If California Gov. Gavin Newsom avoids being recalled in Tuesday’s special election, he may have a U.S. president to thank, albeit not the one currently residing in the White House.
While his foes hammer his shaky record on crime, the economy and homelessness, Mr. Newsom has gone all-in on Donald Trump, plastering the former president’s face on campaign flyers and television ads warning that the recall threatens to usher in “an anti-vaccine Trump Republican.”
Polling indicates the strategy may be working. After weeks of surveys last month showing the election locked in a statistical tie, a flurry of recent polls shows that anywhere from 53% to 60% of registered voters now oppose ousting the first-term governor.
“If the recall were simply a referendum on his record, Newsom would have a big problem,” said Claremont McKenna College professor John J. Pitney Jr. in an email. “But he successfully framed it as a choice between a Democrat and a Trump-worshiping extremist Republican.”
Cast in the role of Trump surrogate in the Democratic script is Republican Larry Elder, the conservative Los Angeles radio host who entered the race in July and promptly leapfrogged the field of candidates seeking to supplant the embattled governor.
“Newsom used Larry Elder’s candidacy to turn around his campaign,” said Dan Schnur, professor at UC Berkeley and USC and former spokesperson for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. “Donald Trump isn’t on the ballot or in the White House, so running against Trump wasn’t working. But Elder gave Newsom a present-day alternative against whom to contrast himself.”
Interestingly, the same surveys showing the recall’s popularity waning indicate rising support for Mr. Elder, who jumped from 18% in late July to 38% support in the UC Berkeley Institute for Governmental Studies poll released Friday.
“Elder was wildly successful at mobilizing conservative voters, but it looks like he motivated liberals too — for Newsom,” Mr. Schnur said in an email.
Despite the encouraging poll numbers, Democrats who rolled their eyes for more than a year at the recall effort are now campaigning as if Mr. Newsom’s political life depends on it.
President Biden is scheduled to stump Monday with Mr. Newsom in Long Beach, topping a string of Democratic heavyweights making campaign stops in the Golden State, including Vice President Kamala D. Harris, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
The announced Biden visit prompted eye rolling from Republicans, including Mr. Elder, who alluded to Mr. Biden’s plummeting approval rating following the botched withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
“If Gavin Newsom thinks that flying in Joe Biden and Kamala Harris — not exactly the most admired government officials at the present time — will make him look better, that’s all you need to know about how oblivious and detached Newsom is from a large majority of Californians,” tweeted Mr. Elder.
The Republican has accused Mr. Newsom of using the Trump tactic to distract voters from California’s woes, including a second consecutive season of record-breaking wildfires and the estimated $30 billion in pandemic relief fraud on Mr. Newsom’s watch.
“Just yelling ‘Trump, Trump, Trump’ is what Gavin Newsom does to divert attention from his record, his record on crime, his record on the rise of on homelessness, his record on the fact that for the very first time in history, people have left California and we’re losing a congressional seat as a result of that,” Mr. Elder said on a press call last month.
Mr. Trump gave Democrats an opening last week, when he told Newsmax that the mail-in election was “probably rigged,” which Mr. Newsom called “just an extension of the big lie, the ‘stop the steal.’”
“It’s just a remarkable thing. We’re four days out, the election hasn’t even happened, and now they’re all feigning election fraud,” Mr. Newsom told reporters in Sacramento.
Mr. Elder said last week that “there might very well be shenanigans,” adding that his campaign plans to file lawsuits if necessary and asking supporters to report suspicious activity on his campaign website, CNN reported.
A man with a felony record was arrested after being found Aug. 16 passed out in his car in Torrance with more than 300 unopened recall ballots, drugs and a loaded firearm. He is now under investigation by the U.S. Postal Service and Los Angeles County District Attorney, according to Torrance police.
Mr. Elder said he supported Mr. Trump’s policies on issues including immigration, school choice and the economy, but he disagreed with the former Republican president on free trade and reducing troops in Afghanistan.
He challenged the governor to “give specifics” on the Trump comparison, saying that Mr. Newsom “rarely does because he believes Trump is a four-letter word in California and yelling ‘Trump’ will scare people.”
Then again, there are few states more hostile to Mr. Trump than California, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2 to 1. Mr. Biden carried the state by 29 percentage points in 2020.
Despite that Democratic dominance, more than 2 million Californians signed recall petitions to oust Mr. Newsom, driven in large part by his tough pandemic restrictions and allegations of hypocrisy spurred by his unmasked private party at an exclusive restaurant at the height of the lockdowns.
That the recall was able to qualify in the first place should give pause to Democrats tempted to run the anti-Trump playbook in 2022, said Mr. Schnur.
“If voter anger like this can qualify a recall in a deep-blue state like California, it can certainly tip the balance in purple states next year,” said Mr. Schnur. “The lesson for Democrats in competitive races may be that running against Trump isn’t as effective now as when he was in office: they’re going to need to run their campaigns in the present, not the past.”
Ironically, the Newsom camp has sought to turn his novel coronavirus response into a plus, saying that he “led the state through a global pandemic and promoting his recently issued vaccine mandates for state, school and healthcare workers.
The Newsom camp has also pounded the opposition as “anti-vax,” even though all the top Republican candidates say they have been inoculated against COVID-19.
“The recall wouldn’t have happened without COVID, but it also may have saved Newsom,” said Mr. Schnur. “The shutdowns drove voter anger to a point that qualified the recall for the ballot, but the polls show that fewer Californians are as upset about mask mandates and vaccine requirements.”
So far, Republicans are out-kicking their coverage on voting. More than 6.5 million ballots have been returned in the recall election, with 34% cast by Democrats, 30% by Republicans, and 22% by independents, according to Political Data Inc. figures reported Wednesday by KCRA-TV.
Democrats make up 47% of registered voters versus Republicans at 24% and 29% for independents.
None of the other leading recall candidates has Mr. Elder’s name recognition—the second-most popular candidate in the polls is Democratic YouTuber Kevin Paffrath—but that visibility may have proved useful in waking up apathetic Democratic voters.
“The polling clearly startled Newsom and his campaign advisors, so they turned from defending his record as governor for the past 30 months, particularly his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, to offense, branding the recall as a power grab by disgruntled fans of ex-President Donald Trump,” said Dan Walters, veteran Sacramento political columnist, in a Friday op-ed.
Mr. Elder gave the Newsom camp “a specific target and it unloaded on Elder as right-wing radical who would wreak havoc on the state,” Mr. Walters said.
The UC Berkeley poll found 60% of likely voters surveyed said they would vote against the recall, while 38.5% said they would support it.
“The pandemic had the potential to create a coalition of negatives: people across the political spectrum who had various reasons for disliking Newsom‘s response,” Mr. Pitney said. “There were — and are — other legitimate issues concerning his stewardship, such as mismanagement of the state’s unemployment system. But in the end, Democrats came home, and Larry Elder helped send them there.”