OAKLAND, Calif. — What would happen if a conservative Republican became governor of deep blue California?
For the Republicans vying to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom, winning September’s recall race could prove easier than governing a state that’s become the cornerstone of America’s liberal agenda.
Any Republican who succeeds Newsom would be parachuting into hostile political territory. Democrats command two-thirds majorities in the state Legislature that allow them to override vetoes without a single Republican vote. The state’s biggest cities are run by Democrats. And all would be aiming to drive the new governor out of office in next year’s general election.
But a Republican executive could fight back through unilateral action, uprooting the state’s vast government bureaucracy, freezing spending and issuing sweeping edicts with a swipe of the pen.
Expect a year of political bedlam.
“It would be complete chaos, and government would come to a virtual standstill,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a former state Senate leader who headed the Democratic caucus during Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure.
Soaring conservative enthusiasm has created a real possibility that California Republicans could break a long statewide losing streak by claiming the governorship of the country’s most populous state. The Sept. 14 recall — the stuff of fantasy just a year ago — now has Newsom on the run and calling in reinforcements from the top of the Democratic Party.
A motivated GOP electorate and an indifferent Democratic base could be all it takes to force Newsom out. A successful vote to recall the first-term governor would almost certainly put a Republican in the state capitol, likely with a small plurality as voters split their support among nearly four dozen candidates on the mail-in ballot.
Expect Democrats to label a Republican victor an illegitimate governor and a poster child for electoral reform.
“If this recall is successful, and any Republican who prevailed won with 25 percent of the vote, it would not constitute a mandate or even a majority,” Steinberg said. “I think it would be a disaster.”
A Republican governor’s first steps would likely include repealing Newsom’s orders requiring vaccinations for teachers, state employers and health care workers. Every viable Republican candidate has vowed to dissolve the state mandates.
Courts have affirmed Newsom’s expansive use of executive authority during an ongoing coronavirus state of emergency to issue orders affecting areas like election administration and workers’ compensation insurance. His Republican successor would inherit similarly broad powers, although the Legislature could curtail the new governor’s powers by voting to end the state of emergency.
“You can do a ton in the executive order space,” said Dan Dunmoyer, who was cabinet secretary under Schwarzenegger, the winner of the state’s only other gubernatorial recall. “You don’t need any legislative approval, though you have the courts to worry about. You could overturn every one of Newsom’s executive orders like Biden did to Trump.”
Health Officers Association of California Executive Director Kat DeBurgh said the state’s health and safety code empowers local governments to maintain stringent rules. But Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith disagreed, saying a state public health officer appointed by the governor would have the ability to change local health orders.
“Obviously, such an action would be challenged in court,” Smith said.
Newsom has taken to stressing the perils of a Republican governor as he seeks to rally disengaged Democrats. The governor has repeatedly raised who a GOP governor would have selected to replace Vice President Kamala Harris in the Senate. A Republican governor could end up filling the seat of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) if she were to die or retire during the short-lived new administration. Newsom also appointed California’s current attorney general and secretary of state.
With some 100 judicial posts vacant and available for a governor to fill, Newsom has warned of the “the damage that a Republican could do with judicial appointments, unfettered by the Legislature.” He has emphasized how a governor could use his line-item budget veto power to “literally knock out reproductive rights or enhanced rights across the spectrum with the stroke of a pen.”
“All of what we hold dear will be impacted,” Newsom warned supporters on a recent call.
Similarly, Republican frontrunner Larry Elder — a conservative talk radio host — has said he would command “a lot more power“ than he previously thought possible, even with a “hostile Legislature.” Elder noted lawmakers have seldom overridden vetoes and pointed to governors’ authority to fill regulatory bodies.
“Commissions are the ones that are imposing the rules and regulations that make life much more difficult here in California,” Elder said in an interview with the Sacramento Bee editorial board.
Appointments offer governors the ability to reorient California’s vast state bureaucracy far beyond health care. Political operative Joe Rodota, who served as cabinet secretary to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, said a governor could compile a list of openings that could be filled without legislative approval, at least in the short term, and then use those posts to test the boundaries of executive power.
“That could be several hundred key appointments,” Rodota said. And “if there’s a grey area or an area of executive discretion, the governor can instruct his or her appointees to take an approach.”
Those appointees could have considerable leeway in blocking or stalling policies passed under previous administrations. That could mean pushing back deadlines, undercutting enforcement of labor laws or delaying the implementation of health care mandates like an expansion of health insurance to undocumented Californians.
Health Access California Executive Director Anthony Wright said he has already seen some health care policies get “delayed or, frankly, stalled enough that they never got implemented.”
“We all know that the passing of the statutes, the laws, is very important. What’s more important is how they’re interpreted and how they’re implemented,” Steinberg said. “Executive branch agencies have tremendous power and the signal if not the explicit direction from an Elder would mean many of the laws that represent the will of a majority of the people of California would not be enforced.”
A governor could freeze scheduled increases in the minimum wage — an idea that would likely appeal to Elder, who advocates abolishing any minimum wage.
“All you have to do is eliminate the staffing and you freeze government in place. It doesn’t matter if you gave the right to get a permit if there’s no staff there to issue the permit,” said Susan Kennedy, who served in the administrations of both Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and Schwarzenegger. “It’s pretty easy to have government grind to a halt and do nothing.”
But Kennedy warned that “it’s very, very hard to govern by conflict,” particularly as California faces a confluence of crises like homelessness, wildfires and the coronavirus.
“It’s one thing to get elected on the anger of a whole bunch of voters,” Kennedy said. “It’s entirely different to try and govern with it.”
But conflict would likely be a constant — particularly if a new governor is seen as illegitimate after winning office with a plurality of the vote, as California law allows.
“I would sit down with my counterpart in the Assembly and say, ‘these are the places where [the governor] can come at us, and then we have to come up with a defense for each one,’” said former state Senate leader Don Perata, a Democrat. “I would take the position of ‘do no harm, we’re going to play defense.’”
A split-government scenario would give an outsize role to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), who have the votes to effectively approve legislation by reversing gubernatorial vetoes. Both declined interview requests.
Dunmoyer argued Democrats could use that power to highlight the gap between their agenda and that of a Republican leader.
Legislators “would set the governor up. They would pick issues to force the governor to veto it, overturn it and say ‘see, he’s bad on kids, he’s bad on the issue.’ They would send him things California voters want,” Dunmoyer said. “Hire a pollster, find out where people are at on issues and send them to the new governor.”
But supermajorities don’t ensure Democrats will vote together. Bills requiring two-thirds votes still regularly fail in Sacramento in a reminder of the broad ideological spectrum within the teeming Democratic caucus. A savvy governor could try to exploit those fissures and pick off moderate Democrats, although even then, Atkins and Rendon have multiple votes to spare.
Lobbyist Greg Campbell, who has served as chief of staff to multiple legislative leaders, said legislative leaders’ lives could become “significantly more tricky, because deciding which [legislation] rises to the level of override and which doesn’t can be a very subjective process,” and legislators would naturally favor their own bills. But Campbell predicted Democrats would hold the line against sweeping policy reversals.
“It sounds like what a Republican governor would try to accomplish would be to undo what Democratic legislators thought were the landmark policies they’ve put forward over the last few years. It’s hard to see them stand by and just let that get unwound,” Campbell said. “There’s also an election in November of 2022 with a significantly different electorate. It’s hard to see Democrats would give a whole bunch of victories to a Republican governor.”