democratic operatives believe that the recall is certain to fail if roughly 12 million or more Californians vote (that would be about 55 percent of the state’s registered voters). They may not even need that many, given that the “yes” vote in the recall is unlikely to reach the 6 million votes Trump won in California during the 2020 presidential race (when nearly 18 million people voted). “I’ve got to think you have to be back down in the 10 million range” of total voters for the recall to succeed, says Rob Stutzman, a California-based GOP consultant who worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger during his successful campaign to replace then–Democratic Governor Gray Davis in the 2003 recall here. For Newsom, the last votes will be tougher to chase than those that have come in so far, but, as Stutzman notes, it still seems highly unlikely that turnout will sink that low.

California Democrats may be breathing easier than they were earlier this summer, but they’ll still sweat the final days. With all Trump had done to discredit mail balloting, they are bracing for a late surge of in-person GOP votes. And both young people and Latinos have been returning their mail ballots at lackluster rates, suggesting that the Democratic Party hasn’t solved its traditional problem of mobilizing those constituencies during off-year elections, a drop that hurt it badly in 2010 and 2014. Polls are also sending mixed signals on Newsom’s overall support among Latinos, many of whom appear especially alienated by his tin-eared choice to attend a dinner at an exclusive Napa Valley restaurant amid last year’s lockdowns.

But the early California ballot returns signal that the party may be avoiding the usual midterm decline among other key components of its coalition, including Black Americans and college-educated white voters in big metropolitan areas. These are the voters Newsom is energizing with his focus on COVID-19 mandates—and attacks on the Republican governors opposing them—that could resonate in many other states through 2022.

More signs, including a recent dip in Biden’s approval rating, are accumulating that Democrats could face a tough midterm outcome next year. But if Newsom this month—followed by McAuliffe and Murphy later this fall—wins with a message of containing the virus by confronting the unvaccinated, he may point Democrats toward their best chance of avoiding that fate.