By Scott Wilson,
Philip Cheung for The Washington Post
OAKLAND — The applause is light as Gov. Gavin Newsom makes his way through the chain link fence, into a commuter parking lot transformed on this late-summer day into a pop-up vaccination clinic in this city’s Fruitvale neighborhood.
It is light not because Newsom, a Democrat with national ambitions in his third year in office, is unpopular. Many politicians would envy his right-around-50-percent approval rating, especially after the state has endured wave after wave of coronavirus surges and is watching, nearly helpless, as one of its most popular and culturally important mountain tourist towns faces down an advancing wall of wildfire flames.
There just aren’t that many people here. Because the neighborhood is heavily Latino, with a high proportion of undocumented residents, most in the audience are not even registered to vote. They don’t mind Newsom — tall, fit, groomed and dressed in that tieless casual way California politicians do when on the road — but their main goal is to get the vaccine in the sparse spare time they have before work.
On a normal end of August day, this would appear to be little more than the governor promoting public health in a state, which largely because of his regulations that closed businesses for months and his newer order that effectively requires state workers to be vaccinated as a term of employment, has emerged better than its larger rivals.
But this is not a normal August.
This is campaign season — the vote is already underway through California’s universal vote-by-mail system — and yet Newsom was spending this recent morning in a Democratic stronghold with a campaign message delivered only when prompted by the small clutch of gathered media.
The stop fits neatly with the vagaries of running in a recall campaign in which the candidate himself is also his opponent, and a move to the middle is an unnecessary tactic without a general election in the offing. What Newsom has done, and will continue to do in the campaign’s remaining two weeks, is employ a defensive strategy that seeks not to change voters’ minds but instead motivate his supporters to vote in large numbers.
“The election is today, tomorrow, throughout this week and next,” Newsom said from behind a small lectern in the parking lot, a BART commuter train serving as a sporadic and a noisy score.
“I want to encourage everybody that’s watching to take advantage of the fact this is an all-mail ballot that’s just landed on your desk,” he continued. “And I have a simple request — vote ‘no’ and go to the mailbox. Just a simple ‘no’ vote. Don’t even turn the page.”
Jae C. Hong
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter tour the area scorched by the Caldor Fire in Eldorado National Forest on Sept. 1.
California is close to concluding one of its more peculiar elections, a first-ever attempt in modern memory to recall a first-term governor that has made it to the ballot. Just three years ago, Newsom won election with 62 percent of the vote in a race that featured record turnout.
The coronavirus intervened about a year later, and gave shape to a vague, I-just-don’t-like-the-guy-and-all-his-rules recall drive.
Newsom helped his opponents by seeming to break his own stiff public health restrictions, including dining at a posh French restaurant in wine country with more people than he had told the rest of the state was safe. He also ordered two comprehensive economic shutdowns over the next year that, in English and in Spanish at the vaccine event, his supporters said saved many lives.
“Those kinds of restrictions obviously grated on people,” said Gray Davis (D), who in 2003 became the only California governor to be recalled. “And then there’s a heavy dose of Trump and Trump-like thinking in California, those looking for a cause to rally around. And they found the recall a very convenient cause.”
Today there is very little in the tangible metrics of modern politics that would suggest Newsom, a former mayor of San Francisco and lieutenant governor, will not receive at least 50 percent of votes cast. He has far more money than his opponents, far more potential voters, the power of incumbency and long experience.
Michael S. Williamson
The Washington Post
Some businesses, including this gym in Apple Valley, Calif., have been upset with Newsom over virus shutdown orders.
If he does hold off the challenge, Newsom would face voters again in November 2022, the next regularly scheduled gubernatorial campaign.
Except there is the noise, a changing climate and life too expensive in this physically beautiful if battered state.
“His biggest obstacle is the overall mood of the state,” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican political consultant who dropped his party affiliation and now teaches communications at the University of Southern California and the University of California at Berkeley.
“Between covid and wildfires, people have a lot else on their minds,” said Schnur, who advised a rival Republican candidate in the 2003 recall. “People may not blame Newsom for the coronavirus, but it is an extremely grouchy electorate.”
There is the newly spiking pandemic, an economically devastating drought, and a summer of wildfires that have burned dangerously close to the iconic mountain town of South Lake Tahoe. Newsom, who visited the Caldor Fire and its thousands of evacuees on Wednesday, has called stopping the blaze “the state’s number one priority.”
Pandemic plays a role
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Once the recall signatures were certified earlier this summer, state election officials had a window in which to set the election date. The question for Democrats, who control the state legislature in addition to the governor’s office, focused on when the time would be most beneficial for Newsom to face voters again.
Francisco Torres casts his ballot in Sacramento on Aug. 30. The state is spending $16 million in a four-week blitz using billboards, radio and digital ads to educate people about how to vote in the recall election.
The Sept. 14 date that was selected falls on the early side of the window, which some political analysts believe could have remained open into December.
The thinking was that the economy was coming back, thanks in part to stimulus checks that Newsom issued to residents because of a windfall state budget surplus. Children would be going back to school by this month in a largely mask-free environment, thanks to the vaccines.
That is not entirely the case. Covid-19 has spiked sharply among the unvaccinated, especially in rural counties where the shots and regulations around them are viewed with suspicion and contempt. A new round of stimulus checks is in the mail, but even Newsom admitted dropping some of his kids off for their first day of school that morning in masks.
Teachers, state workers and others have bristled at Newsom’s order that they must have proof of vaccination or be tested weekly as a condition of employment.
Labor is among Newsom’s biggest political supporters — the $51 million recall campaign account he and his allies have amassed dwarfs the money raised by recall supporters — and not every union member is happy with the rules. How it affects Newsom’s important get-out-the-vote efforts remains to be seen in an election still gliding largely under the radar.
“Any politician has a hard time really developing a relationship with California voters,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political consultant and former deputy chief of staff to then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “It’s just such a big state and the media have become more bifurcated. There’s millions of Californians who aren’t giving this any mind at all.”
This is the governor’s chief fear, a mixture of voter apathy and ignorance that under the rules of the recall could have California run by a politician with a tiny fraction of Newsom’s support. Newsom cannot run on the same ballot to succeed himself.
The ballot comprises two questions: Should Newsom be recalled? And the second, if the answer is “yes” to the first, is who among the 46 people who have signed up to replace him should?
Ballots are being cast now and the results will be announced at the end of Sept. 14, Election Day.
Recent polls show that the race is beginning to tilt toward Newsom, who is benefiting from a huge fundraising advantage and the proxy campaigning of popular national liberals such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). On Saturday, Warren campaigned with Newsom in person, after only virtual promotions until now, in Los Angeles.
A poll released by the Public Policy Institute of California on Thursday showed that 58 percent of voters oppose Newsom’s recall. The survey also found that the governor’s support, the highest the poll has found, is linked primarily to voter fears that a Republican replacement would make the pandemic worse.
Election workers inspect ballots for damage that have been received for the Sept. 14 recall election at the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters office in Sacramento on Aug. 30.
As of Friday, nearly a quarter of all vote-by-mail ballots had been returned, showing Democrats sending them in by a 2-to-1 margin over Republicans.
Some of the bigger-name national Democrats, some with deep local roots, have not campaigned in person for the governor. Vice President Harris, the former state attorney general and U.S. senator, recently canceled an appearance in San Francisco on Newsom’s behalf. It fell on the day after the suicide bombing in Afghanistan that killed 13 U.S. service members.
But despite the returns and new polls appearing to point toward a Newsom victory, many leading Democrats have expressed unabashed public frustration that in a state so overwhelming blue the race is still so close. Republicans cannot even claim second place with voters; “declining to state a preference” is the second-largest voting bloc.
“It is hard for someone who’s as engaged in the community and political leadership as I am to imagine, in particular, that there are such low numbers of young voters who have not engaged yet,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf (D), who attended Tuesday’s vaccine event with Newsom, told a reporter.
“We could not have made it easier,” she continued. “There is a ballot in your mailbox. All you have to do is mark ‘no,’ put it in the envelope, sign the back and stick it in a mailbox. You don’t even have to put a stamp on it — 30 seconds to save democracy and the great state of California.”
Schaaf has been helping out with a pro-Newsom phone bank in Oakland, and the Democratic ground game here, fresh off a successful statewide 2020 election, is going door-to-door to spread the word that, as odd as it sounds, there is a September election this year.
Conservative talk radio host and GOP gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder speaks at a news conference in Los Angeles on Sept. 2 to discuss California’s “crime wave” under Newsom and call for a yes vote on the recall.
The Republican field is a collection of Donald Trump proxies: a former Republican big-city mayor, a certified public accountant who Newsom trounced in the 2018 election, and more than three dozen others.
Not a single elected Democrat got in the race — the result of party pressure to make the election a simple choice: Newsom and no one else.
The candidate who has emerged as the favorite to succeed Newsom, should the governor fail the recall question, is Larry Elder. He is a strident conservative radio host, an ardent Trump supporter in a state where fewer than 35 percent of the electorate voted for the former president last year. His Republican rivals have picked his record and long history of statements, many disparaging to women, to criticize most acutely.
Elder has staked out positions and outlined opinions anathema to many Californians, including opposition to the minimum wage, an end to any anti-virus mask mandates at a time when the delta variant is swamping rural hospitals, and that women are inferior to men in decisions involving business and the economy. His former girlfriend has accused him of brandishing a gun during an argument.
“The main thing to be watching is whether or not the Republicans start to turn their fire on Newsom, as opposed to on each other,” said Mike Madrid, former political director of the California Republican Party and co-founder of the Lincoln Group, an organization working to return the GOP to its more moderate roots after the Trump administration.
“Newsom needs this to be a bilateral conflict, not just a generic Republican takeover but one where Larry Elder is seen as the most immediate threat to his governorship,” Madrid said. “As we head into the final stretch here, we’re looking for more specificity. It’s no longer just kind of a general, conceptual, nebulous situation. It’s going to become much more specific and much more aggressive with the attacks and the negativity on both sides.”
At the vaccine event here, Newsom used his coronavirus policies to define the stakes of the race. He singled Elder out for his statements that among his very first acts as governor he would end mask mandates and other virus prevention rules.
Newsom talks with Malia Cohen, left, and a volunteer who is phone-banking against the recall in San Francisco on Aug. 13.
Newsom said 80 percent of eligible Californians have received at least one dose of the vaccine, placing the state in the Top 10 nationwide and bringing its infection rate below 5 percent. Florida, by contrast, is a state without mask mandates and an infection rate of 18 percent.
“I hope people pause and just consider the life-and-death consequences of that decision,” Newsom said. “There is no more consequential decision to our health and safety for the people of the state of California than voting ‘no’ on this Republican recall.”
Elder has, in the view of many Republican and Democratic political activists, been a boon to Newsom, who must no longer run a race solely in defense of his own record. “If Larry Elder did not exist,” Schnur said, “Newsom would likely have wanted to invent him.”
When Davis became the only California governor to be recalled, global movie star and fitness icon Schwarzenegger (R) was on the ballot to replace him. No one, including Elder, has generated anywhere near the enthusiasm that Schwarzenegger did.
Davis said Newsom has two advantages that he did not. First, as the state population has grown over nearly two decades, so too has Democratic registration. There are now nearly 4 million more registered Democrats than there were in 2003.
“He also doesn’t have to deal with an action hero, megastar, married into the Kennedy family as an opponent,” Davis said. “So all of the opponents today are, you know, decent enough people. But, you know, they don’t get people excited.”
The voting began a couple weeks ago, when eligible Californians received ballots in the mail. Democratic and Republican consultants suggested the percentage of ballots returned so far points to a possibly high turnout, especially among Democrats. The caveat is that Republicans have proved to be more likely to vote on Election Day itself.
“Democrats are voting, which had been the concern for Newsom over the past couple of months,” Stutzman said. “He has focused essentially not on persuasion but on a motivation and getting out the vote, an increase Democrat intensity type of campaign.”
Here in Fruitvale, where crime and covid-19 rates are high, the line for a vaccine began 15 deep as the gates opened, then thinned to nearly nothing by midmorning.
The window is working-class: If there is time before work, get the vaccine. Otherwise, wait until you find some time in rare off-hours. La Clinica was administering 600 shots a day at the summer’s start; now, 300 a day is considered a success.
Most of those in line, or waiting the 15-minute after-shot safety period under a tent providing shade from the sun, did not speak English. A very small fraction were eligible to vote, and some of them had yet to return the ballot by mail.
Newsom speaks at a news conference about the recall campaign in San Francisco on Aug. 13.
But Raul Ajqui, a 50-year-old carpenter who got the vaccine under pressure from his boss, said he has already received and returned his ballot, among the roughly 16 percent of the electorate who have. He voted “no” on the recall.
“I’m not paying that much attention to it, but I do know it is a big waste of money, especially given the problems we have in this state,” Ajqui said, referring to the estimated $256 million the election will cost. “This will end up with them just having put a huge amount of money in an empty sack at a time when we could really use it.”
Latinos have increased sharply as a proportion of the state electorate — now about 30 percent — since Davis was recalled. But Latino turnout has been inconsistent, often hard to predict, and Latino voters are historically late-deciders in political contests.
“Do Latinos even know an election is happening?” said Christian Arana, vice president of policy at the Latino Community Foundation. “We’re voting amid a pandemic that is ravaging our community. I don’t think it’s the Latinos who are apathetic. It’s the campaigns that are for failing to really reach out to us.”
Newsom appointed the first Latino to the U.S. Senate in state history last year when he named then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D) to fill the seat left empty when Harris became vice president. He also has helped expand medical coverage for Latinos, including the undocumented, a record those who have studied the Latino vote here believe will benefit Newsom.
“What I do know is that there’s 30 years of history showing that Hispanics, Latinos are an overwhelmingly, reliably Democratic constituency,” Madrid said. “I’m going to bet that the 30-year trend is probably likely to hold.”
Around the corner from La Clinica is the flip side of the East Bay, a cool, crafty brewery called Ale Industries that has been in business for about a dozen years.
Zach Clark, a self-described artist, educator and bartender, is preparing the warehouse space, stacked with barrels and kegs, for customers due in a few hours.
Clark received his ballot in the mail. He returned it, too, with a “no” vote on the recall. His boss is not a citizen, so he cannot vote. But he said his wife already has, again in opposition to the recall.
“I personally still like Gavin Newsom and I certainly want a Democratic governor,” said Clark, 37. “And also the way this whole recall question got on the ballot is kind of a shady, fake covid-related sham.”
“Truthfully,” he added, “I can’t believe we even do it this way. It’s crazy.”
Al Drago for The Washington Post
Newsom listens during a virtual meeting with President Biden at the White House on wildfires on July 30.