California Governor Gavin Newsom is pretending the effort to recall him doesn’t even exist. When asked about it, he’ll only say he’s focused on dealing with the pandemic.
But his political moves over the last month show the governor is starting to sweat as the recall petition nears the signature goal of 1.5 million.
In truth, to account for invalid signatures, organizers must get closer to 2 million signatures. And they only have until March 17 to do it. But so far, county registrars have validated 600,000 signatures which put the anti-Newsom groups on track to achieve their goal with ease.
Newsom still deflects questions about the opposition effort by saying he is singularly focused on vaccinating Californians and reducing Covid-19 spread. He has adamantly denied that his abrupt decision to reverse stay-at-home orders last month was an attempt to quell voter frustration. And he seems determined to avoid legitimizing the effort by acknowledging it.
But California Democrats and their political backers are bracing for a campaign nevertheless as recall organizers turn in hundreds of thousands of signatures. State lawmakers are proclaiming their support for Newsom, seeking to tamp down any signs of disunity. Interest groups and donors who would be called upon to fund a recall defense are quietly ramping up, with one union launching the first public counteroffensive.
Getting the recall on the ballot and actually dethroning Newsom are two different things, and while Newsom’s numbers are dropping like a stone — his approval was 65 percent at one time, now it’s at 46 percent — there is apparently some residual goodwill for the governor. The IGS poll shows a 45 percent plurality said they would vote to retain Newsom, compared to 36 percent backing his removal.
A day after those polls underscored Newsom’s precarious footing, the governor appeared Wednesday at a press conference in which Bay Area allies lavished praise on his coronavirus management. “I talk to mayors all over the country, and I cannot tell you how lucky we are in California to have Gavin Newsom as governor,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in introducing him.
As allies rally to Newsom’s defense, they will likely remind voters in this overwhelmingly Democratic state that the recall was launched by conservatives and Republicans who supported President Donald Trump — and that the top two GOP challengers backed the president who was deeply unpopular in the state. However, even in California, they can’t overreach in their defense of Newsom; state Democratic Party chair Rusty Hicks was roundly criticized last month when he declared the legal recall effort a “coup,” trying to draw a parallel between the signature drive and the U.S. Capitol siege.
Indeed, Newsom allies would dearly love to bring Donald Trump front and center in this campaign. That’s going to be the trend in Democratic campaigns for a long time as the left will tie Trump and the insurrection around the neck of every Republican running for office.
Of course, there’s always the danger that Democrats will overreach and overplay the Trump card. On the other hand, Republicans who don’t embrace the former president won’t stand a chance in many districts and states.
In California, keeping the focus on Newsom will be paramount. Recall organizers have to ignore Democratic distractions like Trump and make the campaign about “lockdowns, lockdowns, lockdowns.” Whether it will be enough to oust Newsom remains to be seen, but the recall campaign will almost certainly damage him. That gives a Republican a better shot at winning.