As he struggles to get a raging coronavirus pandemic under control in California, Gavin Newsom faces yet another challenge: a push from Republicans to recall the first-term governor. And new polling suggests that effort is gaining steam, buoyed by residents frustrated with lockdowns and a vaccine rollout marred by delays and failures.
According to a new poll from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS), just 46% of Californians approve of Newsom’s performance as governor, with 48% disapproving, and nearly a third strongly disapproving. In September 2020, by contrast, 64% approved of the job Newsom was doing. A separate new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California paints a slightly rosier picture — 54% approval, 36% disapproval of Newsom’s job performance. But the numbers still signal an opening for opponents who would like to unseat the former San Francisco mayor from his perch in Sacramento.
More than a third of voters think the recall is a good idea and would vote to get rid of Newsom, according to IGS, driven in significant part by his handling of the deadly pandemic which has killed more than 41,000 Californians, shuttered thousands of businesses and kept people away from offices and schools for months seemingly without end.
“They appear to be moving within striking distance of Newsom, so if you’re Newsom, you should be worried,” said Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution research fellow, of those backing the recall — a mix of conservatives that range from moderate Republicans to fringe conspiracy theorists.
Recall organizers have said they’ve collected about 1.3 million signatures to try to put the recall on the ballot. They will need 1.5 million by mid-March, although organizers will likely need to collect closer to 2 million signatures to account for some being tossed as invalid — a trickier task during a pandemic.
“It’s not like you can go to the mall on a weekend and find a thousand people milling about,” Whalen said.
If the recall makes the ballot, voters would be asked two questions — whether they want to recall Newsom and, if so, which replacement candidate they want. If a majority of voters don’t answer yes to the first question, the effort will have failed, which is entirely possible. More voters think the recall is a bad idea than support it, and the state is overwhelmingly Democratic. And unlike in 2003, when then-Gov. Gray Davis was recalled, no Arnold Schwarzenegger or other big name, larger-than-life figure has emerged to fill the void. Nor has anyone like Rep. Darrell Issa, who helped fund the Davis recall, emerged to bankroll an attempt.
But political analysts say it makes sense for Republicans to try now rather than wait until Newsom’s up for re-election.
“There’s no guarantee that life will be back to normal in November 2022,” said longtime California political strategist Dan Schnur, “but the chances are a lot better that things will have improved by then.”
A recall this year, on the other hand, Schnur said, would be “a referendum on COVID-19,” which isn’t great news for Newsom, given the public’s frustration with the sluggish vaccine rollout, continued school closures and more.
Some of a recall’s potential success would hinge on who jumps into the race. Already, two Republicans have said they want to replace Newsom — former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a moderate who believes in climate change, same-sex marriage and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and conservative businessman John Cox, who lost the 2018 gubernatorial race to Newsom but picked up an endorsement from Donald Trump in the process.
Where Schwarzenegger pulled in nearly half the vote in 2003 while his fellow Republican Tom McClintock snagged only about 13%, Faulconer and Cox may be more likely to split the GOP vote, which would be good news for Newsom.
But there’s also the possibility that a progressive candidate joins the race, running against Newsom from the left. That’s the scenario that threatens his job.
“Recall organizers would have won and lost at the same time,” Whalen said. “It could be a classic example of careful what you wish for.”
“All it takes is one impatient progressive who doesn’t want to wait in line anymore,” Schnur agreed, adding that it will be important for Newsom to keep other Democrats from running.
In 2003, then-Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante ran and came in second to Schwarzenegger with 31.5% of the vote.
While some in Newsom’s party have been increasingly vocal in recent days about their frustration with the governor’s handling of the pandemic, which, aside from a series of destructive wildfires, has dominated his time in office, it’s not yet clear if any of those critics plan to challenge him.
Unlike in 2003 when labor unions were lukewarm on Davis, Newsom is likely to retain their support, said Terry Christensen, a political science professor emeritus at San Jose State University who co-authored the book Recall: California’s Political Earthquake, about the Davis recall.
“I think he can rally the troops,” Christensen said of Newsom. “I think he’s done enough and he’s progressive enough.”
A recall vote would also hinge on how the state is doing when people actually have a ballot in hand. If their kids are back in school and they’re pulling a regular paycheck, Newsom may look good.
“An election doesn’t require a very long memory,” Schnur said. “If people are feeling better on the day they vote, they’re not going to dwell about what they were thinking back in February.”
And while it’s worth pointing out that much of Newsom’s ability to steer the state through the pandemic hangs on factors he can’t control, like vaccines getting federal approval, that doesn’t necessarily matter much in the end.
“The person in charge gets too much credit when things are good and too much blame when things are bad,” Schnur said. “If the recall qualifies, he’d be the one in the crosshairs.”