California Gov. Gavin Newsom is a princeling of progressivism, who has ascended to the summit of political power in one of the bluest states in the country, and yet is in real danger of suffering the most humiliating electoral rebuke possible.
In a few weeks, he could be recalled and, after a lifetime of political striving, replaced by a conservative talk-radio show host who has thought about holding elected office for about five minutes.
Recall is a blunt instrument. There’s no denying that it is bizarre that Larry Elder, the leading alternative candidate, could replace Newsom after getting less than 20 percent of the vote. The way the recall works is that voters are first asked whether or not to recall Newsom. If a majority says “yes,” he is gone. Then, whichever candidate gets the most votes on the replacement ballot, even if it’s a small plurality, becomes governor (Elder has led polls among replacement candidates with as little as 18 percent of the vote).
Recall is a well-established feature of the California system. It has been in the state’s Constitution since 1911, and, of course, was used most recently when Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003.
Efforts to portray it as undemocratic and unconstitutional make no sense. The argument is that since a candidate getting fewer votes than Newsom could become governor, the process is deeply unfair to his supporters and prevents voters from having equal influence on the outcome.
The recall, though, is decided by the thoroughly democratic method of seeing what and who gets the most votes. Newsom supporters have the power to stop his ouster simply by outvoting, even by one ballot, the supporters of the recall. And the alternative candidate has to get the most votes, too, albeit in a crowded and fractured field.
If there is no credible Democrat among the replacement candidates, that was a deliberate strategic choice of the party to make the recall a contest between an impeccably progressive governor and a motley group of Republicans. The calculation may pay off, but it is a risk that makes the Elder scenario plausible.
The bottom line is that recall—as well as California’s other mode of direct democracy, the initiative process—is an escape valve in a state with an entrenched political monoculture. It is the only plausible tool available to deliver a personal rebuke to Newsom and an unmistakable message to the state’s political establishment that it is failing.
Newsom inherited a state in decline. Once a mecca for the middle class and strivers of all kinds, California has become an economic inequality machine with an outrageously high cost of living and a steady exodus of people and companies.
Newsom has done nothing to change the status quo, only entrench it, while adding his own unique high handedness and ideological fixity.
California has been taxing and regulating itself into a losing competing position vis-a-vis states like Texas and Florida.
Housing and energy prices are sky-high. The schools are terrible, with particularly poor results among vulnerable kids. Crime has been on the rise and homelessness is out of control.
The economy is abysmal for those without a college degree. According to urbanist Joel Kotkin, a persistent critic of progressive rule in California, outside of the Bay Area, middle-income jobs declined over the past decade and “for every high-end job, the state created five low-wage ones.”
As a result of all of this, since 2000, almost 3 million people have fled the state.
Newsom is the governor by and for all the forces that created this debacle and want to make it worse. His Democratic predecessor, Jerry Brown, was a substantial figure with an independent streak. Handsome and slick to a fault, Newsom has, in contrast, risen without a trace, to paraphrase a famous line about British TV interviewer David Frost. From San Francisco mayor, to lieutenant governor, to governor, he’s wedded his ambition to a progressive elitism that can seem out of touch even in liberal California.
He wouldn’t face a recall at all if it weren’t for his instantly notorious dinner at French Laundry. This isn’t the most significant of his lapses, but breaking several of his own Covid rules at one of the finest restaurants in the country—the wine bill reportedly came to $12,000—was going to engender a fierce reaction.
Especially when Newsom ordered far-reaching and extensive lockdowns that were arbitrary (no outdoor dining—except for people making movies!) and economically damaging. Meanwhile, schools in the state were often closed, a significant blow to learning and a particular burden to parents without the means to find alternatives.
He has effectively done nothing to fight the twin crises of wildfire and drought (environmentalists oppose forest management and building new dams), and there’s a pervasive sense that disorder and homelessness in the state’s big cities are intolerably degrading the quality of life.
It’s a testament to Newsom’s lack of appeal that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has been made the public face of opposition to the recall in TV ads. Newsom’s strategy is an unimaginative blunderbuss approach—raising ungodly amounts of cash from billionaires and special interests and bludgeoning recall proponents as dangerous insurrectionist tools of former President Donald Trump.
This may well work, and obviously the oppo file on Larry Elder has been unleashed. Still, the polls have had the recall shockingly close, evidence that even in California there’s such a thing as a progressive going too far.