The coronavirus pandemic that blew up former President Donald Trump’s reelection bid is threatening to wreck more political havoc, this time on once-untouchable Democratic governors in solidly blue states: New York’s Andrew Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom.
Mr. Cuomo faces mounting calls for an investigation into his COVID-19 response, including previously unreported deaths connected to nursing homes, while Mr. Newsom is the target of an overachieving grassroots recall drive running ahead of schedule with 1.3 million signatures.
Reform California Chairman Carl DeMaio, whose group is part of the Recall Newsom coalition, said the movement to oust the first-term governor is rooted in frustration with the state’s strict lockdowns, which have featured lengthy school closures, prohibitions on indoor worship, and bans on both indoor and outdoor dining.
“First and foremost is the fact that the lockdowns hurt so many people,” said Mr. DeMaio. “People see them as completely ineffective. They look at other states, and they see that red-state governors did not do the draconian lockdowns, and they have actually been able to weather the COVID-19 epidemic much better.”
A poll released Tuesday by the University of California Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies showed that Mr. Newsom’s approval rating has plunged from 64% to 46% in the last four months. Only 31% believe the governor is doing a good job handling the pandemic, down from 49% in September.
Moreover, less than half of California polled, or 45%, said they would vote in a recall election to keep him as governor. Another 36% said they support ousting him, not exactly a vote of confidence for a Democratic governor in a rigidly Democratic state.
“These results should provide a strong warning to the Governor,” polling co-director Eric Schickler said in a statement. “If the recall election does go forward, the state’s response to the pandemic needs to be seen as more successful for the Governor than it is now for him to be confident of the election outcome.”
Mr. Cuomo also has been roiled with complaints about his shutdown orders — it took the Supreme Court to overturn his ban on indoor worship — but the political temperature spiked last week over indications that he botched the COVID-19 response.
Attorney General Leticia James issued a startling report Thursday that found the state underreported nursing-home deaths by as much as 50%. Days later, the New York Times reported that nine senior state health officials had resigned over the governor’s rebuffing of their expertise.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, New York Republican, called on the Justice Department and New York attorney general to issue subpoenas to obtain “all internal and external communications” from the governor and staff regarding “this corrupt and illegal coverup.”
“This is now more than a nursing home scandal, this is a massive corruption and coverup scandal at the highest level of New York State Government,” Ms. Stefanik said Thursday in a press release.
Republicans weren’t the only ones. Democratic state Sen. Pat Fahy was among those who called for legislative hearings, calling the report “alarming” and saying it “underscores the need for overdue transparency and accountability in the state’s pandemic response with regard to congregate care.”
Democratic state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a Cuomo critic on the left, tweeted that New York has “treated the loss of elderly life, as the cost of doing business.”
“Few actions taken by this administration have been as egregious or appalling as this,” Ms. Biaggi said.
Legislative Republican leaders have called for the resignation of state health commissioner Howard Zucker, while New York City Councilman Joe Borelli told Fox News it was time for Mr. Cuomo to “think about stepping aside.”
Mr. Cuomo defended his record at a Friday press conference, arguing that New York is below the national average for nursing-home deaths and saying that his administration’s nursing-home directive followed the Centers for Disease Control guidance, which has been disputed.
“It’s a tragedy, and I understand maybe the instinct to blame or find some relief for the pain that you’re feeling, but it is a tragedy, and it’s a tragedy that continues today,” Mr. Cuomo said. “I believe everybody did the best they could – I believe the federal government, CDC, I believe they gave the best guidance they could.”
He blamed the Trump administration for pushing the nursing-home narrative, but did himself no favors by adding that it didn’t matter whether the elderly COVID-19 victims died, saying, “But who cares [if they] died in a hospital, died in the nursing home? They died.”
Striking the right balance on the virus is tricky, as Republicans well know. Mr. Trump was riding a red-hot economy into the 2020 election when the pandemic hit, taking out his best issue and weakening his support amid accusations that he wasn’t taking the virus seriously enough.
The political heat comes as a dramatic reversal of fortune for the Democratic governors whose tough shutdown orders early on were lauded as models for the nation. Mr. Cuomo even wrote a book about his pandemic response and won an Emmy for his daily briefings.
“During the first wave of the COVID pandemic last year, Governors Newsom and Cuomo were held up by many in the media as model leaders for their responses,” said Terry Schilling, president of the conservative American Principles Project. “But anyone really paying attention to what was happening knew that this was blatant propaganda. Now, the truth is finally coming out.”
Mr. Newsom committed a shocking gaffe last year by attending a small party Nov. 6 at the exclusive French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley even with the state under stay-at-home orders and restaurants shuttered for indoor dining.
The governor took his medicine like a grown-up, admitting that he “made a bad mistake,” but the episode ignited the recall momentum.
Recall Gavin Newsom announced Sunday that it has nearly reached the state threshold of 1.5 million signatures with six weeks to go until the March 17 deadline. The campaign is aiming for at least 2 million signatures to allow for invalid signatures.
The campaign, which benefited from a coronavirus-related extension for signatures, has been largely driven by volunteers, not paid signature-gatherers, said Mr. DeMaio.
“It is now a numbers game. It is not a matter of IF we will have enough valid signatures collected it is a matter of WHEN we will cross the finish line,” said recall spokesperson Randy Economy in a statement.
Critics have dismissed the recall as a fool’s errand driven by disgruntled Trump voters, but the recall is starting to attract significant players such as billionaire Chamath Palihapitiya, who gave $100,000, according to Inside California Politics.
Two well-known Republicans, 2018 gubernatorial candidate John Cox and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, have indicated that they will run on the recall ballot if it qualifies.
Mr. Newsom has not commented publicly on the recall, telling reporters at a Jan. 15 press conference who asked about it that he was “focused on the vaccine issue.” California Democratic Party Chair Rusty Hicks backed down last month after being criticized for calling the recall a “California coup.”
Recall campaigns are notoriously difficult in California — only five public officials have ever been recalled, the last being Democratic state Sen. Josh Newman in 2018. The legislature responded by making recalls more difficult by, for example, allowing the removal of signatures in cases where the signers changed their minds.
Mr. DeMaio, who ran the Newman recall, said that he gave the gubernatorial recall a 50-50 chance, factoring in the tougher rules against the anger over the extended economic and school shutdowns.
“As a gay Republican, I have Democrat friends in the gay community who are quietly telling me, hey, I signed the recall petition. I haven’t been able to earn a living,” Mr. DeMaio said. “And these are die-hard, cancel-culture Democrats saying, this guy cost me my job, he’s an idiot for doing this. So the economic lockdowns have fueled it.”