In summary

The governor declared that in saying “no” to the recall, Californians were really saying “yes” to vaccines, science, inclusion and pluralism.

The attempt to throw Gov. Gavin Newsom out of office failed by a wide margin, according to vote counts in California’s historic recall election.

As of Sept. 23, with more than 11.8 million ballots counted — out of 22 million ballots mailed to registered voters — the “no” vote is ahead of the “yes” vote 62.7% to 37.3%, according to the California Secretary of State. About 92% of all votes have been counted.

Newsom pulled to such a big early lead that the Associated Press, CNN, NBC and other networks declared within an hour of the polls closing on Sept. 14 that the recall had failed and Newsom had survived.

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“We are enjoying an overwhelming ‘no’ vote tonight here in the state of California,” Newsom said in a brief appearance in the courtyard of the state Democratic Party headquarters in Sacramento. “But ‘no’ was not the only thing that was expressed tonight. I want to focus on what we said ‘yes’ to as a state. We said ‘yes’ to science, ‘yes’ to vaccines, we said ‘yes’ to ending this pandemic.”

“We said yes to diversity, we said yes to inclusion, we said yes to pluralism. We said yes to all those things that we hold dear as Californians, and I would argue, as Americans,” the governor added.

But there are many more votes to count. Here’s why: The votes reported first are those ballots cast before Election Day, from voters who sent them in by mail, left them in election drop boxes or voted early in person. After the polls closed at 8 p.m., election officials began counting ballots that were cast on Election Day. And ballots postmarked by Election Day will be counted as long as they arrive within a week.

Republicans are expected to make up a larger share of those voting today at polling places, so the results may shift toward the “yes” side as those ballots are counted. 

Among the candidates seeking to replace Newsom, GOP talk radio host Larry Elder was leading the pack with 48% of the vote. Democrat Kevin Paffrath was a distant second at 10%, and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican, was in third place at 8.4%.

In his election night speech, Faulconer told supporters that while he initially set out to campaign for 2022, it turned into a recall campaign. He said he’d take time to figure out “the best steps here in the coming weeks to continue to be a fighter, to continue to serve our great state.” 

Elder indicated that he will likely run for governor next year if he does not win this time. 

“We may have lost the battle, but we are going to win the war,” he told supporters on election night.

Elder also declared a victory, of a sort: “They are now listening in ways they never listened before. They are hearing us in ways they have never heard before. They’re now going to work on problems the way they’ve never done before.”

But even before Election Day, Elder began casting doubt on the validity of the results. He said he thought there may be “shenanigans” and that he was prepared to file lawsuits over irregularities. For days, a “Stop CA Fraud” website linked from Elder’s campaign site had called for an investigation of the “twisted results” in the recall election “resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor;” those words were deleted hours before the polls closed.

Nonetheless, Elder conceded Tuesday night and urged supporters to be “gracious in defeat.”

Newsom pushed back against what he called a continuation of the “Big Lie.”

“Democracy is not a football,” he said. “You don’t throw it around. It’s more like an antique vase. You drop it and smash it into a million different pieces.”

“We may have defeated Trump, but Trumpism is not dead in this country.” 

Newsom’s strategy to fight the recall relied on taking lessons from the only other gubernatorial recalls in modern American history: the 2003 ouster of California Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and the failed attempt to recall Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2012. (The governor of North Dakota was recalled a century ago, long before the modern era of political communication.)

The lesson from the Davis recall: Box out any prominent Democrats from running as a replacement and focus on telling Democrats to just vote “no.” In 2003, Democrat Cruz Bustamante, the lieutenant governor, ran with the slogan “No on the recall, Yes on Bustamante.” 

Newsom’s campaign said that gave some Democrats the belief that they could recall Davis and still have a Democratic governor. 

“We weren’t going to make that same mistake,” said Newsom strategist Ace Smith.

The lesson from Walker beating back a recall: Play offense and define your opponent. Walker succeeded in part because he was able to cast the recall as an attack by labor unions and paint them as the villain. 

Newsom’s team used the same strategy, but with the opposite politics. In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one, they cast Republicans as the bogeyman, and repeatedly tried to tie the recall to former President Donald Trump, who is deeply unpopular in California. And when Elder emerged as the front-runner, Newsom focused on bashing his conservative stances on race, immigration, women’s rights and pandemic management.  

“Politics should always be choices,” Smith said. “The choice in this case is not whether your governor is perfect or not. The choice is whether your governor would do a far better job than the other person who would be governor.”  

Jennifer Shanoski canvasses door-to-door in East Oakland on July 27, 2021, urging residents to vote against recalling Gov. Newsom. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Newsom also benefited from an enormous fundraising advantage — raising five times as much money as his opponents combined. And he got help from organized labor. Unions contributed millions of dollars to his campaign and also organized a huge effort to knock on doors, make phone calls and send text messages urging voters to say “no” to the recall.  

“It really was all about in-person contact and communication,” said Steve Smith, a spokesperson for the California Labor Federation. “That’s what we knew it would take, given the research we did early in the summer where we saw a tremendous amount of apathy and low information. TV ads alone weren’t going to solve that problem.”

Newsom also bet that his strict approach to the pandemic — as the first governor in the nation to require vaccines for health care workers and state employees — would pay off in a state where two-thirds of residents are vaccinated. He contrasted his approach with his GOP opponents, who said they would repeal mandates for masks and vaccines. 

Exit polling on Election Day revealed that the pandemic was the main issue on California voters’ minds, and that more than 6 in 10 say getting vaccinated is more of a public health responsibility than it is a personal choice.

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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...

Sameea Kamal is a reporter/production assistant at CalMatters. She joined CalMatters in June 2021 from the Los Angeles Times, where she was a News Desk editor. Sameea was one of three 2020 IRE Journalist...