In summary

Gov. Gavin Newsom made the California recall a partisan contest, and Republican elected officials had an embarrassing showing. Larry Elder, on the other hand, is the new power in the GOP.

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Raging wildfires. A surging once-in-a-century pandemic. An off-season election asking voters to throw a sitting governor out of office — for just the second time in California history.

Despite the extraordinarily unusual factors shaping the attempt to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom — any of which could have led to an unpredictable outcome — in the end, results from Tuesday’s election show that the race largely came down to partisanship. The Democratic governor beat back the GOP-driven recall by about the same margin as Democrats have defeated Republicans in the top statewide races over the last decade. 

It was a deep-blue victory in a deep-blue state.

“This went down strictly along party lines,” said Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California. “There was some crossover, but very little.”

Exit polling shows that 94% of Democrats voted against recalling Newsom, while 89% of Republicans voted to remove him. Independent voters were more evenly split, but leaned toward keeping Newsom in office. As of today, voters were rejecting the recall by a nearly 30-percentage-point margin with 9.3 million ballots counted and another 2.9 million yet to be counted. 

In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans roughly two-to-one, Newsom always had a mathematical advantage. The question was whether Democrats would be motivated to vote. It looked iffy earlier this summer, but Newsom woke them up by hammering a highly partisan, fear-based message about how his leading Republican opponent would manage the pandemic. He succeeded in making the race seem like a choice between himself and conservative talk radio host Larry Elder, rather than a referendum on his own performance as governor.   

“This whole election changed dramatically six to eight weeks ago,” said Dave Gilliard, a GOP consultant working on the recall. 

“With Elder’s candidacy and the delta COVID variant blowing up, the timing was just a perfect storm for Newsom to use the money he had raised to pound the airwaves to basically take the focus off himself and his record and put it on an opponent who was deeply flawed as far as the voters were concerned, especially with regard to vaccinations and the whole COVID crisis.”

Elder vowed to repeal Newsom’s vaccine and mask requirements, leading the governor to frame the race as a matter of “life and death.” 

But Elder wasn’t the only Republican campaigning against Newsom’s mask and vax rules. The anti-recall campaign wanted to contrast Newsom’s pandemic priorities with the Republican approach, and would have made similar attack ads if someone else was in the lead, said campaign manager Juan Rodriguez. 

“All these Republican candidates followed anti-vax, anti-mandate, anti-science off a cliff, to their own peril,” he said during a Wednesday panel discussion hosted by the Sacramento Press Club. 

“Larry Elder didn’t change the debate, he just put it in pure focus.”

More ballots remain to be counted, and the exact margin of Newsom’s victory may shrink a bit. But as of Wednesday, voters had shot down the recall 64% to 36%. That’s almost the same breakdown as California voters rejected Republican Donald Trump last year, when they favored Democrat Joe Biden by 64% to 34%. Results were similar in every top-of-the ticket race over the last decade.

“This breakout right now that we’re seeing isn’t a reflection on everyone being satisfied with Newsom,” said Romero, the USC professor. “It’s a reflection of the party dynamics that we have in California.” 

The dynamics were different in 2003, when voters recalled Democrat Gray Davis and replaced him with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. The movie star candidate appealed across partisan lines as a moderate who’d married into the Kennedy family. And with the Democratic lieutenant governor on the ballot, some Democratic voters said “yes” to the recall, thinking they could still wind up with a Democratic governor. 

This time around, Newsom’s success at keeping prominent Democrats out of the race helped solidify the partisan outcome. He repeatedly told voters to “vote no and go” — to skip the second question where they were asked to pick a replacement candidate. Many listened: As of Wednesday, 4 million more voters answered the first question than the second. 

Among voters who chose a replacement candidate, Elder consolidated 47%, leaving other Republicans in the dust. 

Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego, was a distant third with less than 9%. His senior campaign advisor blamed Elder for driving down participation by GOP voters with his unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud in the days before the election.

“One way not to have Republicans win is by telling Republican voters that their votes don’t matter,” said Ron Nehring, also a former state GOP chairperson. “To actually go out and assert that the election has already been stolen when not one result and had yet been published is astonishing to me.”

Elder’s campaign manager Jeff Corless replied that Elder was responding to concerns he heard from voters on the campaign trail: “What was the number one question he got asked? ‘Are they going to steal the election?’” 

Republican conservative radio show host Larry Elder speaks at a rally for the California gubernatorial recall election on Sept. 13, 2021, in Monterey Park. Photo by /Ringo H.W. Chiu, AP Photo
Republican conservative radio show host Larry Elder speaks at a California recall rally on Sept. 13, 2021, in Monterey Park. Photo by /Ringo H.W. Chiu, AP Photo

Their debate at the Sacramento Press Club illustrated the ongoing tension within the California GOP — between those who think a moderate Republican could win over voters in this blue state, and those who favor a conservative firebrand like Elder.

Republican Assemblymember Devon Mathis of Visalia summed it up in a tweet:

“Are y’all ready to wake up & realize that 70+ % of the state is different. A ‘hard right’ anyone isn’t going to win in CA. It’s not #CAGOP fault, it’s all y’all who want a candidate who makes you feel good Vs a candidate who can win & give 80-90% of what you like.”

But on the other hand, more centrist Republicans are well behind Elder in the unofficial, partial returns, showing how damaged the GOP brand is in California. 

Both Republican Assemblymember Kevin Kiley and GOP businessman John Cox, who was the party’s nominee for governor in 2018, were trailing an obscure Democrat: Brandon Ross, a doctor with no political experience who pitched himself to voters as a recovered opiate addict.

Republican Caitlyn Jenner — the transgender reality TV personality and former Olympic athlete who has been in the public eye for decades — as of Wednesday, was losing to another virtually unknown Democrat: Holly Baade, a new age shaman and yoga instructor.

The whole race left Republicans wondering how they’ll compete against Newsom in next year’s governor’s race after yet another blowout. Democrats sounded supremely confident.

Californians “voted out that recall,” said state Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat. “And they vaccinated our governor against Republican temper tantrums.”

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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...