Why California’s Governor Faces a Possible Recall Vote

California, the most populous U.S. state, may hold an election later this year on recalling its governor. The effort to remove Democrat Gavin Newsom from office began before the pandemic but was fueled by his actions during it. A similar recall effort in 2003 succeeded in ousting California’s then-governor, Gray Davis, and former bodybuilder and actor Arnold Schwarzennegger, a Republican, emerged from a pack of candidates as California’s new leader. That history gives outnumbered California Republicans some hopes of riding this recall effort back into power.

1. Why do some Californians want to recall Newsom?

This latest bid to remove him started in February 2020, just before the coronavirus began its assault on American lives and on the U.S. economy. The petitions calling for his removal cite a litany of complaints including high taxes and elevated homelessness rates, water rationing, an accommodative approach to undocumented aliens and opposition to capital punishment. It’s one of six efforts to recall Newsom since he took office in 2019.

Why California’s Governor Faces a Possible Recall Vote

2. How did Newsom handle the pandemic?

He was the first governor to order a statewide shutdown and was initially lauded for keeping infections relatively low. But a series of on-again, off-again stay-at-home orders since then has tried the patience of California residents and business owners. Reports last November of Newsom attending a lobbyist’s birthday dinner at a luxury restaurant with about 12 other people, maskless, didn’t help his public image. (He called attending that dinner “a mistake.”) His approval rating dropped to 46% in January from 64% in September, according to the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. A March poll by Emerson College found 45% approve of Newsom’s handling of the pandemic, while 44% disapprove.

3. So will there be a recall election?

It looks that way. The two organizations pushing the recall say more than 2 million Californians signed their petitions before a March 17 deadline. California’s counties now have until April 29 to count and verify signatures. If California’s secretary of state determines there are at least 1.49 million valid signatures -- representing 12% of votes cast in the last election for the office -- signers are given 30 business days to rescind their signatures, if they choose. Should the number of signatures remain more than 1.49 million, the recall vote goes forward. The date for the election is chosen by the lieutenant governor, Eleni Kounalakis. It would likely be in the closing months of 2021.

4. How would a recall election work?

Voters would see two questions on the ballot. First, they would answer whether Newsom should be removed from office. Those who choose “yes” could then check the name of one of the candidates seeking to replace him.

5. What does Newsom say?

In a statement of opposition included by law on the recall petition, Newsom warned that “this unwarranted recall effort” is “being pushed by political extremists supporting President Trump’s hateful attacks on California.” His new anti-recall campaign website calls his opponents “anti-vaxxers, QAnon conspiracy theorists, anti-immigrant activists and Trump supporters.”

6. Who is behind the recall campaign?

Orrin Heatlie, who retired after serving 25 years as a sergeant with the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office, leads Recall Gavin 2020, one of two committees that drove the petition effort. The other, Rescue California, is managed by veteran Republican fundraiser Anne Dunsmore. State and national Republicans have jumped behind the effort, with the Republican National Committee giving $250,000. The California Democratic Party contributed the same amount, $250,000, to fight the recall.

7. How common are gubernatorial recall efforts?

Eighteen states allow for the removal of a governor by referendum, and the District of Columbia allows recall of its top official, the mayor. Since the start of the pandemic, 14 governors have been the targets of recall efforts, said Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College who runs a blog on recall elections. Most such efforts fail when organizers are unable to collect the required number of signatures by a certain deadline, a difficult and costly endeavor in normal times made more challenging with the pandemic. California’s 2003 recall of Davis, a Democrat, was the first successful recall of a governor since North Dakota carried out the feat in 1921. In 2012, Wisconsin voters decided against removing their Republican governor, Scott Walker.

8. Who wants to replace Newsom?

Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer was the first to throw his hat in the ring. Newsom’s 2018 Republican opponent, businessman John Cox, and a former congressman, Doug Ose, also said they are candidates. Ric Grenell, who was an acting director of national intelligence under President Donald Trump, has made noises about a campaign. All are Republicans. Whether any big-name Democrat enters the race -- to offer a Plan B in case Newsom is recalled -- is a touchy issue. Newsom’s team is warning other Democrats that they will weaken the anti-recall movement by joining the ballot. More than 100 candidates, including Schwarzenegger, actor Gary Coleman and adult film actress Mary Carey, crowded onto the ballot in the 2003 recall election.

9. Can a Republican win in California?

It would be a feat. The last time Republicans won a statewide office in California was in 2006, when Schwarzenegger was re-elected governor and Steve Poizner was elected insurance commissioner. Today, both the state Senate and Assembly have Democratic supermajorities, only 11 of California’s 53 congressional districts are held by Republicans, and there are almost twice as many registered Democrats than registered Republicans.

The Reference Shelf

  • See the recall petition, including the allegations against Newsom and his response.
  • A summary of California’s 118 attempts to recall state-level election officials.
  • Politico says former presidential candidate Tom Steyer is one Democrat who may be considering running.
  • Newsom has earned the wrath of Californians, writes Bloomberg Opinion columnist Virginia Postrel.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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