In recent months, talk has grown that the California GOP may be getting ready to make one of its only serious statewide moves this decade: the recall campaign against Governor Gavin Newsom (D). But what does this effort entail, and will it be successful? Here’s a helpful guide to the GOPs effort to win the governor’s mansion in one of America’s bluest states.
What is the Campaign?
In California, any state-level politician can be recalled if proponents of the recall complete a petition with signatures equal to 12% of the total votes from the last election for the office in question. For Newsom, this means if slightly under 1.5 million Californians sign a petition to recall him, then he’ll have to face a vote. When the recall effort started in June, it was considered quixotic and doomed to failure. In fact, opponents of Newsom had tried and failed to recall him five times since his term began in January 2019.
However, a slew of negative stories, largely about COVID, have galvanized the efforts to put Newsom up for a recall vote. Proponents of the effort claim that signatures surged sharply after Newsom was caught eating indoors at an upscale restaurant with lobbyists – while he was telling Californians to stay home for the holidays. Afterwards, Newsom only tightened the state’s lockdown restrictions – and cases spiked anyways. The icing on this cake for Newsom, of course, has been the state’s disastrously slow vaccine rollout. Even after close to a year of some of the strictest lockdowns and worst case numbers in the country, the state ranks close to last in vaccinations per capita and percentage of vaccine supply utilized.
Have Recalls Happened Before?
Recalls are not uncommon in California politics. Most famously, Democratic Governor Gray Davis was recalled in 2003, paving the way for Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger to take his place. More recently, Democratic State Senator Josh Newman was recalled from his seat in 2018 – although he won that seat back in 2020.
Right now, there have been roughly 1.2 million signatures in support of recalling Newsom. Even if recall advocates can reach the necessary 1.5 million, but not all of them will be ruled valid by the state. They’ll likely need a cushion of at least a couple hundred thousand signatures. The deadline to submit signatures for review is March 17th.
Given the rate at which signatures have been collected, it seems more likely than not that recall organizers will reach their target of 1.5 million signatures. It probably stands to reason that the recall is a very slight favorite to make the ballot at this rate, but this can change quickly. There is still a lot of uncertainty around the final six weeks of signature gathering.
If a recall is put on the ballot, then the recall election and the replacement election will be held simultaneously. The first question would be a simple “Yes” or “No” vote on a recall of Gavin Newsom. If a majority of voters vote to recall him, he is removed from office. He cannot run to replace himself in the replacement election.
If the recall effort is successful, then the replacement election votes are tallied. Critically, California recalls operate on a first-past-the-post system where there are no primaries. Every candidate, regardless of party, runs on the same ballot, and the one with the most votes wins – no matter how few. This is how Schwarzenegger was able to win with 48.6% of the vote and how the GOP was able to flip Josh Newman’s State Senate with their leading candidate getting only 33.8%.
This is why the GOP has been hoping for the recall to get on the ballot. If they can rally behind one candidate and have Democrats split the vote, then they stand a chance of pulling off one of the most stunning maneuvers in recent memory. For their part, the party has already seemingly picked a standard bearer: former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. He has already announced he is exploring a 2022 run, and he has publicly criticized Newsom’s pandemic response in recent weeks. Faulconer, long rumored to be interested in running statewide, might see a potential opening in the recall.
Would the Recall be Successful?
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Republicans would be actually getting 50% of California voters to vote “Yes” on recalling Newsom. Only four months ago, Newsom had an approval rating of around 60%. In recent months, it has dropped to 46% in the most recent poll. However, this same poll shows only 36% of voters would support a recall while 45% would oppose it. That being said, the GOP would have some things going for them.
For starters, the recall must be held between 60 and 80 days after the signatures have been verified. But when will that happen? According to the California Code, voters have 30 days after the signature deadline to withdraw their signatures from the petition (so until April 16th in this case). After that deadline has passed, the counties have 10 days to notify the Secretary of State about which voters have chosen to withdraw (April 26th). The Secretary of State then must determine if the petition has reached the required threshold in no more than two business days. In short, any recall election would happen between June 25th and July 17th.
The upshot of all this, to put it mildly, is that turnout would likely be abysmal. It would be a standalone election in the middle of the summer, which could also be the time when Californians’ are first able to live without the imminent threat of COVID-19. Public consciousness of the recall could be lower than some anticipate. The last time California held an off-year statewide election (2005), only 50% of registered voters showed up to the polls. In 2018, this number was 65%.
In all, it’s unlikely Newsom would be recalled. But given the turnout dynamics, it’s not impossible. It should also be noted that Newsom might not need to be recalled solely from his right flank. Newsom has his fair share of critics on the left, and they could be convinced to vote to recall him. If progressives get a viable candidate on the ballot for the replacement election, then the left could turn against Newsom. This coalition isn’t particularly likely, but it has happened before. Most recently, a statewide ballot measure to end cash bail failed, with both heavily conservative and heavily progressive areas voting against it.
Because progressives had concerns about what would replace cash bail, the measure actually performed poorly in San Francisco’s most progressive neighborhoods – despite usually being touted as a left-wing reform. Ending cash bail actually did best in Marin County, home to San Francisco’s wealthy white suburbs.
The truth is, a lot would need to go right for the GOP to have a shot in this recall election. They would need to:
- Get a valid number of signatures
- Hope for incredibly low turnout
- Convince a majority of voters (and probably a good chunk of the left) to ditch Newsom
- Unite around one candidate in the replacement election
- Hope Democrats split the vote
Impossible? No – but highly unlikely, no doubt. That being said, Republicans do have some potential openings, and Democrats would be wise to take the challenge seriously.