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Newsom has a huge cash advantage in California’s recall vote. It may mean nothing – The Guardian

If war chests won elections, Gavin Newsom would have nothing to fear from the effort to recall him as governor of California.

As the campaign moves into its final frenzied phase ahead of 14 September, the official voting day, Newsom and his supporters have outraised the entire panoply of his would-be replacements by a wildly lopsided margin.

Last week, Newsom’s fundraising haul surpassed the $58m he raised in 2018, when he first ran for governor and won, and that total is on track to hit $70m or more before all is said and done. The pro-recall effort, by contrast, has raised only about $8m, and only three of the 46 candidates to replace Newsom have raised seven figures on their own account.

Larry Elder, the Trump acolyte and firebrand conservative talkshow host, has established himself as the frontrunning challenger with a haul of about $6m, and the only Republican to eclipse that total, the businessman and perennial candidate John Cox, is largely writing checks to himself.

Newsom’s huge fundraising advantage guarantees absolutely nothing, however, because the unorthodox, rarely tested rules of the recall don’t allow the incumbent to face off directly with his opponents. Rather, the ballot is split into two parts: the first asking voters whether Newsom deserves to stay in office, and the second asking who should replace him if he doesn’t.

While money can be very useful to an incumbent in a normal election to create a clear contrast with a challenger whose policy positions may be unpalatable to a majority of voters, that’s not the situation Newsom faces, because he is excluded from the second question on the ballot. Polls indicate that he may win two or three times as many votes as Elder, but that won’t help him if he doesn’t reach 50% on the first, yes-or-no recall question.

And it’s far from clear that he can buy his way out of that problem – even in a state that last year voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump by a 30-point margin.

“There are a number of forces driving this election and they are only partly controllable by having a lot of money,” said Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist who runs the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “What Newsom’s faced with is 100% a mobilization election, not a persuasion election … And campaign strategists are still learning how to mobilize voters.”

Money can, of course, buy television ads and fund get-out-the-vote operations. But the challenge for Newsom in an election that does not follow the usual calendar, and has not yet fired up registered Democrats the way it has fired up anti-Newsom Republicans, is to persuade low-propensity voters to send in the absentee ballots sitting on their kitchen tables. And that, Sonenshein said, was a much trickier proposition – “more of an art than a science”.

california recall ballot
The election ballot first asks voters whether they would like to oust Newsom. If less than 50% vote ‘no’, he will lose office. Photograph: Rishi Deka/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

California has a long track record of humiliating candidates who thought they could win office through sheer force of financial muscle. But the recall is also an outlier by US political standards, a constitutionally questionable process designed more than a century ago that doesn’t follow the usual patterns – concerning money or anything else.

That, in turn, has raised two interesting questions. One, if money is only so useful to the anti-recall forces, how come people are showering Newsom with so much of it? And, two, if the recall is giving the Republicans their best – perhaps their only – shot at high office in a bluer-than-blue state, how come their donors are largely staying away?

On the Democratic side, campaign experts say, special interest groups are writing checks to Newsom largely because the recall provides them with a unique opportunity to do so and because they see only advantages in giving to a Democratic party that controls a supermajority in both houses of the state legislature and, one way or another, is likely to win the next regularly scheduled gubernatorial election in November 2022. While individual contributions in an election are capped at $32,500 per candidate, contributions to a pro- or anti-recall campaign have no legal limits.

“Even if Newsom loses,” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican political consultant who teaches political communications at Berkeley and the University of Southern California, “California donor interests won’t have to risk harming their relationships in Sacramento in any significant way … Even if Newsom isn’t in a position to show his gratitude, in about a year the next Democratic governor will be.”

Among the biggest donors to the anti-recall effort are Reed Hastings, the Netflix chief executive, who supported one of Newsom’s primary challengers in 2018; the prison guards’ union, which does not give to Democrats exclusively but won a pay raise earlier this year that Newsom championed against the advice of his budget analyst; and the teachers’ union, whose previous support for Newsom became a political liability during the worst of the Covid-19 lockdowns because schools remained shut under union pressure.

Cyclists with signs in support of the recall effort ride past anti-vaccination protesters taking part in a rally against Covid-19 vaccine mandates, in Santa Monica, California.
Cyclists with signs in support of the recall effort ride past anti-vaccination protesters taking part in a rally against Covid-19 vaccine mandates, in Santa Monica, California. Photograph: Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images

On the Republican side, the lack of funding enthusiasm reflects a broader change in the party since the only previous gubernatorial recall in California, in 2003. Back then, the GOP threw its weight wholeheartedly behind the campaign to kick out the then governor, Gray Davis, and replace him with its superstar alternative, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This time, by contrast, the party played no role in gathering signatures for a recall petition, which was spearheaded by a retired sheriff’s sergeant from the Central Valley who has frequently expressed frustration with the state Republican party’s leadership. The party has also stayed largely out of the race itself, offering less than $200,000 to the recall campaign – a stark contrast to the more than $2m that the California Democratic party has kicked in for Newsom.

“The California Republican party isn’t spending a lot of money on this race because they don’t have a lot of money,” said Schnur.

The party is demoralized all around, since it has won no statewide office in California since Schwarzenegger and is increasingly eclipsed by its own grassroots, who have acted with increasing autonomy – some might say defiance – in the age of Trump. They, not the party, have fueled Elder’s rise over the previous frontrunner, the more moderate former mayor of San Diego, Kevin Faulconer, and over Cox, Newsom’s challenger in 2018 who lost then by more than 20 percentage points.

Money has not been the determining factor in any of these developments. Indeed, according to Schnur, California’s most reliable Republican donors are already looking forward to next year and a handful of competitive congressional races in California that could help swing control of the US House of Representatives back to the GOP. “It’s only recently that Newsom’s chances became an open question,” Schnur said, “and these donors generally like to be in early rather than late.”

If the recall is challenging received wisdom in both parties about how to finance and run an election campaign – albeit for diametrically opposed reasons – that’s partly because there is no reliable playbook to ride what is proving to be a pretty untamable horse. “You’re talking about what in European terms would be a snap election,” Sonenshein said. “And we don’t have snap elections … It’s still better to have more money. But everyone assumes your likelihood of winning is dependent on how much money you have, and I’m not sure that’s true.”

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