Some lessons for Newsom and Democrats from the last recall effort

By Garry South

December 14, 2020

Cal Matters

Gov. Gray Davis made history on Oct. 7, 2003, by becoming only the second governor in the lifetime of the U.S. to be recalled by voters. The only other was a governor of faraway North Dakota in 1921.

With Gov. Gavin Newsom now under threat of recall himself, Democrats would do well to remember the successful recall effort against Davis, from which some lessons can be learned.

The first is that all recall attempts should be taken seriously. The 2003 recall effort first reared its head in February, just three months after Davis won re-election. Democrats – including me, who had run both of Davis’ successful gubernatorial campaigns – comforted themselves with the knowledge that recall efforts against California governors were fairly common.

Since the recall provision of the state constitution was added in 1911, more than 30 recall attempts had been announced against governors – including iconic figures like Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan. None had ever even made the ballot. Until one did.

Democrats called the effort, led by a couple of conservative gadflies, “political theatre,” and a sour-grapes attempt to overturn Davis’ 2002 victory.  At first, the recall was a ragtag movement, relying on social media, talk radio and volunteers among networks of conservatives to collect the million-plus signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.

Until it wasn’t. In May, Rep. Darrell Issa of San Diego, one of the richest members of Congress, pumped nearly $2 million into the effort, allowing paid professional signature gatherers to be engaged – the only effective way to qualify a ballot measure in the mega-state of California.

Issa’s interest was purely self-serving: he wanted to run for governor himself but was afraid to challenge Davis in the regularly scheduled 2002 election. Issa’s emergence as the face of the recall delighted Democrats, because his personal history as a car thief (he had invented the Viper car alarm, based on his youthful experience stealing cars) and alleged arsonist allowed them to feed juicy opposition research to the news media. It was thought that even if the recall qualified for the ballot, it could easily be defeated with the tarnished Issa as the leading candidate seeking to replace Davis.

Until he wasn’t. On “The Tonight Show” on Aug. 7, mega-star Arnold Schwarzenegger abruptly announced his candidacy, relegating all other GOP candidate hopefuls to second billing. The “Terminator” already had universal name ID and, although a registered Republican, a non-partisan image bolstered by his relationship by marriage to America’s Democratic royal family, the Kennedys.

Still, Democrats – including me, again – thought they could overcome the recall by reminding voters that booting Davis would put the governorship of increasingly blue California (Democrats won all statewide constitutional offices in ‘02 for the first time since 1882) back into Republican hands, because no credible Democrat was running to replace Davis.

Until one did. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who had won office in 1998 on Davis’ coattails, had publicly pledged not to run in the recall. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who had faced down a recall attempt as mayor of San Francisco, insisted that all seven other Democratic statewide officeholders stifle their own political ambitions and agree not to run. But Bustamante reneged on his promise and jumped into the race at the last minute, with the oxymoronic slogan “No on Recall, Yes on Bustamante.”

Davis’ polling showed that the only chance he had of defeating the recall was convincing Democratic voters – even ones that had soured in him – that with no viable Democrat running to replace him, a vote for the recall would be a vote for turning the governor’s office back over to Republicans, who had controlled it for 16 straight years before Davis.

Although Bustamante was not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, focus groups found that as “Davis’ number two,” a disturbingly significant number of Democratic voters believed they could get rid of Davis and still get a Democratic replacement governor – and the first elected Latino governor of California to boot.

In the end, Davis was recalled by a margin of 55-45%. Voters were ticked over an electricity crisis that led to blackouts, an increase in the vehicle license fee and a huge $35 billion budget deficit, all of which they blamed on Davis. But the opportunistic Bustamante, the only credible, high-profile Democrat running to replace Davis, was also humiliated, losing to Schwarzenegger 49-31%.

To be fair, there are some significant differences between Davis’ situation in ‘03 and Newsom’s standing today. Davis had only won reelection by a 5 percentage-point margin over a weak GOP opponent in 2002, while Newsom was elected in 2018 by a landslide of 62-38%. The state is a lot more Democratic today than it was even in 2003. And there is no known hulking Schwarzenegger-like action figure waiting in the wings to seize the opportunity.

On Election Day in ‘02, Davis’ job approval rating was just 39%. At the time of the recall a year later, it had sunk to the mid-20s. The charismatic Newsom, despite the coronavirus-caused shutdowns and economic downturn, has retained high approval ratings, with the most recent polls showing that about 6 in 10 Californians approve of his performance.

In addition, the number of signatures that will be required to qualify a recall is substantially higher in 2021 than it was in 2003. Recall proponents must turn in valid signatures equal to 12% of the total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. There were only 8,621,142 votes cast for governor in 2002, a historically low turnout in an ugly, mostly negative slugfest. The 2018 turnout, with more registered voters than ever, was a historical high 12,464,235 voters casting ballots for governor.

And as the Bustamante example demonstrates, any ambitious Democrat thinking of capitalizing on a potential Newsom recall should remember what happened to him. After his miserable fail in the recall, Bustamante ran for insurance commissioner in 2006 as the sitting lieutenant governor and was demolished by GOP businessman Steve Poizner, 51-38%. Bustamante made his own history as the last Democrat to be defeated for statewide office by a non-incumbent Republican.

Still, as the 2003 experience shows, neither Newsom nor Democrats should ignore the recall, neglect to prepare for it or assume it will not make the ballot. Most don’t. Until one did.


Garry South is a veteran Democratic strategist who managed Gray Davis’ successful gubernatorial campaigns in 1998 and 2002 and was senior advisor to Gavin Newsom’s first run for governor in 2008-09, before Newsom exited the race,

Garry has also written about this year’s California primary and Newsom was right to insist presidential candidates release their tax returns.