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Newsom's Anti-Trump Recall Strategy Offers Republicans a Warning for 2022

·8 min read
Larry Elder, the Republican front-runner in the bid to replace California Gov. Gavin Newsom, thanked supporters at his election night party Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Hilton Orange County in Costa Mesa, Calif. (Mark Abramson/The New York Times)
Larry Elder, the Republican front-runner in the bid to replace California Gov. Gavin Newsom, thanked supporters at his election night party Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Hilton Orange County in Costa Mesa, Calif. (Mark Abramson/The New York Times)

SAN LEANDRO, Calif. — California basks in its clairvoyance.

“The future happens here first,” says Gov. Gavin Newsom, calling his state “America’s coming attraction.”

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By emphatically turning back the effort to recall him from office, however, Newsom made clear that California’s cherished role presaging the politics of tomorrow was not as significant as another, larger factor in Tuesday’s results: the tribal politics of today.

The first-term Democratic governor will remain in office because, in a deeply liberal state, he effectively nationalized the recall effort as a Republican plot, making a flame-throwing radio host the Trump-like face of the opposition to polarize the electorate along red and blue lines.

Newsom found success not because of what makes California different but because of how it’s like everywhere else: He dominated in California’s heavily populated Democratic cities, the key to victory in a state where his party outnumbers Republicans by 5 million voters.

“Gavin may have been on a high wire, but he was wearing a big, blue safety harness,” said Mike Murphy, a California-based Republican strategist.

The recall does offer at least one lesson to Democrats in Washington before next year’s midterm elections: The party’s preexisting blue- and purple-state strategy of portraying Republicans as Trump-loving extremists can still prove effective with the former president out of office, at least when the strategy is executed with unrelenting discipline, an avalanche of money and an opponent who plays to type.

“You either keep Gavin Newsom as your governor or you’ll get Donald Trump,” President Joe Biden said at an election-eve rally in Long Beach, making explicit what Newsom and his allies had been suggesting for weeks about the Republican front-runner, longtime radio host Larry Elder.

By the time Biden arrived in California, Newsom was well positioned. Yet in the days leading up to the recall, he was warning Democrats of the right-wing threat they would face in elections across the country next November.

“Engage, wake up, this thing is coming,” he said in an interview, calling Elder “a national spokesperson for an extreme agenda.”

California, which has not elected a Republican governor since the George W. Bush administration, is hardly a top area of contention in next year’s midterms. Yet for Republicans eying Biden’s falling approval ratings and growing hopeful about their 2022 prospects, the failed recall is less an ominous portent than a cautionary reminder about what happens when they put forward candidates who are easy prey for the opposition.

The last time Democrats controlled the presidency and both chambers of Congress, in 2010, the Republicans made extensive gains but fell short of reclaiming the Senate because they nominated a handful of candidates so flawed that they managed to lose in one of the best midterm elections for the GOP in modern history.

That’s to say that primaries matter — and if Republicans are to reclaim the Senate next year, party officials say, they will do so by elevating candidates who do not come with the bulging opposition research files of a 27-year veteran of right-wing radio.

“Larry Elder saved their lives on this,” Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist in Sacramento, said of Democrats. “Until this race had a general election context, there was not a lot of enthusiasm for life in California. But when you have the near-perfect caricature of a MAGA candidate, well, you can turn your voters out.”

Former Gov. Gray Davis, the Democrat who was recalled in 2003, put it more pithily: “He was a gift from God,” he said of Elder. “He conducted his entire campaign as if the electorate was conservative Republicans.”

Hungry for some good news after a bleak month, Democrats will nonetheless happily seize on Newsom’s triumph. After all, Biden himself knows all too well from his experience as vice president in 2010 — when his party lost the Massachusetts Senate seat vacated by the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy — that even the safest-seeming races can’t be taken for granted in special elections.

Moreover, Newsom’s success politically vindicates the president’s decision to enact a mandate on businesses to require the COVID-19 vaccine. The governor campaigned aggressively on his own vaccine requirements and lashed Elder for vowing to overturn them.

In fact, before Biden announced that policy Thursday, Newsom’s lieutenants believed they were showing the way for other Democrats — including the president.

“We’re doing what the White House needs to do, which is get more militant on vaccines,” Sean Clegg, one of the governor’s top advisers, said last week.

Historically, much of California’s political trendsetting has taken place on the right.

From Ronald Reagan’s first election as governor, signaling the backlash to the 1960s, to the property tax revolt of the 1970s, foreshadowing Reagan’s national success in the 1980s, the state was something of a conservative petri dish.

Even in more recent years, as California turned to the left, it was possible to discern the Republican future in Gov. Pete Wilson’s hard line on illegal immigration in the 1990s, and in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s potent cocktail of celebrity, populism and platitudes in the 2000s.

Earlier this summer, it appeared that, once again, California could augur national trends. Burdened by rising crime, homelessness and COVID fatigue, Newsom was seen in polls as in danger of being recalled.

His challenge, however, was not a tidal wave of opposition but Democratic apathy.

That began to change when Newsom outspent his Republican opponents and supporters of the recall 4-to-1 on television over the summer. Voter sentiment turned even more sharply away from replacing him once Elder emerged, transforming the contest from a referendum on Newsom into a more traditional Republican-vs.-Democrat election.

Every Democratic campaign sign and handbill, and even the voter guide that was mailed to registered California voters, termed the vote a “Republican Recall,” emblazoning a scarlet R on the exercise.

A rare convergence of interests between Democrats and Republicans ultimately favored Newsom. The only people more thrilled to elevate the profile of Elder, a Black conservative who delights in puncturing liberal pieties, were the paid members of the governor’s staff.

As media attention helped Elder become the most popular alternative, it aided Newsom by ensuring the contest would feel more like a general election than like the last, and to date only, successful California gubernatorial recall.

In 2003, Schwarzenegger was better known for his Hollywood credits than for his politics. He also hammered away at a distinctly local issue, California’s tax on automobiles, which kept the race centered on state rather than federal policies. And the incumbent, Davis, was far more unpopular than Newsom is.

California then was also a less polarized state. In 2000, Bush lost California by about 11 percentage points, while still carrying Republican redoubts like Orange and San Diego counties. Last year, Trump was routed in the state by nearly 30 points and lost the same two counties decisively.

Rather than defending his record, Newsom turned his stump speech into a chapter-and-verse recitation of Elder’s comments disparaging women, minimizing climate change and questioning the need for a minimum wage.

He also invoked the specter of red states and their leaders, scorning Republicans’ handling of COVID, voting restrictions and, in the final days of the campaign, Texas’ restrictive new abortion law.

While House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the most prominent California Republican, kept his distance from the recall, Newsom was regularly joined by Democratic members of Congress, who linked the recall to Trump’s refusal to concede defeat and to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.

“A different type of insurrection in California,” as Rep. Karen Bass put it at a rally in Los Angeles.

Elder, for his part, happily ran as the provocateur he is, overwhelming more moderate Republican hopefuls like former Mayor Kevin Faulconer of San Diego. He vowed to end vaccine mandates for state employees, which cheered conservative crowds but alienated the pro-vaccine majority.

Newsom’s polling showed him leading 69-28 among Californians who said they were vaccinated, his advisers said, a significant advantage in a state where nearly 7 in 10 adults have gotten their shots.

The possibility that Elder-style figures could win primaries in more competitive states alarms many establishment-aligned Republicans as they assess the 2022 landscape.

Nominees too closely linked to Trump, or laden with personal baggage, or both, could undermine the party’s prospects in states like Georgia, Arizona, Missouri and Pennsylvania that will prove crucial to determining control of the Senate.

Similarly, Republicans could struggle in battleground governors' races in Ohio, Georgia and Arizona if far-right candidates prevail in primaries thanks to Trump’s blessing.

In few states, however, is the party’s Trump-era brand as toxic as it is in California.

“This is not about Schwarzenegger; this is not even Scott Walker,” Newsom said, alluding to the former Republican governor of Wisconsin who fended off a recall. “This is about weaponizing this office for an extreme national agenda.”

It is, the governor said, “Trump’s party, even here in California.”

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