California Gov. Gavin Newsom was riding high after a buoyant pandemic reopening in June when state Democrats decided to fast-track the gubernatorial recall vote, but what once looked like a strategic decision now looms as a huge blunder.
Shortly after state officials set the recall date for Sept. 14, the highly contagious delta variant began driving an unexpected surge in cases, prompting Mr. Newsom, a Democrat, to impose vaccine and testing requirements for state workers and the state’s largest counties to implement a second wave of mask orders on a mandate-weary public.
With the uptick comes rising concerns about school reopenings and the possibility of another shutdown, meaning that Mr. Newsom’s worst issue — the state’s pandemic response — is peaking with the recall just five weeks away and mail-in ballots slated to be sent out starting Aug. 16.
Dan Schnur, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and host of the “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” weekly webinar, said the Republicans challenging Mr. Newsom on the recall ballot still face an uphill fight, but that “COVID could be the great equalizer.”
“For most of the year, COVID has been Newsom’s biggest opponent and best ally,” Mr. Schnur said in an email. “The recall caught fire during the worst of last winter’s outbreak, and Newsom rebounded in the spring when things began to open up again. So if voters are getting more worried about masks and vaccines again, that creates a much bigger political challenge for him.”
Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis announced the recall date July 1, just two weeks after Mr. Newsom and state leaders celebrated the state’s June 15 lifting of pandemic restrictions, in what analysts increasingly view as an unforced error.
The date could have been pushed out as far as November. In 2017, the Democrat-controlled legislature gave state officials more leeway in setting a recall date by embedding timelines of up to 30 days each for signature striking, a joint legislature budget review and a cost analysis.
Joshua Spivak, senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College, called the decision to move up the recall “a very foolish decision.”
“They kind of jumped on some decent numbers, but they gave up a big advantage,” Mr. Spivak said. “Time helps Newsom. [Democrats] have the advantage in numbers. They will have the advantage in fundraising by a lot. That’s very clear. So by giving up what could be a month, what could be two months, they kind of ceded that ground.”
Mr. Newsom has not said whether he will reimpose the statewide mask mandate, but about half the state’s residents already are under indoor masking orders — including for the vaccinated — enacted in recent weeks by Los Angeles County, Sacramento County and the Bay Area counties.
“The delta variant has thrown the whole recall up in the air for the governor,” Democratic strategist Steven Maviglio told ABC7 News. “He was hoping this would be behind him, and now it’s right in front of him and it’s on the mind of every voter, every voter with kids, every businessperson.”
California’s latest restrictions come against a backdrop of red states such as Florida and Texas that have resisted another round of pandemic orders.
“We’re all facing these new questions about what can we do? What are these new restrictions? Can we go out to eat? Can we go back to school?” Mr. Maviglio said. “And that’s problematic for the governor.”
The Los Angeles Unified School District announced last week that all K-12 students and staff will be required to take weekly COVID-19 tests regardless of their vaccination status, a move that could push some families back into distance learning even as in-person instruction resumes.
“Maybe things get worse later, but you’re having the recall right after school reopening,” Mr. Spivak said. “Let’s say the school reopenings don’t work well. Well, who’s going to take the blame for that? Newsom, the guy who’s on the ballot now. That wasn’t smart.”
The arguments in favor of the earlier recall date included Mr. Newsom’s climbing poll numbers as the COVID-19 threat waned in the spring; the risk of a late fall outbreak; and the likelihood of a severe fall wildfire season.
“Less time means less opportunity for circumstances to turn south on the governor, whether it’s a resurgence of COVID-19, a new scandal involving the state’s beleaguered Employment Development Department, or a bone-headed decision by Newsom to go back to the French Laundry for dessert,” said Los Angeles Times columnist Mark Z. Barabak in a June 1 op-ed.
He referred to Mr. Newsom’s highly publicized visit in November 2020 to the ritzy French Laundry restaurant in Napa County for a private unmasked dinner with lobbyists, breaking his own rules. The governor later called it “a big mistake.”
The recall ballot has two questions, the first asking if Mr. Newsom should be recalled and the second asking who should replace him from a list of nearly 50 candidates, led by Republicans Larry Elder, John Cox, Kevin Faulconer, Kevin Kiley and Doug Ose.
The Republicans have lambasted Mr. Newsom on a host of issues, including crime and homelessness, but the focus has been on the shutdown orders and the perception that he operated under a double-standard.
“Gavin Newsom: 453 days of lockdowns. Small businesses decimated. He kept schools closed while his kids attended private school,” said a California Republican Party ad released Wednesday. “Mandates for us while he had a swanky mask-free dinner with lobbyists. 76,000 inmates being released, including violent felons.”
Mr. Newsom stressed the importance of vaccinations, calling the latest outbreak “a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” in his July 26 order, which requires state and health care workers to show proof of full vaccination or undergo testing at least once a week.
“As the state’s largest employer, we are leading by example and requiring all state and health care workers to show proof of vaccination or be tested regularly, and we are encouraging local governments and businesses to do the same,” Mr. Newsom said. “Vaccines are safe – they protect our family, those who truly can’t get vaccinated, our children and our economy. Vaccines are the way we end this pandemic.”
Polls show opposition to the recall still outweighs support, although the gap may be closing.
The UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies survey released last week found that 47% of likely voters support the Sept. 14 recall and 50% oppose it, just outside the poll’s margin of error.
At the same time, the number of likely voters has remained relatively static: 36% said they support ousting Mr. Newsom and 51% want to retain him, nearly the same percentage as the poll’s April split of 36% and 49%.
Mr. Spivak said that the early recall also works against Mr. Newsom’s enormous fundraising advantage — recall targets are permitted to raise unlimited amounts of money, unlike their opponents — and efforts to drum up voter enthusiasm in a Democrat-dominated blue state.
The polls also show that recall supporters are far more enthused about the election than opponents, meaning the race could hinge on turnout.
“Turnout is an important factor because Newsom has this advantage in registered voters, and so he needs to make his people know about the recall,” Mr. Spivak said. “We’re seeing this in some of the polling, that the people who care about the recall are the people who want to remove Newsom. So Newsom has to alert everyone else. By giving up that time, they’re losing that opportunity.”