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Gov. Gavin Newsom is fighting for his political life. He’s working to fend off a recall that began as a far-fetched effort by Republican activists — but has turned into a credible campaign that could throw the Democrat out of office.

It’s hard to fathom in this deep blue state where Newsom clobbered his 2018 GOP opponent, although his job approval among voters plunged from its high in the early months of the pandemic. But the coronavirus pandemic shifted California’s political landscape in two significant ways: It prompted a judge to give recall supporters more time to collect signatures — keeping their campaign alive long enough to gain momentum — and it led Newsom to enact a slew of new restrictions to curb the spread of the virus that have frustrated some Californians and energized recall backers. 

The recall petition doesn’t say a word about the pandemic — it was written before the virus upended normal life. But it gained a surge of signatures after news broke in November that a maskless Newsom joined lobbyists for a dinner party at the posh French Laundry restaurant, even though he was telling Californians to mask up and avoid socializing. The count grew as the state’s unemployment system paid out billions to fraudsters, and its chaotic COVID vaccine distribution left people scrambling for shots. As many schools, churches and businesses closed during Newsom’s stay-at-home orders, the recall that began as a conservative rebuke of his progressive policies morphed into a referendum on his pandemic response.  

Now it’s election year again in California, and you’ll soon be asked to toss a governor just a year shy of the end of his term. Here’s everything you need to know about recall elections in the Golden State.

How does a recall work anyway?

Recall Newsom volunteers help Richard McDougal, left, and his wife, Florence Lauzob, sign the forms during a petition signing event at SaveMart in Sacramento on Jan. 5, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
Recall Newsom volunteers help Richard McDougal, left, and his wife, Florence Lauzob, sign the forms during a petition signing event at SaveMart in Sacramento on Jan. 5, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

California is one of 19 states that allow voters to remove state officials before the end of their term. No reason is necessary — the only requirement to put a recall on the ballot is enough voter signatures. That number must be 12% of voters in the last election for the office, and must include voters in at least five counties. The magic number for Newsom’s would-be recallers: 1,495,709 valid signatures.  

The secretary of state certified on July 1 that recall supporters submitted 1,719,900 valid signatures — enough to trigger a recall election. That means:

  • An election will be held on Sept. 14. Voters will receive ballots in the mail beginning on Aug. 16. You can send your ballot back by mail, or vote in person.
  • Voters will be asked two questions: Do they want to recall Newsom, yes or no? And, if more than 50% of voters say “yes,” who should replace him? 

This is where things get strange. There’s no limit on the number of candidates who can run to replace an official on a recall ballot. And whoever gets the most votes wins — even without a majority. So it’s entirely possible that someone could be elected in a recall while winning less than half the votes. That’s what happened in 2003, when then-Gov. Gray Davis was recalled by 55% of voters. More than 100 people ran to replace him, carving up the votes and allowing action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger to win with 48.6% support.

So what comes next? It’s confusing.

Even though local election officials had said they’ve counted enough valid signatures to trigger a recall election, there are a lot of bureaucratic steps before an election can take place. Here’s a look at the process that’s unfolding:

Who’s behind the effort to throw Newsom out of office?

Republican activists have been trying to recall Newsom since shortly after he was inaugurated in January 2019. Five attempts failed to get enough signatures. But a sixth try, led by a retired sheriff’s deputy named Orrin Heatlie, gained momentum after a judge granted supporters extra time to collect signatures due to the stay-at-home order at the start of the pandemic.   

Heatlie’s petition cites common conservative criticisms of California: high taxes, rampant homelessness, immigrant-friendly policies, and Newsom’s move to halt executions despite voters’ past support for the death penalty. Political consultants who worked on the 2003 recall of Gray Davis mailed the petition to potential supporters, an unusual technique that reflects constraints of signature-gathering amid a pandemic. 

Heatlie, a Republican who lives in Folsom, calls his campaign a nonpartisan effort and says it includes former Democrats who have lost faith in Newsom. “This is a movement that has brought people together throughout the state and unified people from all walks of life,” Heatlie said in an interview.

A few Silicon Valley tech executives who previously donated to Democrats now support the recall. But the campaign’s largest funders and most visible backers are Republicans. Supporters include wealthy businessmen and established GOP politicians, as well as far-right extremists who have peddled misinformation. 

“Voters signed recall petitions because California is on the wrong track, and we deserve better than the failures of this incompetent governor,” California GOP chairperson Jessica Millan Patterson said in a statement after the announcement on enough valid signatures. “Gavin Newsom earned this recall, and we look forward to helping him into early retirement later this fall.”

Newsom spokesman Dan Newman calls recall supporters “a strange mishmash of people who are motivated for different reasons….You’ve got some pro-Trump, anti-mask, anti-vaccine extremists, along with opportunistic and ambitious Republican politicians who would like to be governor.”

CalMatters is tracking contributions to both the pro-recall and anti-recall campaigns.

How are Democrats responding?

For months, Newsom deflected reporters’ questions about the recall, saying simply that he’s focused on his job as governor — working to improve vaccine distribution, reopen schools and help small businesses.

That changed in early March. Newsom used his unusual State of the State speech to lob a high-profile attack on his opponents, and then, a few days later, launched an official campaign to fight the recall. He promptly made the rounds on national television as California and national Democrats closed ranks to support him. Newsom’s strategy in a state that twice resoundingly rejected former President Donald Trump: Unite Democrats by portraying the recall as a fringey MAGA-inspired movement full of QAnon conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers.

An early attempt to push that message flopped in the aftermath of Trump loyalists’ Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. California Democrats held a press conference alleging links between the rioters and recall supporters, and calling the recall campaign a “California Coup.” Journalists immediately pointed out that a coup is an illegal seizure of power — while a recall is a democratic procedure enshrined in the California Constitution.

The California Democratic Party’s leader quickly walked back the “coup” comparison. But Democrats will continue tying the recall to Trump and the far right, given that the former president is deeply unpopular in California. That may be enough for Newsom to beat back the recall.

His campaign repeated the message after the secretary of state announced the recall campaign had turned in enough valid signatures. “The Republican recall — backed by partisan, pro-Trump, and far-right forces — threatens our values as Californians and seeks to undo the important progress we’ve made under Governor Newsom,” said a statement from campaign manager Juan Rodriguez.

Disaffected Democrats would have to support the recall in droves to make it successful in a state where just 24% of voters are registered Republicans and the GOP hasn’t won a statewide contest since 2006. Though they tend to vote for Democrats, roughly a quarter of California voters are not registered with either major party. So a key factor will be how much support Newsom hangs onto from liberal voters who don’t feel loyalty to him or the Democratic party.

So is Newsom’s support eroding?

Newsom’s popularity skyrocketed early in the pandemic, with 63% of likely voters telling the Public Policy Institute of California that they approved of his job performance in May. Though his ratings have since dropped, Newsom remains far more popular than Gray Davis was at the same point in his recall campaign.

What Newsom has to worry about are voters like Jennifer Harris, who lives in Encinitas. She said she registered as a Democrat at age 18 and voted for Newsom in 2018, the same year she ran for school board as an endorsed Democrat. She supported Newsom’s actions early in the pandemic, including his first stay-at-home order. But as the pandemic dragged on, she saw little logic in the government’s rules to ban playgrounds and outdoor dining. And she grew unbearably frustrated with the closure of her kids’ public school — while many private schools (including the one Newsom’s children attend) remained open.

“The policy has not necessarily been good for the people that the Democratic Party says it’s supposed to be representing, which is the working class and the middle class,” Harris said. In the fall, she changed her voter registration to nonpartisan and signed the petition to recall Newsom.

College-educated suburban white women like Harris will be a critical constituency if the recall gets on the ballot, said Mike Madrid, a GOP political consultant with expertise in voter behavior. It’s a group that has traditionally supported Newsom, especially in coastal counties. “If they lose that base,” he said, “then it becomes a race.”

Polls show that Newsom is losing support among women and people who have kids at home. In May of 2020, PPIC found that 70% of female likely voters and 58% of likely voters with children in their household approved of Newsom’s job performance. By January that dropped to 57% of female likely voters and 49% of those living with kids. 

Who might run to replace Newsom?

Likely Newsom opponents in a recall election from left: Kevin Faulconer, John Cox, Doug Ose and Caitlyn Jenner. Photos by Gage Skimore via Flickr; Samantha Young for CalMatters; Andrew Nixon, Capitol Public Radio; Stephen McCarthy/Web Summit via Flickr

Caitlyn Jenner, a reality TV personality and former Olympic athlete, has launched a campaign. John Cox, a Republican businessman who lost to Newsom in 2018; Kevin Faulconer, the Republican former mayor of San Diego; and Doug Ose, a GOP former congressman from the Sacramento area have said they’re in. Ric Grenell, a former Trump official from Palm Springs, has hinted that he may run.

After the recall qualifies for the ballot, many other candidates will likely emerge as well. When Gray Davis was recalled in 2003, 135 people ran to replace him — including political novices like child actor Gary Coleman and pornographer Larry Flynt. One of the unconventional candidates from 2003 — adult film actress Mary Carey — says she’s running again.

Former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya said on his podcast that he would put his name on the ballot if the Newsom recall qualifies, but then walked it back a couple weeks later, saying he’s not ready to run. He isn’t registered with either party, but has donated to Democrats, and criticizes the governor for California’s slow vaccine rollout and high taxes.

It’s not clear right now if any Democrats would run to replace Newsom. “Anything and everything is on the table,” California Democratic Party leader Rusty Hicks said in January. 

One theory is that Newsom would be better positioned to beat back the recall if the options to replace him are too conservative for most California voters. “If they want to hold onto the governorship… it would be in Democrats’ best interests not to put up an alternate candidate,” said Democratic political consultant Marva Diaz, an editor of the nonpartisan California Targetbook. That would allow Democrats to focus on telling voters to vote “no” on the recall, and allow them to steer clear of a confusing message like, “Vote no on the recall, but if you vote yes, vote for…”

The other theory? “It would be political malpractice not to have a Democrat on the ballot on the second question” as insurance if Newsom’s numbers worsen, said Mike Madrid, a GOP political consultant not involved in the recall. 

Dave Gilliard, a Republican consultant working on the recall campaign, anticipates a large field of candidates from across the political spectrum: “Once it’s apparent that the recall is going to be on the ballot, I think there will be major candidates from all parties, even independents. Voters will have lots of choices. I don’t think either party can control who will run and not run.”

Are recalls rare?

Attempts to recall politicians are extremely common in California, and growing more common nationwide. Successful recalls remain rare.

The only California governor ever recalled — and just the second nationwide — was Gray Davis. At the start of his second term, the Democrat faced the wrath of voters over his handling of the electricity crisis, a massive state deficit and an increase in vehicle license fees. Fueling the campaign: a $2 million donation from GOP Rep. Darrell Issa.

The real game-changer, of course, was the candidacy of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Already famous worldwide, the actor and body-builder had been laying the groundwork for entering politics by sponsoring a ballot measure for after-school programs. He was a Republican with a bipartisan image, married to Maria Shriver, niece of Democratic former President John F. Kennedy. And he infused his campaign with celebrity: announcing his candidacy to host Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show”, dancing to “We’re Not Gonna Take It” at a rally with Twisted Sister, and inspiring plenty of parodies. 

Since then, only one other gubernatorial recall has made the ballot in the U.S. — the 2012 attempt to throw Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker out of office. It failed.

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Laurel covers California politics for CalMatters, with a focus on power and personalities in the state Capitol. She's been included in the Washington Post’s list of outstanding state politics reporters...