Gavin Newsom’s political fate hung in the balance as polls closed on Tuesday night in a recall election to determine whether the California governor will retain his office, a closely watched race with national reverberations.
As only the second gubernatorial recall effort in California’s history to make it on to the ballot, the election represented a rare chance for Republicans to seize control in a deep blue state.
Voters were being asked two questions: should Newsom be removed from office and, if he is recalled, who should take his place?
Millions of Californians cast their ballots ahead of election day, either by mail or at early voting locations, in a special election that is costing the state $276m. Meanwhile, in-person voters headed to the polls up and down the state on Tuesday. Polls closed at 8pm local time.
Early returns indicated a strong showing from Democratic voters and opposition to the recall. Among early voters, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by two to one – though gap was expected to shrink with a greater proportion of Republicans expected to cast their ballots on election day. Special elections often draw fewer voters, but mail-in voting expansions enacted due to the pandemic may have aided turnout.
Newsom, who has been a broadly popular governor since he was elected in 2018, found himself in a peculiar position after a Republican-led recall effort gained steam amid the worst of the state’s pandemic.
The governor appeared confident heading into the final stretch, with polls and early returns indicating he is in a strong position. “I’m feeling good, as long as we can get out that vote,” Newsom said after greeting volunteers in San Francisco hours before the polls closed.
Newsom spent Monday campaigning with Joe Biden, who warned that the outcome of the recall race could echo far outside of the Golden state.
“The eyes of the nation are on California,” he said.
Meanwhile, the leading Republican challenger, the rightwing radio host Larry Elder, has been laying a groundwork of misinformation to falsely imply that the election, if he loses, was rigged against him.
Speaking with Newsom in Long Beach on Monday, the president called Elder “the clone of Donald Trump”.
“Can you imagine him being governor of this state?” Biden said. “You can’t let that happen. There is too much at stake.”
More than 40 candidates are running against Newsom, including the former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, the YouTube personality Kevin Paffrath and the reality TV star and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, who was seen heading to the polls to cast her vote in person on Tuesday.
No prominent Democratic candidates ran against Newsom, who has encouraged supporters to leave the question of his replacement blank on their ballots. If even a hair more than 50% of voters opt to boot the governor, Elder or any other challenger with a plurality could take office and upend politics in an overwhelmingly Democratic state.
Such an outcome would cause national reverberations by placing a potentially antagonistic Republican leader at the helm of the nation’s most populous and economically productive state, and potentially dooming Democrats ahead of the midterm elections.
Elder staged his capstone rally in Orange county, where he urged supporters to reach out to friends and neighbors to vote.
“Make sure you have your friends vote, vote, vote, and try and get 10 more friends to vote and hit every call, make every call, knock on every door. We’re going to win this thing if we turn out the vote,” Elder said from a hotel ballroom in Costa Mesa.
The implication that a Republican could unseat a Democrat in deep-blue California would raise criticism that the party is out of touch with voters. An upset in the Golden state “could also encourage recall elections potentially around the country”, said Mindy Romero, who heads the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of Southern California.
The recall was largely been fueled by anger over Newsom’s actions during the pandemic, which included imposing the nation’s first statewide shutdown order. Critics said he was heavy handed, shuttering businesses and keeping children out of classrooms for longer than necessary.
“I am angry. It should be a freedom of choice. What is this? A dictatorship?” asked Janet Webb, a 69-year-old Lafayette resident who voted for Elder.
But other voters have been supportive of Newsom’s actions in the face of multiple crises, including the pandemic and record-setting wildfire seasons.
Briana Mendoza, 30, said the last thing California needs is more turmoil. She voted to keep Newsom.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic. Why would we recall the governor who has been really trying to curb the spread of the virus?” the San Diego social worker said.
“We don’t want Elder in office,” she said. “This is ridiculous. We just got Trump out. We don’t want a Trump puppet.”
After initially dismissing the recall as a Republican-led distraction, Democrats and Newsom’s campaign have pivoted in recent weeks to characterizing it as a referendum on Trumpism in California, one with “life or death” consequences. Meanwhile, big-name Democrats in California and in Washington DC, including Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar, the progressive representatives Barbara Lee and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Vice-President Kamala Harris, have all come to Newsom’s aid.
Elder, on the other hand, has been laying a groundwork of misinformation to falsely imply that the election, if he loses, was compromised. The radio host in recent has claimed that “shenanigans” could skew the results of the race, echoing baseless claims of voter fraud by Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
There has been no confirmed evidence of widespread fraud, and Newsom had sharp words those implying otherwise, saying on Tuesday that he would accept the election results and urged Elder and others to do the same. “As an American, I’m ashamed. I’m disgusted by it. Stop. Grow up. These people literally are vandalizing our democracy and trust in our institutions,” he told a crowd in San Francisco.
At campaign rallies, Newsom has emphasized that his early lockdown measures and first-in-the-country statewide mask mandate for schools have saved lives. But the governor is still working to live down several missteps: under Newsom’s watch, the state’s unemployment department struggled with extensive backlogs, while paying out an estimated $31bn in fraudulent claims. The state’s vaccine rollout was initially chaotic and slow – leaving some of the most vulnerable frontline workers behind.
An ill-timed, lobbyist-laden dinner at the Michelin-starred French Laundry restaurant, and the governor’s choice to send his own children back to private school before many public schools had reopened, heightened residents’ frustrations. Meanwhile, after California’s worst year of wildfires on record in 2020, and as catastrophic fires continue to blaze across the state, Newsom has attempted to quell concerns that he vastly overstated wildfire prevention efforts.
Voters who remained lukewarm on Newsom said they still saw him as the better of bad choices. “I’m with a lot of people who might like to recall Gavin, but aren’t necessarily in favor of having Larry Elder in there,” said John Friedrich, a retiree living in Stockton, California, about an hour south of the capital, Sacramento.
“There’s just all kinds of stuff going on this past year – just devastating stuff,” he added. “Any governor would have a tough job.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting