Republicans’ takeaway from the California recall defeat was that removing a cash-flush Democratic governor in a deep-blue state is a big ask, no matter how weak his record. But for Democrats, the result was all about Joseph R. Biden and Donald Trump.
The failed effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom offered a blueprint for framing the 2022 midterm elections as a referendum on “Trumpism,” a theme pushed by Democrats as the governor’s opponents pounded his record on crime, homelessness, wildfires, housing prices and pandemic unemployment fraud.
With about 70% of the projected vote counted Wednesday afternoon, 63.9% voted no on the recall and 36.1% voted yes, allowing Mr. Newsom to avoid the fate of former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat who was recalled in 2003 and replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“I said this many, many times on the campaign trail: We may have defeated Trump, but Trumpism is not dead in this country,” Mr. Newsom said in his postelection speech from Sacramento.
Such a strategy could provide a midterm lifeline to Democrats entering an election year with Mr. Biden’s approval rating in a free fall, stoked by dissatisfaction with the botched U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, soaring gas prices and rising crime rates.
Hours before the polls closed Tuesday in California, Quinnipiac University released a survey showing 42% of U.S. adults approve of Mr. Biden’s job performance versus 50% who disapprove. It was the first time his performance rating in that survey had dropped into negative territory since he took office.
Even so, Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison called the recall’s double-digit loss “a win for the bold agenda put forth by President Biden, Governor Newsom, and Democrats in Congress to build our country back better.”
That attempt to credit Mr. Biden may be a stretch, given that he didn’t appear in California until the night before the election and his policies were not a main theme on the campaign trail.
“I think that goes a step too far,” said Claremont McKenna College politics professor John J. Pitney Jr. “I don’t think it necessarily shows support for the Democratic agenda nationally. It does show where Democrats can run against Republicans.”
Democrats cast the Republican front-runner, Los Angeles radio host Larry Elder, in the role of Trump surrogate. They warned that voting “yes” on the recall “elects an anti-vaccine Trump Republican.”
In his Monday campaign stop in Long Beach, Mr. Biden said that “you either keep Gavin Newsom as your governor or you’ll get Donald Trump.”
Mr. Elder said he was vaccinated but opposed many of Mr. Newsom‘s aggressive pandemic mandates. He promised to suspend the mask and vaccine requirements upon taking office.
“What it was was a rejection of a certain kind of Republican,” Mr. Pitney said. “That’s valuable information for the Democrats and a cautionary tale for the Republicans.”
Newsom advisers encouraged Democrats to follow the recall playbook by framing Republican midterm candidates as Trump clones.
“Larry Elder is on the ballot here on the recall, but a version of Larry Elder is going to be on the ballot all over the country,” Newsom campaign manager Juan Rodriguez told CNN. “That’s an important lesson for Democrats and how they kind of lean into the message that we have done.”
Still, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of nearly 2-to-1 in California. That means “what works in California isn’t going to necessarily work in Alabama,” Mr. Pitney said.
“It’s important to remember that California is a deep-blue state and that there are limits to what candidates running in more competitive races can learn from the recall here,” said Dan Schnur, a professor at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley. “But midterm elections are about motivating a party’s base, and Newsom demonstrated that COVID-related mandates can motivate loyal Democrats even if they’re not very excited by the candidate himself.”
Indeed, the same issue that fueled the recall petitions — the governor’s COVID-19 response — wound up being Mr. Newsom‘s best issue with voters, according to exit polls.
A 31% plurality called the pandemic the state’s top issue. Of those, 80% voted not to recall Mr. Newsom, according to exit polling that Edison Research provided for the National Election Pool.
In a Wednesday statement, Mr. Biden linked his vaccine mandates to those of Mr. Newsom.
“Congratulations to Gov. Gavin Newsom on defeating the recall vote,” Mr. Biden said. “This vote is a resounding win for the approach that he and I share to beating the pandemic: strong vaccine requirements, strong steps to reopen schools safely and strong plans to distribute real medicines — not fake treatments — to help those who get sick.”
California Republican Party Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson said Mr. Newsom “was rescued by two presidents, radical left-wing Washington, D.C., politicians, and campaign spending in excess of $50 million.”
The pro-Newsom camp, which collected more than $70 million, outraised recall proponents by an estimated 5-1 ratio.
“While Democrats crow and celebrate, theirs is a hollow victory; California remains a state where surging crime, raging wildfires, crippling drought, a broken unemployment department, shuttered businesses, lost jobs, unaffordable housing and suffocating taxes are a sobering reality,” Ms. Patterson said in a statement.
Mr. Elder led the list of 46 recall candidates. He garnered 46.9% of the vote on the second question on the ballot: who should replace Mr. Newsom if he is recalled on the first ballot question. But exit polls showed his favorability rating at just 34% versus 55% for Mr. Newsom.
“Newsom‘s 55% approval rating in exit polls gave him a big edge over Gray Davis‘ 26% approval rating in 2003 — and Newsom‘s bold tactic to prevent other Democrats from running ended up being the right strategy,” political analyst Ben Kaplan said in a statement.
Mr. Newsom is only the fourth U.S. governor to face a recall election and the second to defeat it. The first was to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2012.
In his concession speech, Mr. Elder urged his supporters to be “gracious in defeat.”
“We may have lost the battle, but we are going to win the war,” he said.
“Notice that all these people, whether Barack Obama or Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, all of whom cut a commercial for Gavin Newsom,” said Mr. Elder. “Notice they never said the following words: Gavin Newsom has done a good job for the people of California.”
He has yet to announce whether he will challenge Mr. Newsom in his 2022 reelection bid. “Stay tuned” was all he said about it.
Mr. Pitney said Republicans would be better off choosing a candidate not so closely identified with conservative causes and with Mr. Trump, such as former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, known as a moderate.
“It would have been closer if Larry Elder had not been on the ballot,” Mr. Pitney said. “Obviously, I think Newsom was going to prevail no matter what, just given the imbalance in the voter registration, but it would have been closer if, say, the polls had shown Faulconer was the main alternative.”