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Key takeaways from Democrats’ victory in California’s obscure recall election

Features Editor Ishaan Rahman on how the once-endangered California Governor Gavin Newsom pulled off a landslide election victory on Tuesday and what it means for the future

On Tuesday, Americans in California voted in a rare recall election, only four of these have been held in US history. A recall election is triggered when enough people sign a petition to hold a vote on whether to remove or keep their state’s governor.

While generally popular amongst the public, California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, faced some backlash for his state’s strict Coronavirus rules. His image particularly suffered after he was spotted breaking said rules by dining maskless at a upscale restaurant. This turbocharged the Republican Party’s efforts to recall Newsom and, by late April, they had acquired the necessary signatures to hold a vote.

Democrats largely dismissed the effort as a fringe movement. In addition, California is a very liberal state that has consistently voted Democratic over Republican for years; Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump by a nearly two-to-one margin last year. However, Republicans have been able to win under the right circumstances. In 2003, a scandal-hit governor was successfully recalled and replaced by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Apathy amongst liberal voters meant that the recall effort picked up steam. By the summer, polls showed that the “yes” vote to recall Newsom was virtually tied with “no”. Democrats panicked and begun to take the race more seriously. Newsom spent $30 billion in advertising and campaigning to fight the recall.

In the end, the campaign blitz by Democrats paid off. Polls begun to show them winning the recall by double digits. As the results poured in on September 14th, it became clear that Newsom was going to win by a landslide margin. But what does this race mean for President Biden? Are there implications for next year’s Congressional Elections? Let’s find out.

Newsom won, but did Democrats?

If you look at the result, Newsom has decisively won this race. At the time of writing, the “no” vote had won by over 25 points. However, California is a safe Democratic state and if Republicans were able to energise voters here, it could spell trouble for Democrats in more marginal constituencies. Next year, Democratic politicians in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin, states that President Biden won by less than a percentage point, will be up for re-election.

So, taking into account California’s liberal lean, was this actually an encouraging result? For the most part, it still was. If the “yes” vote had come even within ten points of victory, it would have been a sign that Republicans were energised ahead of next year’s crucial Midterm Elections. Instead, Newsom’s margin of victory more-or-less matched Biden’s last year and his own election result from 2018.

However, Newsom had to pull out all the stops to get his supporters to turnout to vote. This means that Democrats may need to work harder to energise their voters without the hated President Trump in office.

GOP fails to shed it’s toxic image

It’s important to note that the recall ballot actually has two questions: one, as mentioned, is to vote “yes” or “no” on removing the governor but the second asks voters to choose a replacement candidate in the case that the “yes” vote wins the first question (the Governor is not an option on the second question). During the campaign, it became clear that far-right pundit Larry Elder was the frontrunner to replace Newsom (few other Democrats bothered to put their names on the second ballot).

Elder became highly controversial for his position on Coronavirus vaccines, supporting financial reparations for former slaveowners, defending the murder of an unarmed black teenager by the police and making numerous sexist remarks. Anger is a great motivator and these comments, which are at odds with California’s liberal identity, made Democratic and independent voters dead set on stopping Elder. What’s more, the candidate’s last-minute refusal to accept the vote result, reminiscent of Trump’s baseless fraud claims last year, did not help his case.

Liberals find their message for 2022

Gavin Newsom not only saved his own political future but he may have also tracked a path to victory for other Democrats facing a tough electoral environment. Newsom won, not only by touting his state’s record-high vaccinations and budget surplus, but by ruthlessly attacking his right-wing opponents.

Fears among Democrats that their support for vaccine and mask mandates would be unpopular with moderate voters proved incorrect. Instead, Newsom went after his opponents’ opposition to stricter Coronavirus measures, comparing them to Republican governors in Texas and Florida who have overseen sickeningly-high cases and deaths. Other right-wing policies, such as climate change denial and abortion restrictions, particularly after the controversial new Texas law, also motivated voters to turnout in opposition to Elder.

This strategy could prove vital to Democrats in the 2022 elections. While they intend to emphasise their accomplishments on infrastructure and Covid-19 relief, the California case could suggest that they also need to go on the offensive. In particular, tying Republicans to the unpopular former President Trump and extreme, new laws targeting voting, abortion and LGBT rights in red states.

GOP seeks a new strategy

Republicans’ messaging did not prove a success. Opposition to Covid-19 rules and emphasising rising crime rates and inflation did not bring over independent voters to their side as they had hoped. Since the January 6th insurrection and President Biden’s inauguration, Republicans have walked a tightrope, attempting to maintain support from die-hard Trump voters while also winning back independents that lose them the White House last year.

In the state of Virginia, where a governor’s race is also taking place, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin is using this strategy. He’s attempted to appeal to moderates by proposing tax cuts while also energising conservatives by engaging in culture wars over racism and abortion. The California result suggests that this strategy may fail but Virginia is more of a battleground state and Youngkin is only narrowly trailing his Democratic opponent in polls. If he emerges victorious or comes close to victory, it may signal that California was an outlier. Virginians will vote on November 2nd.

The President needs to do better

Despite Democrats’ big win, the simple fact is still that President Biden needs to do better. After a smooth seven months in office, Biden’s approval ratings came crashing down as America experienced dual crises in Afghanistan and with another wave of Coronavirus infections.

The fact that Republicans were successful in even holding a recall vote in deep-blue California is a sign that animosity is growing towards Biden in the same way that it did towards his predecessors. In all of those cases, the incumbent party suffered huge losses in the Midterm Elections. It also signals trouble for Democrats defending more vulnerable seats.

To avoid that fate, Biden needs to re-light the fire that made his first six months a success, politically. That means passing two popular infrastructure bills this fall and continuing to put Republicans on the defensive on issues such as Coronavirus, social spending, abortion rights and other issues.

Gavin Newsom has prevailed and he’s possibly plotted a path for Democrats to keep winning in the future. The question remains as to how the Republicans will fight back, if Biden will lead a resurgence and how the nation is coping with Coronavirus.




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