In summary

The idea that the party’s candidate will lose the recall, but a party member will beat back a divided opposition is not usually what happens.

Profile Image

By Joshua Spivak, Special to CalMatters

Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College, He is the author of “Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom.”

With less than a week to go before the recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom, Democrats have been under fire for not running a top-tier potential replacement candidate and instead calling on voters to leave the second question blank. 

The optics of this effort has been poor, but Newsom and the Democrats are likely correct. Critics have greatly underestimating how difficult it would be for Newsom to lose the recall and a Democrat to win the replacement race.

History tells the tale. 

In the 2003 gubernatorial recall and the six state legislative recalls since 1994, many “no” voters skipped the replacement race. On the other side of the coin, the “yes” vote has the ability to coalesce around their strongest candidate. A Democratic replacement candidate would simply have confused the message and potentially help botch the campaign.

In 2003, Lt. Gov. (and former Assembly Speaker) Cruz Bustamante, who outperformed Gray Davis in their 2002 re-election races, was, in theory, a very strong replacement candidate. But the results were different. The yes vote for the removal of Davis was 55.4%. But on question 2, the top Republican candidates combined for more than 62.5% of the vote. Bustamante got only 31.5%. A full 8% of voters skipped the replacement race (and, surprisingly, 4.6% skipped the yes/no question). We can be pretty confident that many of those voters were Democrats who voted no on Davis.

Maybe you believe that Arnold Schwarzenegger was a special candidate or Bustamante was a particularly bad one. But in 2018, state Sen. Josh Newman, a Democrat from Fullerton, lost a recall vote, with 58.1% against him. The vote was ostensibly over a gas tax, but a strongly political component meant that Newman’s ouster deprived the Democrats of a super-majority in the Senate. The replacement race saw more than 6% fall off in turnout. Republican Ling Ling Chang won the six-person replacement race with 33.8% of the vote, but the combined vote total for Republicans was 58.1%.

In 2008, then state Sen. Jeff Denham, a Republican from Atwater, faced a recall vote, in an attempt to give the Democrats a veto-proof two-thirds majority in the Senate. Denham easily won with 75% of the vote. The sole replacement candidate was a Democrat, and only 38% of voters cast ballots. But the numbers show the strange developments that can happen between the races. Only 20,043 people voted to remove Denham, but 30,946 ended up voting for the Democrat in the replacement race. So, more than 10,000 voters favored keeping Denham and also selecting a Democrat to replace him.

In 1995, Republicans won control of the Assembly, but Speaker Willie Brown pulled off the ultimate political Houdini trick of getting one Republican to vote for him, and, after a successful recall, wooed over another Republican to his side. In the end, three Assembly members ended up facing recalls that year, all targeted by Republicans – Paul Horcher and Doris Allen, both of whom were elected as Republicans, but ended up supporting Brown, as well as Michael Machado, a Democrat from a marginal seat.

Horcher lost overwhelmingly, 61.6% against. In the replacement race, turnout dropped more than 16%. The Republican candidate won with 39.25%, but the combined Republicans received 76% of the vote, well outpacing the vote in favor of retaining Horcher.

Machado easily retained his seat, with nearly 63% off the vote. In the replacement race only 66% of the voters cast ballots. Despite his performance, a Republican would have been elected to replace Machado, and combined the Republicans won 68%.

Allen, who flipped after Horcher was removed, was also kicked out, with 65% of the vote against her. More than 90% of voters who cast ballots in the recall voted on a replacement candidate. The Republicans won that race with 68.44%. 

In 1994, when the recall came back to town after an 80-year absence, state Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti beat back the challenge, with 59% casting a no vote. Almost 40% left the replacement blank. The sole Democrat would have won the replacement race, but that may be because the Republicans did not believe there was much of a chance and did not coalesce. In fact, the four Republicans combined to get 63.5% of the vote. 

If we go back to 1914, State Senator E.E. Grant was removed in a recall vote and was replaced by the senator who he beat to win office, Eddie Wolfe.

The other states that are useful to look at are Colorado, which has the exact same one-day/two-step process as California and Michigan, which at the time had a two-day/two-step process, where the replacement vote takes place on a different day. (Michigan has since changed its recall law).

In 2013, Colorado had its only state level recall vote in its history, where two Democratic senators lost their seats. Democrats did not run replacements, and Republicans walked to victory. The turnout dropped heavily, but it was all on the Democrats’ side. Even with no real opposition, the Republican replacements lost less than 3% of the vote.

 Michigan has had four recall votes. In 1983, two Democratic state senators were ousted in recall votes. Both were replaced by Republicans on a later date. In our only counter-example, a Michigan House member was ousted in 2011 and replaced by another Republican. However, this vote was months later, allowing Republicans plenty of time to coalesce.  

Perhaps most revealing is the 2008 recall attempt against Michigan House Speaker Andy Dillon. The recall took place on Election Day with Dillon running for re-election. So Dillon appeared on the ballot twice, once for his election and once for his recall. He won both easily, but the drop in voting on the recall is noteworthy. While almost 4,000 voters dropped off for Dillon (86%), the recall forces kept 99% of the vote and lost a grand total of 54 votes. 

The idea that the party’s candidate will lose the recall, but some white knight party member will beat back a divided opposition is not what happens. In fact, the most likely result is that if you lose the recall, you’ll lose the replacement race. While the message was botched, Newsom and the Democrats were right to act accordingly.


CalMatters’ Recall Voter Guide

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions: