Recalling California's governor: long shot or lost cause?

·Senior Editor
·7-min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Over the past decade, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has been one of the rising stars in the Democratic Party. His rapid ascent from San Francisco mayor to lieutenant governor to the governor’s mansion led many in California to believe his next stop could be the White House. Today, however, Newsom faces a recall election that poses a threat to his political career and presents an unlikely path for a Republican to lead one of America’s bluest states.

California is one of 19 states that allow voters to recall elected officials in special elections, which are typically prompted after a certain number of signatures supporting a recall are collected. Recall attempts are common, but nearly all of them fail. Only a small fraction even make it onto the ballot. The latest attempt to recall Newsom may very well have flopped had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic.

The recall was initially launched in February 2020, based mostly on right-wing complaints about Newsom’s immigration policy. It gained steam as some Californians took issue with the governor’s approach to the pandemic — which included some of the most aggressive restrictions in the nation. The number of signatures skyrocketed in November after Newsom was photographed mingling indoors and maskless at a dinner party hosted by a wealthy lobbyist at a swanky Napa Valley restaurant in violation of his own coronavirus guidance.

Recall organizers gathered more than 2 million signatures — well above the threshold to trigger a special election. On Sept. 14, Newsom will become the third governor in modern U.S. history to face a recall. Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall challenge in 2012. In 2003, embattled California Gov. Gray Davis was ousted from office after a wild recall election, and was replaced by action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Why there’s debate

Though California is home to the only successful gubernatorial recall in modern history, many political experts predict this time will be different. Davis was deeply unpopular when he was recalled in 2003 due to a statewide electricity crisis and a $35 billion budget deficit. Davis also had a world-famous celebrity vying to replace him.

Newsom, on the other hand, has a relatively high approval rating, is riding a booming statewide economy with a massive budget surplus and helped lead one of the most effective vaccine campaigns in the country. A handful of prominent Republicans in the state have joined the race to replace him, including the former mayor of San Diego and Newsom’s opponent in the 2018 governor’s race — but no one with nearly the star power of Schwarzenegger. Reality star Caitlyn Jenner garnered headlines when she announced her candidacy, but polls suggest the attention hasn’t yet translated into support from voters.

Despite all the points in Newsom’s favor, some observers say the recall still has a chance of success. California is doing well now, but it’s possible that a severe wildfire season, crippling drought, resurgence of the coronavirus fueled by the Delta variant or other tactical slipup could turn voters against Newsom before the end of the summer, they argue. Democrats chose a much earlier date for the election than most had expected, a move in part seen as a hedge against a potential spike in COVID-19 cases in the fall, but some political analysts say the decision could backfire by denying them time they need to rally their base against the recall.

What’s next

A significant question looming over the recall vote is whether the state’s Republican Party will coalesce behind a single candidate to replace Newsom. That decision may not be made until August, around the time the first mail-in ballots for the recall election are sent to voters.

If he survives the recall, Newsom will be eligible to run for another 4-year term as governor in next year's midterm elections.


California voters are less likely to turn against their own party than the were in the past

“He’s likely to beat the recall attempt because Americans today are so polarized, they tend to vote knee-jerk with their parties. And there are nearly twice as many Democrats as Republicans in California.” — George Skelton, Los Angeles Times

A recall may not be likely, but it’s not impossible

“Is it likely? No. But could it happen? Well, the last time California put its governor to a recall vote, it eventually elected a Republican athlete-cum-mega celebrity in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger.” — Tiana Lowe, Washington Examiner

California is much bluer than it was in 2003

“The simple truth is that California is in a much different position in 2021 than it was in 2003. The state has grown more progressive and has become the heartbeat of the resistance against the radicalization of the Republican Party under its leader, Donald Trump. The Republican Party has gotten smaller, and it has been relegated to back-seat status, frozen out of power in the State Assembly, the State Senate and every statewide office.” — Kurt Bardella, USA Today

The state could be in much worse shape come Election Day

“While the Democratic governor is riding a wave of political momentum, an extra-contagious coronavirus variant and a potentially devastating wildfire season threaten to derail that progress, adding additional pressure for a speedy vote.” — Jeremy B. White, Politico

Newsom’s handling of the pandemic angered enough voters to give the recall a shot

“Newsom may argue that this recall effort is a partisan ‘power play,’ but such a claim is an affront to the millions of Californians who have experienced his poor leadership during the pandemic. While proponents of the recall have an uphill climb in the effort to remove him from office, they have succeeded in getting Newsom's attention.” — Lanhee J. Chen, CNN

Newsom can use the power of his office to fight off the recall

“While residents from other states wonder why California’s blue-state budget decadence continues despite the threat of a recall, Gavin will attempt to silence his hometown critics with the bread of overspending and summer circuses celebrating the state’s reopening.” — Lance Christensen, National Review

Republicans haven’t found a strong candidate capable of threatening Newsom

“If recall proponents — Republicans, mostly — were to have a fighting chance of success, they would need to coalesce behind one well-known, well-financed candidate to succeed Newsom, as demonstrated by California’s first and only gubernatorial recall, that of Gray Davis in 2003. … A very weak Republican Party, a late-blooming sponsor of the recall, can’t even settle on one challenger and voters will be disinclined to vote for Newsom’s ouster if they don’t see a viable alternative.” — Dan Walters, CalMatters

A prominent Democrat joining the recall race would be bad news for Newsom

“It is obviously in Mr. Newsom’s interest to keep other Democrats off the ballot and brand the election a Republican recall. A ‘Vote no’ message is cleaner than “Vote no, but just in case, vote for this other Democrat.” Worse than muddled messaging, a viable Democratic alternative, even posed as an insurance policy, could morph into a real threat.” — Miriam Pawel, New York Times

The recall will have been a success even if it fails to remove Newsom from office

“Newsom continues to get high marks from many voters. The campaign to recall him may fail. But regardless of the outcome, self-government in the Golden State will have been strengthened.” — Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe

The early election date could be a major strategic mistake

“At the moment, most voters are not focused on the recall. The groups that are most engaged — and probably enraged — are those looking to oust Newsom.” — Joshua Spivak, Los Angeles Daily News

Democrats were wise to hold the election as early as possible

“A later recall date could have coincided with a downturn in Newsom’s approval ratings, depending especially on how the state’s wildfire season progressed. … Newsom’s ratings could also flag if COVID infection numbers begin spiking to the point where mask mandates and other restrictions have to be utilized yet again.” — Editorial, Sacramento Bee

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