SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – California’s recall on Tuesday will be the biggest election since Joe Biden became president, and his results may hint at the country’s political trajectory.
In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is seen as having the upper hand in his attempt to push back the GOP-fueled recall. Republican talk show host Larry Elder is the main Republican backup.
But California’s recalls are unlike any other election. Voters must first decide whether to remove the incumbent – in this case, Newsom – and then answer a question in the second ballot as to who should be the replacement. This unorthodox process has already had crazy results – it led actor Arnold Schwarzenegger to become governor in 2003.
Five things to look for in Tuesday’s quirky contest:
CAN COVID-19 POLICY SAVE DEMOCRATS?
The effort to recall Newsom began on its immigration, crime and tax policies, but gained momentum after ordering restrictions to curb the pandemic and urging Californians to stay home – and was caught going against his own guidelines while dining with friends at one of the country’s most expensive restaurants.
Republicans had hoped the recall would become a referendum on California’s chronic problems with crime, energy, homelessness and high house prices. But the delta variant has brought the coronavirus outbreak back to the top of the issues that worry the public.
Newsom and his team sprang into action, trying to make the race a referendum on COVID-19 precautions like school masking and vaccination warrants. Democrats began to warn that replacing Newsom with a Republican would turn California into another Florida – a reference to how that state’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis fought mask and vaccine mandates even as the virus has grown there.
Biden campaigned with Newsom in California on Monday, echoing the message from the governor’s team.
“Voting no will protect California from Trump Republicans who are trying to stop us from beating this pandemic,” Biden said.
Ace Smith, one of Newsom’s top strategists, said the campaign demonstrated that politicians shouldn’t be “shy” about the coronavirus.
“The campaign took hold of it and used it to literally create a very simple choice for voters,” Smith said.
Whether this choice pays off for Democrats could change the content of the national debate. Smith already says he thinks Democrats – preparing for a traditionally tough midterm election next year because they’re the ruling party – should be more aggressive in touting “common sense” public health.
CAN THE GOP ENLARGE ITS TENT?
California is a tough place to be a Republican. The party has not won a statewide election since 2006, and Democrats have a qualified majority at the legislative level.
Still, 2020 has been a relatively good year for the GOP in California, as they won several swing seats in Congress in southern and central California.
Some analysts have seen in the polls signs that Latinos, traditionally a key Democratic constituency in California, may have deteriorated on Newsom. If this turns out to be true, it would be part of a national trend that led Republican Donald Trump to gain traction among the population during his losing presidential campaign last year.
Both sides will be watching the Latinos and another major California group, Asian Americans, for any sign of GOP gains.
WHAT SHOULD I KNOW ABOUT LARRY ELDER?
Longtime conservative radio host Elder has become the unlikely face of the encore movement. He is the most popular Republican among those vying for Newsom’s replacement, and the governor’s team have been happy to keep the sometimes explosive senior in the spotlight, underscoring his support for Trump and his opposition to vaccination mandates and abortion rights.
Elder, who is black, may be able to attract more young voters from different walks of life into the GOP. But several Republicans believe he will alienate many other voters. They fear he has given Newsom an easy target to turn the recall into a partisan referendum, which Democrats will inevitably win.
But there are questions about Elder’s willingness to accept the results of Tuesday’s recall if Newsom avoids his ouster.
Elder began to echo Trump by predicting baselessly that Newsom will only win the recall if Democrats engage in electoral fraud. Elder said last week his campaign had an “integrity board,” with lawyers ready to address questions about possible fraud or other irregularities. People can contact his campaign through his website.
“I think there could very well be some shenanigans, as there was in the 2020 election,” he said, referring to Trump’s refuted claims of massive voter fraud during his loss against Biden.
Trump raised the bar on Monday by issuing a statement claiming the recall is “rigged” as was his own election. The 2020 election, of course, was by no means “rigged” and Trump fairly lost them.
WHEN WILL WE KNOW WHAT HAPPENED?
California’s recalls are different from elections in other states, as is the way California counts the ballots. The state allows any ballot to count as long as it is stamped on polling day and received within seven days. Thus, new votes are counted late in the week and sometimes in the following week. The tally itself is notoriously slow and can take over a month to finalize.
Most California Democrats vote by mail, and Republicans tend to vote in person and get their ballots counted faster. So whatever the results are on Tuesday night, they will likely become more and more Democrats as the tally continues.
WHAT WILL WE LEARN ABOUT MIDTERMS?
The California recall is different from most other elections, and certainly different from next year’s House and Senate elections. Republicans hope to win back Congress, as the opposition party often does in the mid-term. The results of a recall election in one of the country’s most democratic states may not be the best way to know if this is going to happen.
Yet California contains many congressional swing districts, particularly in Orange County and the Central Valley. Their performance on the recall may give some idea of whether Democrats remain politically engaged in the post-Trump era and whether the GOP can win back voters who have been turned off by Trump.
Finally, the recall could provide a barometer as to whether voters will reward politicians who proactively implement pandemic restrictions in an effort to help keep citizens safe, or whether they will see them more as a infringement of their personal freedoms.
That Newsom’s argument about the coronavirus is winning over voters not only in the more liberal areas of the state, but also in its rotating districts, may be a good indicator of the direction taken by the 36 races for governor of 2022.