Fruitless recall boosted Newsom’s political position

By Garry South

December 24, 2021

Capitol Weekly

“Never strike a king unless you are sure you shall kill him,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1843. He couldn’t have foreseen the attempted recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom. But it is apropos:  The recall not only failed miserably to yank Newsom from office, but actually immeasurably strengthened his political position.

The Newsom campaign, as a strategic objective, successfully sought to avoid having a well-known Democrat jump into the race in case he was recalled. This effort was aided by some of us who actually had gone through the successful 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis. In that race, Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante reneged on a solemn public pledge not to run and opportunistically jumped into the race late in the game, seriously compromising Davis’ ability to beat the recall.

I was puzzled during the recall when reporters kept asking me about supposed Democratic “disaffection” with Newsom. I suspected this perception was driven mainly by off-the-record conversations with Democratic legislators unhappy with Newsom over one thing or another, because credible polling never showed this. Newsom’s approval ratings among Democrats all during 2021 remained strong in the mid-80s, even during the worst of the pandemic.

In the end, fully 94% of Democrats voted “No” on the recall, as did 94% of liberals. The top vote-getting Democrat in the field, an unknown 29-year-old “financial consultant,” Kevin Paffrath, seemed to exist mostly on YouTube. He finished with 9.6% of the vote. None of this gives encouragement to any Democrat — a disgruntled self-styled progressive, perhaps, an egotistical self-funding billionaire — entertaining illusions of challenging Newsom this year. And with a March 11 filing deadline looming, the absence of any potential Democratic challengers is striking.

On the Republican side, the recall effectively mowed down the potential crop of possible candidates against Newsom this year. At the top of the list was Kevin Faulconer, a relatively moderate but milquetoast former two-term mayor of San Diego – a non-partisan position. He had already filed a committee to run against Newsom in the 2022 general election when the recall qualified. He should have kept his powder dry: Hizzoner captured a paltry 8% of the vote — a likely career-ender.

Businessman John Cox, crushed by Newsom in the 2018 governor’s race, came back for another round of punishment. A nondescript sexagenarian with bushy white eyebrows, he improbably tried to rebrand himself as a “beast” and began roaming the state with a rented 1,000-pound bear. For his efforts, he was rewarded with 4.1% of the vote. Want a third go at it, beastie boy?

Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, a Rep. Matt Gaetz-type ambitious loudmouth that some state Republicans thought could be a fresh face in the recall, came off like an un-neutered puppy, eye-blinking and fast-talking his way through interviews and the handful of debates. He ended up with 3.5%.

And of course, the notorious Caitlyn Jenner, initially touted by some as a potential Schwarzenegger-type candidate, faded into oblivion through her feckless, substance-free campaign. She ended up being a genuine one-percenter, vote wise.

Last but not least, right-wing talk show host Larry Elder, the top vote-getter among the candidates seeking to replace Newsom, was so bruised and battered during the campaign that he chose to go to Florida to soak up the sun during the state GOP convention two weeks after the recall. Ouch.

Will Newsom face an opponent in his re-election campaign this year? Sure, because the state’s top-two primary propels forward the top two vote getters, no matter how little of the vote the second-place finisher receives. But Newsom is an enviable position to win an overwhelming victory, and will surely mount an aggressive campaign to seal the deal.

Interestingly, this would make Newsom only the fourth Democratic governor in California history to win election to a second four-year term — and only the second not named Brown (the other being Davis in 2002).

Partly to thank? The recall. Consult Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Editor’s Note: Garry South is a veteran Democratic strategist who managed Gray Davis’ two campaigns for governor and was senior advisor to Newsom’s first race for governor in 2008-09.