California’s highest ranking state official may soon be a Republican - a truly surprising development in an era of political uniformity in the Golden State. On Tuesday, September 14, Californians will have the opportunity to recall Governor Gavin Newsom from his first term and replace him with a successor who will serve until January 2023. In a state where Joe Biden won the presidential election by over 29 points, Democrats in the State Assembly outnumber Republicans by 3 to 1, and Democrats in the State Senate swamp Republicans 31 to 9, shouldn’t Newsom expect no trouble retaining his role as governor? The answer isn’t all that clear. With money pouring in from across the country for Republican candidates, the GOP may be able to win back the governorship through recall for the second time this century.
Before an election date was set earlier this month, Newsom’s detractors had been vocal about their opposition to the current governor for over a year. Republican leaders in California such as former San Diego mayor and 2021 recall candidate Kevin Faulconer, businessman John Cox, and former olympian Caitlyn Jenner have helped publicly besmirch the reputation of Gavin Newsom. And in large part, the reason for the rise of criticism and recall efforts boils down to one issue: the Covid-19 pandemic. Opponents of Newsom saw the Californian response to coronavirus as haphazard in their application of pandemic-era restrictions as well as being far too slow to allow businesses to reopen. In fact, one major development in the recall process was when Governor Newsom was seen maskless dining at the French Laundry, one of the most luxurious restaurants in California, amid widespread government-encouraged restaurant closures and calls for his constituents to stay at home. The governor has also taken heat for his state’s rising cost of living and homelessness problem that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
All of these factors led to grassroots Republican efforts across the Golden State to acquire necessary signatures to recall Newsom. California, along with 18 other states, is a state that allows for the triggering of recall elections: a procedure in which a public official can be voted out of office before their term is over. According to state rules, signatures of at least 12 percent of the votes cast in the previous election are required for a recall. That equaled just under 1,500,000 for this election. California state officials received over 1.7 million valid signatures by the March 2021 deadline and officially certified them on July 1, resulting in a recall election.
At first glance, the proposition of a successful recall seems awfully outlandish. Gavin Newsom won the California gubernatorial race by 24 points in 2018, and, as of February 2021, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 10,228,144 to 5,347,377. So how could this seemingly impossible Republican victory take place? Let’s rewind to 2003.
In November 2002, Governor Gray Davis won his re-election in California by 5 points. But the next several months were atrocious for Davis. Several issues accelerated Davis’s unpopularity such as the dot-com bubble burst, energy cost crisis, and state-wide budget catastrophe. Californians came together as they have in 2021 and ended up forcing a recall vote.
The recall election ended up taking place in October 2003, meaning if the recall was successful, the winner would serve until January 2007. And successful it was. About five million supported the effort as compared with four million in opposition. More people voted in the 2003 election than in the 2002 contest so clearly voter turnout was not the reason for Davis’s loss. Republican, actor, celebrity, and bodybuilding extraordinaire Arnold Schwarzanegger received the highest percentage of the vote (48%) among pro-recall voters and was pronounced victorious. Schwarzanegger appealed to the broad population as an outsider. He governed fairly moderately and was an extremely popular governor; this sentiment was exemplified in his resounding 18 point reelection victory in 2006. Schwarzanegger won every county but 6. The Terminator’s rise to success in the political world proved the efficacy of the recall process and laid the blueprint for Republican candidates in California’s modern political climate.
Arnold Schwarzenegger celebrating his 2003 victory.
Election Day is less than 70 days away.
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