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Why Are Democrats Freaking Out About A Race In California?

Gov. Gavin Newsom is considered likely to survive a recall attempt this week, but the fact that it’s even a question has Democrats around the country on edge.

Posted on September 13, 2021, at 8:59 a.m. ET

Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images

Vice President Kamala Harris with California Gov. Gavin Newsom during a campaign event in San Leandro, California, Sept. 8.

In the midst of a summer overloaded with crises — from Afghanistan to attacks on reproductive rights to wildfires and hurricanes to a variant of COVID-19 running rampant — the highest-profile election since the 2020 presidential race has been quickly approaching.

On Sept. 14, California, a state whose economy is one of the largest in the world, will decide whether to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. After proponents of the effort got enough signatures for the recall to qualify for a ballot, Democrats unexpectedly found themselves on the defensive in a state Donald Trump lost by more than 5 million votes.

The race appears to be Newsom’s to lose. Nonetheless, Democrats, from local to national leaders, find themselves engulfed in it, knowing that a loss could open the door to anything from a morale hit for their party to similar efforts in other states with recall provisions like Wisconsin and Michigan. “They’re thinking that, if they can get this done in California, they can go around the country and do this,” said Vice President Kamala Harris in San Leandro, California, on Wednesday, as she stumped for Newsom. She pointed to Republican attacks on reproductive rights and voting rights across the country. “It’s not a one-off.”

President Joe Biden will also travel to California on Monday to make the case for the embattled governor, a sign of how much energy Democrats are having to spend on this race. “Newsom’s in a strong position, but you can’t take anything for granted,” Tyler Law, a Democratic strategist based in California unaffiliated with Newsom’s campaign, told BuzzFeed News. In policy terms, a Newsom recall “would be a disaster,” he said. “Republicans could create a huge amount of damage, probably be slower getting out of COVID and then recovering from it, and it would be obviously a huge deal, and that’s why you see Democrats across the country getting involved.”

Much of the tribulation around this election is that there’s little to compare it to, especially given that every registered voter in the state was mailed a ballot for the contest. The state only changed its voting process in 2020, intending to make voting more accessible during the pandemic. Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans in the state. But in the weeks leading up to the recall vote, Democrats were still nervous about turnout and awareness, given the odd timing of the election and the manifestation of a lot of growing problems in California, from a resurgence in COVID-19 to wildfires.

The ballot has two questions on it. The first is a yes-no vote on whether to recall Newsom, who must get a majority of voters to vote no in order to keep his seat. The second question is for who should replace Newsom if he’s recalled. Forty-six candidates are on the ballot as alternatives, and if he were to be recalled, the candidate with the highest number of votes would take over, which is a lower threshold than question one because it does not require a majority.

Democrats have been unified in their response to the situation. They have encouraged voters to vote “no” on the question of whether to recall Newsom, honing in on the message that the alternative to him could well be a Trumpy governor out of conservative media, Larry Elder. The case they’ve been building, in short, has been against all that the former president stood for.

“Voting no and stopping the Republican recall is the only way to make sure that we don’t have a MAGA governor in a few weeks’ time,” Nathan Click, a spokesperson for Newsom’s campaign, told BuzzFeed News at the end of August. For his part, Trump has not endorsed any candidates in the recall election.

Democrats’ focus has been entirely on the first question, creating no backstop strategy for the second. “The messaging has been no message” with regard to question two, said US Rep. Lou Correa, a Democrat from California. This has been seen by some, including Correa, as likely being a lesson learned from the state’s last recall election, in which Democrat Gov. Gray Davis was defending his seat, but Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante ran as a high-profile alternative, which many argued complicated the race for the top of the ballot. Correa said the Newsom defense is “taking up a lot of energy” for the state’s Democrats.

This is not Republicans’ first attempt to recall Newsom, but it is the first to succeed in reaching the ballot. Orrin Heatlie, a retired law enforcement officer who is the lead proponent of the recall campaign, compared the polling now showing Newsom with a substantial lead to the polls ahead of the 2016 presidential race, which showed Hillary Clinton as the frontrunner.

“I don’t think they believe the polls either,” Heatlie told BuzzFeed News when asked about the resources Democrats are having to spend on the recall election. “I think that they are pulling out all the stops to try to salvage this man’s damaged career to hold on to their power structure and single-party rule in California at all cost.” Heatlie, a relative newcomer to politics, has done much of his recall work out of an Airstream trailer in his driveway because, he said, his family has banished him from conducting political business in the house.

Republicans’ list of grievances against Newsom is long, and include opposition to pandemic response measures and stances on immigration. They amount to opposing him for being a Democrat, and the attempt to recall him predates pandemic shutdowns. But Newsom also didn’t do himself a favor by attending a party last November for a lobbyist at The French Laundry, a posh restaurant in Napa Valley, that ran against the state’s guidance discouraging people from socializing in groups that included multiple households. Another critical turn for the recall initiative took place on that same day, when a hearing before the Sacramento County Superior Court ended with the recall proponents being granted an extension to gather signatures because of COVID-19 complications.

“That combination to me is a rich irony,” said Larry Gerston, a professor emeritus of political science at San José State University who is writing a book on the recall election. Gerston noted that a lot of the other complaints against Newsom took a backseat to “the combination of COVID and the governor’s behavior. Those became the calling cards.”

Gubernatorial recall elections are rare in the US, and California’s signature requirement threshold is among the lowest in the country, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, calling for 12% of the last vote for the office. The last recall election in California occurred in 2003, when Davis ended up getting replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger of Terminator fame. Schwarzenegger served in the position until 2011; a Democrat, Jerry Brown, took over after Schwarzenegger; and Newsom then took office in 2019.

“For the Republicans, I think very little is at stake. Although I will say that if Larry Elder became governor, I think it would spike a Democrat turnout next year in California in what would otherwise be a muted Democrat turnout, if it’s Newsom reelect and Biden midterm,” said Rob Stutzman, a California-based GOP strategist unaffiliated with any of the current candidates and who worked on Schwarzenegger’s campaign during the 2003 recall election. “The Democrats have a lot more at stake. Ultimate humiliation, and it would be a manifestation of a complete fracture of their traditional base in California.”

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.