California’s Virus Devastation Reignites Newsom Recall Movement

A recall effort targeting California Governor Gavin Newsom is escalating and has grown from a quixotic quest among a few Republicans to a campaign that stands a chance of coming to a vote in the Democrat-dominated state.

The effort appears unlikely to succeed in removing Newsom, a Democrat, from office. But a vote would be bruising for a governor who has been cited as a possible future presidential candidate and has faced crises from the day he was inaugurated in 2019, from devastating wildfires and widespread blackouts to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Once lauded for its early success in containing the coronavirus, California is now struggling with an outbreak that has overwhelmed hospitals and led to renewed stay-home orders for most of its 40 million residents. The vaccine rollout has been chaotic and behind other states, and Newsom, 53, has drawn widespread criticism for attending a swank Napa Valley dinner while urging the public to avoid such gatherings.

The resulting backlash is spurring a groundswell for what would be the state’s first gubernatorial recall election in almost two decades, even as polls show Newsom maintains broad support among Democratic voters.

California’s Virus Devastation Reignites Newsom Recall Movement

“Newsom has been the victim of his own self-inflicted wounds,” said Dave Gilliard, a Republican consultant who ran the successful campaign to recall former Democratic Governor Gray Davis in 2003 and is advising the Newsom recall effort. “He closed the economy, opened it back up and closed it down again. He’s picking winners and losers in the pandemic, and it’s making people angry.”

Recall campaigns are common in California, a state whose residents circulate petitions to place policy changes directly onto ballots. Yet such recall attempts typically fizzle for lack of funding or because organizers fail to gather enough support. The Newsom effort requires petitioners to get 1.5 million certified signatures by mid-March. They say they have 1.1 million names so far.

If enough signatures are valid and the recall petition is certified, the measure would be placed on a statewide ballot asking voters whether Newsom should be removed and if so, who should replace him. The last such vote in 2003 propelled actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, into office.

A spokesman for Newsom said the recall campaign is a waste of taxpayers’ time and money.

“Gavin Newsom was the nation’s first governor to take bold action to combat the pandemic,” said Dan Newman, the spokesman. “Californians appreciate his decisive action, and support his current focus on distributing vaccines so we can safely reopen schools and businesses, and provide relief for families and small businesses.”

Virus Struggles

When the pandemic took hold last spring, Newsom drew praise for his swift and decisive moves to close all but essential businesses, gaining national attention and appearing on television shows such as “The View” and “The Daily Show.” As the year wore on and businesses throughout California complained about the loss of revenue, he eased restrictions -- only to reimpose them after cases surged. Some residents and towns have openly defied orders.

The vaccine distribution is adding new challenges. Newsom last week expanded eligibility by making people 65 and older eligible for inoculation, but local health officials say they are unable to keep up with demand.

“I don’t think any other governor since World War II has had to deal with as many issues as he has, from the virus, the economic consequence of asking people to shelter at home, racial injustice and wildfires to the budget consequences of all of that,” Davis, the former governor, said in an interview.

Newsom’s backers say he has done all he can to manage the disparate crises, and recent polls suggest that many Californians agree. In a poll conducted in November by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, 58% of adults surveyed said they approved of the way the governor was handling jobs and the economy. In a September PPIC survey, 61% of respondents said they approved of his handling of the pandemic, while 58% said they approved of Newsom’s overall performance.

“His approval ratings are highly polarized,” said Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and survey director. “He’s had overwhelming approval among Democrats, overwhelming disapproval among Republicans, and independents leaning toward being more approving.”

Newsom’s ratings put him in a better position to survive a recall election than Davis, whose standing was battered, among other controversies, by an electricity crisis. Davis’s overall approval rating was 31% among all adults in a PPIC survey taken a month before his recall vote.

Republican Backers

The Newsom recall campaign has raised about $1.5 million from donors, including $500,000 from an Orange County businessman who objected to church closures in the pandemic, according to Gilliard. He said organizers aim to gather 1.9 million signatures by the mid-March deadline to account for duplications and disqualifications of some names.

Republicans including San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who has said he’s considering running to replace Newsom, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have thrown their support behind the effort. John Cox, the businessman who lost to Newsom in the 2018 gubernatorial campaign, also is contributing.

“Just like Trump refuses to accept and respect the will of the voters, Newt Gingrich, Kevin Faulconer, and other Trump supporters want California taxpayers to waste $100 million on a special election redo, mere months before a regularly scheduled election,” said Newman, the governor’s spokesman.

Newsom benefits from an electorate that tilts even more heavily Democratic than it did when Davis was recalled, said Garry South, a Democratic strategist who has managed campaigns for both the governors. California Democrats had an 8.4% advantage over Republicans among registered voters in 2003, and since then the differential has swelled to 21.9%.

There are other factors in his favor. While the pandemic has taken a devastating toll, California is in a relatively strong fiscal position. It also stands to benefit from a Biden administration that may be more friendly to blue states, with policies more aligned with Newsom’s own.

South said it’s important for Newsom to manage the vaccination campaign effectively in coming weeks and months, both to help quell the pandemic and to satisfy the expectations of the voting public.

“His numbers have held up well throughout all these crises,” South said. “But he needs to get the vaccinations done or that’s going to negatively impact the perception of how he’s handling the pandemic.”

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