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California’s not getting redder, but it still could get a GOP governor

Newsom recall election likely to be close in the state that Joe Biden won by 29 points

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, walks to the Capitol with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra in 2014, when the two Democrats had other jobs. Newsom was lieutenant governor and Becerra was in the House.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, walks to the Capitol with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra in 2014, when the two Democrats had other jobs. Newsom was lieutenant governor and Becerra was in the House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — With a little more than two weeks to go, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is still at risk of being recalled and replaced by a Republican in one of the most Democratic states in the country.

California hasn’t suddenly become more Republican, but a combination of the unique circumstances of the election, various current crises in the state and volatility in turnout could be the recipe for a political upset.

Joe Biden won California by 29 points over President Donald Trump in 2020, yet there’s significant evidence that the Sept. 14 recall election will be much closer.

In fact, multiple public polls show the first question (whether or not to recall Newsom) is virtually even. In order to be successful, Republicans need a majority of voters to say they want Newsom recalled. Then, a new governor is chosen (out of the 46 candidates on the ballot) by a plurality of voters. The leading Republican contender is radio talk show host Larry Elder.

Even if Democrats have not been wildly popular in California over the years, they benefit from the contrast with Republicans, who are viewed as out of step with a majority of voters. But in the recall election, it’s a simple referendum on Newsom, not a choice between him and a single opponent. It also comes at a time when the pandemic is surging, fires are raging and some voters are struggling to find what they like about their governor.

The bottom line is that if Democrats turn out to vote, Newsom prevails. As of July 16, 46.5 percent of registered voters in California were Democrats, 24.1 percent were Republicans, 23 percent were No Party Preference and 6.2 percent were Other. But if significant apathy depresses Democratic turnout and Republicans successfully flip a large share of Biden voters, Newsom could narrowly lose the recall question. The lower the turnout, the more likely Newsom is recalled.

Ryan Matsumoto of Inside Elections detailed more of the nuances of the race, including analysis of the polling methodologies and the early vote ballots.

In May, Inside Elections changed its rating of the recall election from Solid Democratic to Likely Democratic as an acknowledgment of the unique nature of the recall. Four months later, that dynamic remains. But while it’s foolish to completely rule out a successful recall, Newsom winning is still the more likely outcome. Many of the public polls don’t carry enough weight to justify a rating change yet, and Democrats’ strong partisan advantage in California cannot be understated.

Inside Elections is maintaining its Likely Democratic rating of the California recall election for now.

Political earthquake

On one hand, a Newsom recall and Elder election would be a political earthquake, considering state Republicans haven’t been relevant in California in recent memory. A GOP governor of California would be striking and would embolden Republicans around the country, even though the specific logistics surrounding the race are virtually impossible to replicate.

On the other hand, Elder would be on the ballot again in 2022 (when Newsom’s term would be up) and would start as the underdog in a regular election when turnout patterns are closer to normal. Elder and Republicans would also be responsible for policy positions and decisions. And GOP members of Congress and candidates would be forced to answer for Elder’s record, past and present. That’s a completely different dynamic than a straight referendum on Newsom and would clutter Republicans’ desire to run against Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi socialism and critical race theory.

Of course Republicans want to oust Newsom, but there would be complications for the GOP.

One thing is certain: There will be an overreaction to the result. If Newsom is recalled, it will be portrayed as a “sky is falling” moment for Democrats, when the situation is largely specific to California. At the same time, if Newsom survives, that doesn’t mean Democrats are out of the woods in 2022. Republicans are still positioned to do well, particularly if Biden’s job rating doesn’t improve.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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