California recall yields winners and losers beyond Newsom and Elder

by David Mark, Senior Editor

March 17, 2022

Washington Examiner

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom was the winner of the California gubernatorial recall, with voters choosing by a wide margin to keep him in office despite critics’ jabs that he bungled the state’s COVID-19 pandemic response, let homelessness run amok, and had otherwise proved to be a failed leader.

The former San Francisco mayor and lieutenant governor easily rebuffed an attempt to remove him from office early. Newsom escaped the fate of a previous Democratic governor of California, Gray Davis, who in 2003 was recalled by voters in favor of former bodybuilder and action-film star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Newsom’s decisive win saves his political career, positioning him strongly to win a second, four-year term in 2022, and perhaps seek the White House after that.

Newsom, though, wasn’t the only one to emerge from the recall with his reputation enhanced — or, conversely, tarnished. Here are key winners and losers of the recall fight in the nation’s most populous state.


Robb Korinke. The self-described “data nerd” was a skeptic of the recall’s success before it was cool.

In an Aug. 7 Twitter thread, shortly after a University of California, Berkeley/Los Angeles Times poll frightened many Democrats by finding 47% of the electorate favoring Newsom’s recall and a bare 50% favoring his retention, Korinke argued the race wouldn’t be nearly that close. The dominant Democratic lean of the California electorate, Korinke said, made for too heavy a lift for recall supporters.

“Enough with the nonsense, the Newsom Recall is going to fail by 10 points or more. Here’s some reality and simple math,” wrote Korinke, with Long Beach-based GrassrootsLab.

“There are not enough Republicans left in California to win even a low turnout election, even if you convince a sizeable number of Democrats to actually vote their own party out of office,” Korinke added on Twitter. “Republicans are less than 1 in 4 voters in CA, at about 24%. So let’s just say every Republican in the state votes to oust Newsom next month. Where are you going to get the other 26%? Half of CA Independents favor Democrats, just about 1/3 favor Republicans. But lets be generous and say the Recall splits Indys. That gets you into the low 40s for ‘Yes’ on Recall. How many Democrats are going to oust Newsom, in favor of a Republican?”

Korinke’s analysis proved prophetic, with Newsom scoring an easy retention win to stay on as governor (final, certified results are still to come.)

Garry South. A premier California Democratic consultant, South argued early and often against his party fielding a replacement candidate on the second part of the recall question. That approach contradicted many prominent anti-recall Democratic voices who counseled in favor of a Plan B candidate should Newsom be recalled.

But South had seen that movie before when it didn’t end happily for Democrats. South was chief political adviser to Davis in his landslide 1998 gubernatorial win and closer 2002 reelection. Then, when Davis faced a recall in 2003, Democrats were divided over fielding a high-profile replacement candidate, to ensure the office stayed in their party’s hands. Most big-name Democrats ultimately stayed out, but Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante ran as an alternative. Bustamante earned 31.5% of the vote, far behind Republican Schwarzenegger’s 48.6%. (In a separate vote, Davis was recalled, with 55.4% of the electorate voting “yes.”)

In 2021, South warned early that the backup-Democrat strategy would be a disaster this time around. Instead, he contended Democrats should steer clear of a backup candidate and focus entirely on keeping Newsom in office. And it was this approach that helped turn the tide in favor of Newsom, elected governor in 2018.

Without a big-name Democrat looming as an alternative, Newsom, and supporters over the past month or so, effectively nationalized the recall election. They framed the most popular candidate on the second ballot, Republican talk radio host Larry Elder, a proxy for former President Donald Trump. Many California Democrats revile Trump, and tying Elder to the leading recall candidate turned the recall into a two-person race. Newsom was always going to win under such a scenario.


Republican elected officials. Elder’s rise to the top of the replacement candidate scrum, despite never holding office, reflects the difficulty elected Republicans have in running statewide. The last time a GOP candidate won a statewide race was in 2006, and
California has only grown a deeper shade of blue since then.

In the 2021 recall, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Assemblyman Kevin Kiley earned only single-digit support. Faulconer was seen as a relatively centrist Republican and earned the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times editorial board as the alternative to Newsom (though the paper counseled against kicking the sitting governor out of office).

Kiley, meanwhile, fits the mold of a rising-star Republican officeholder with sterling academic credentials, like Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Josh Hawley of Missouri, along with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. But due to California’s heavily blue tilt, Kiley, an alumnus of Harvard and Yale Law School, is going to have a hard time making the leap to statewide elected office. Kiley is 36 and in 2016 won a state Assembly seat in the conservative outer ring of the northern and eastern Sacramento suburbs. But there appears to be little path to statewide office for him, even under seemingly favorable circumstances like a recall election.

Future recalls. Afterthe second gubernatorial recall in 18 years to make the ballot, state Democrats in Sacramento may try to increase the difficulty of triggering such races. The recall in California goes back to 1911, when progressive Republican Gov. Hiram Johnson spearheaded its passage as a way of thwarting special interests and corruption in state government. Only a handful of state officials have been recalled in the century-plus since its enactment, but Democrats are now eager to head off what they see as an emerging ploy by Republicans to win gubernatorial elections through the backdoor, since they can’t persuade voters in regularly scheduled elections.

Proposed reforms to the recall process include requiring a higher threshold of signatures, above the current 12% of voters in the last gubernatorial election. South embraces that idea, along with toughening allowable reasons for the recall, requiring that a certain percentage of signatures — say, 25% — come from voters registered with the same party as the target of the recall, and increasing filing requirements.

Whatever the specifics, Democrats, with strong majorities in both chambers of the Legislature and a Democratic governor, are likely to revisit state recall rules. Changes would still require the consent of California voters in a statewide ballot initiative. But after Tuesday’s rebuff of the GOP recall effort, there’s good reason to think it could soon be tougher to get such elections on the ballot.