But even if Newsom wins by a lot, a show of strength now does not guarantee long-term political success. Any ambitions Newsom may have to run for president will be shaped by a lot more than defeating this recall, said Democratic strategist Paul Maslin.
“What he does on a host of issues that are very difficult over the next year — or the next five years if he has a second term — will be much more important to how he is judged,” Maslin said.
“Ultimately I don’t know that it will mean that much in the story of Gavin Newsom or California. It will be sort of a diversion that he had to respond to.”
Maslin, who worked on campaigns against the 2003 recall of former Gov. Gray Davis and for the failed recall of Republican former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, pointed to the example of Walker. He beat back a recall in 2012, won reelection in 2014 and was seen as a strong contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. But his presidential campaign flopped. And then in 2018, he ran for reelection as governor — and lost.
“Newsom was always going to be the huge favorite for reelection, and if he does win by a significant margin it will reinforce that status,” Maslin said. “What it says about the rest of his career is unknowable.”
Newsom wins by a little
Defeating the recall by a narrow margin — significantly less than his 24-percentage-point beatdown of Republican John Cox in 2018 — could weaken Newsom as he heads into reelection next year.
“If he limps out of this, there will be some blood in the water,” said Steve Maviglio, a Democratic political consultant. “Another Democrat will think they could do better and they can take him on.”
Republicans who backed the recall could claim a kind of victory from weakening the governor, even if they failed to throw him out of office. Some of them already are.
“He’s spent $80 million, he’s in the fight of his life, he’s called in the president and the vice president,” said Anne Dunsmore, a recall campaign manager.
“He’s taking it seriously and he’s using a lot of resources to combat us… We’ve already won. We’ve made our point.”
A narrow win would also likely trigger lawsuits over the validity of the election results. Conservative commentators have already begun saying, with no evidence, that voter fraud will be to blame if Newsom wins. Former President Donald Trump issued a statement Monday calling the recall “another giant Election Scam.”
Elder has said he plans to file lawsuits over election irregularities. His website links to another site that asks voters to sign a petition “demanding a special session of the California legislature to investigate and ameliorate the twisted results of this 2021 Recall Election of Governor Gavin Newsom.”
Newsom called Elder’s stance “an extension of the Big Lie” that Trump stoked about his loss last year.
“The election hasn’t even happened and now they’re all fanning election fraud,” Newsom said Friday. “I encourage voters to come out in overwhelming numbers… So we can put all this nonsense to rest.”
Newsom is thrown out of office
More recent polls have consistently indicated that it’s unlikely the recall will prevail. If voters do throw Newsom out of office, it will show how difficult it is for pollsters to predict an unusual election such as a gubernatorial recall, where it can be hard to measure how many voters will turn out.
So far, older and white voters are returning their ballots at a higher rate than other demographic groups, according to tabulations by Political Data Inc. If the recall is successful, it may be because younger voters and Latino voters — key blocs in the Democratic coalition — don’t cast ballots, or vote to recall Newsom.
Photo, right: Anne Dunsmore, campaign manager for Rescue California, a pro-recall organization, said President Biden and Vice President Harris should be attending to matters in Washington, D.C., rather than campaigning for Gov. Gavin Newsom. Dunsmore spoke on Sept. 9, 2021 at the state Capitol. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
A successful recall would be a huge victory for the California GOP, which has been beleaguered and shrinking for many years. If Newsom is recalled, the new governor — most likely talk radio host Elder — would be sworn in by the end of October.
Though a Republican governor would face many hurdles enacting new laws because of the huge majority Democrats have in the Legislature, he could have the chance to make a significant political appointment, should Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is 88, become unable to finish her term. Elder has said he would appoint a Republican to her seat.
That’s why Democrat Christine Pelosi said that if Newsom is recalled, California lawmakers should immediately call a special session and change the rules for how political vacancies are filled in the Senate and state constitutional offices. Right now, there are few limits on who the governor can appoint to those positions. Pelosi, the daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and an officer with the California Democratic Party, said the rules could be changed to require replacement by someone from the same party as the outgoing official.
“The Legislature can do that,” she said. “And in my view they should.”
Every governor since 1960 has faced an attempted recall, but most of them fell short of the signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. Would liberal activists try to recall a Republican winner of this recall?
It’s possible. But it seems unlikely, given the time involved in mounting a recall and the regularly scheduled gubernatorial election next year.
“Timing-wise it doesn’t make sense,” Pelosi said.
And no matter what
Expect California lawmakers to begin working on possible changes to the recall process. Whether there will be bipartisan support for an overhaul is unclear. But Democratic leaders said they intend to start examining the recall rules later this year or early next year.
“We’ve heard that people want change, and we in the Legislature will take a look at that,” state Senate leader Toni Atkins told reporters on Friday.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon echoed her view, saying the recall system “was set up a century ago. The extent to which it’s still valid in its current form… merits discussion.”
Surveys have shown that California voters support changing the recall rules. Potential changes could include a runoff if no replacement candidate receives a majority of the vote, making it harder for recalls to qualify for the ballot and limiting recalls to situations where a public official has broken the law.
Such changes would require approval from voters. So any plan that lawmakers come up with would likely go on the ballot next year in the form of a statewide initiative.
That’s right: Voting in the recall election ends today. But recall rules may be on the ballot next year.
CalMatters reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn contributed to this story.