Gavin Newsom defeats California recall election in historic vote

By Sophia Bollag

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California voters rejected an effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom in early returns Tuesday as the state decided its second-ever gubernatorial recall election.

News outlets, including CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC and the Associated Press, called the race for Newsom shortly after polls closed, as early returns showed the no vote with a commanding lead. Nearly 67% of voters opposed the recall, with 33% in support.

“No is not the only thing we said tonight,” Newsom said, speaking at state Democratic Party headquarters in Sacramento. “We said yes to science. We said yes to vaccines. We said yes to ending this pandemic. We said yes to people’s right to vote without fear of fake fraud or voter suppression.”

On the slate of candidates to replace Newsom, radio talk show host Larry Elder led with 43.5%. Democrat Kevin Paffrath had 10.7% and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer had 9.6%. of the vote.

The election was the culmination of a series of events that couldn’t have been predicted back in 2018, when Newsom was elected by a double-digit margin to lead the Golden State.

Newsom always drew ire from conservatives who opposed his liberal policies. The recall petition lists many of the highest-profile actions he took as governor at the beginning of his term, including placing a moratorium on the death penalty, as reasons to remove him from office. But it wasn’t until the once-in-a-century pandemic took hold in California that Newsom’s fortunes began to shift.

In the early days, he immersed himself in the details of the coronavirus, giving what he sometimes acknowledged were “long-winded” daily press conferences on the state’s efforts to buy masks for nurses and secure nasal swabs from the Trump administration. As hospitals across the country in New York were becoming overwhelmed, Newsom took an aggressive approach to keep COVID-19 rates low in California, becoming the first governor to shutter his state’s economy to slow the virus’ spread and “flatten the curve” of infection.

Those early actions earned him high praise, and his approval rating soared. But as the pandemic dragged on, many Californians became disenchanted with the governor, whose lockdowns had restricted their lives and shuttered their businesses.

Longstanding problems in the state persisted, including California’s visible homeless population, its high costs of living and worsening fires and droughts. The state’s faulty unemployment system left thousands of out-of-work residents desperately waiting for checks that became mired in massive backlogs and delays.

A turning point came in November, when Newsom was caught dining maskless for a lobbyist’s birthday party at the French Laundry restaurant in Wine Country, even as he urged other Californians to avoid gathering with their families for the holidays.

People began to argue California should be more like Florida, where life continued much as it had before the pandemic, without the mask regulations and distancing requirements. By the end of the campaign, Newsom was arguing that it would be dangerous to turn California into another Florida, where more people were dying per capita of the coronavirus.

The movement to recall Newsom gathered steam and became defined by the governor’s COVID-19 actions. The same month that Newsom attended the maskless dinner, recall proponents were granted 120 more days to gather signatures just as they were about to run out of time. Those additional months proved crucial, and in March 2021, a year after the pandemic began, they turned in enough signatures to trigger a special election.

The recall effort should have been a long-shot in a state as blue as California, where Democrats constitute the largest share of registered voters. But conservative enthusiasm for the recall and liberal apathy about the election put Newsom in a tight spot in the weeks leading up to Election Day. For most of August, polls showed the race essentially neck and neck.

Newsom used those close polls in campaign pleas to supporters, warning that a Republican out of step with most Californians’ beliefs would likely be elected if the recall succeeded.

In recent weeks, as the delta variant of the coronavirus drove up COVID-19 rates in California and around the country, Newsom focused his campaign on the virus, arguing his policies to mandate masks and vaccines for some workers are keeping the state safe. He contrasted his policies with those proposed by the candidates leading in the race to replace him, all of whom have said they would end mask and vaccine mandates for health care workers and school employees.

Leaning into the policy decisions that drove so many to sign the recall petition in the first place appeared to be working for Newsom. Recent polls showed public sentiment break against the recall as Election Day approached.

Voters were asked to decide two questions: Should be recalled? And who should replace him if he’s removed from office? Forty six candidates filed to appear on the ballot in an effort to take his place.

Republican talk show host Larry Elder consistently led the pack of replacement candidates to replace the governor. Democrat Kevin Paffrath, who offers financial advice in YouTube videos, trailed Elder in most polls, as did other top Republican candidates, including former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Rocklin Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, businessman John Cox and reality TV personality Caitlyn Jenner.

None of the candidates in the crowded field were expected to win a majority, meaning a small share of voters could choose the next governor of California under a successful recall.

Elder’s devoted following, which he amassed over a decades-long career on the radio, poured millions of dollars into his campaign and showed up in droves at churches, where he hosted campaign events in the weeks leading up to the recall.

But his emergence as the frontrunner in the race did as much to energize liberals as it did conservatives.

Newsom evoked Elder every chance he got on the campaign trail, framing the race as a choice between himself and a conservative who opposes the minimum wage and abortion rights, both policies popular with California’s liberal electorate.

California sent ballots to all 22 million registered voters, and Newsom and his campaign made an intense effort to convince Democrats to mark “no” on their ballots and put them back in the mail. California accepts all ballots that are postmarked by Election Day. Polling showed those supporting the recall were more inclined to vote in person.

The election marks the second recall in California history. The first, in 2003, successfully removed Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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(Kim Bojórquez of The Sacramento Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.)

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