Resounding defeat of Trumpism in California’s recall election
California Gov. Gavin Newsom signs autograph for supporters at a rally against the California gubernatorial recall election on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, in Sun Valley, Calif. | Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP

LOS ANGELES — In the Sept. 14 recall election called by Republicans in hopes of implanting a Republican replacement for Gov. Gavin Newsom, voters stepped up and gave the sitting governor an overwhelming victory.

Within half an hour after the polls closed, major news media were confident enough to declare the election for Newsom in what became an outpouring of voters to stop what amounted to a Republican coup attempt. The GOP wanted to take advantage of the state’s undemocratic recall rules which would allow them to put in a replacement for the governor even though their candidate could do that after garnering far fewer votes than the governor.

Newsom’s margin of victory was the largest ever in a California gubernatorial race. It amounted to a vote of confidence in the scientific approach California has taken to combatting the coronavirus at a time when Republicans and right wingers nationwide are pushing attacks on vaccination and a variety of wild conspiracy theories.

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2 to 1 in California. Republicans in the state hew to the right-wing, proto-fascist ideology of Donald Trump and cannot win statewide elections. Their only path to victory on the state level is through an expensive recall that they had hoped, by inflaming fears and discontents over such issues as homelessness, COVID, masks, vaccinations, schools, wildfires, etc.—propel them into office. Voters saw through that by rejecting the GOP scheme which was actually designed to distract the governor and people’s organizations in California from dealing with the crises facing California.

The entire nation is facing, in addition to the pandemic, multiple crises around immigration, climate change, racism and voter rights, and women’s rights. California was a test case for Republicans to see the extent to which they could blame all these things on Democrats and the voters sent them a message that they are not buying what the Republicans are selling.

For the Sept. 14 recall, it looked a few months ago like they might have a chance but as more people found out about the recall and realized what was really behind it the governor’s numbers improved.

Newsom still has another 14 months left in his term. He is no neophyte in political life: He served two terms as mayor of San Francisco, and two terms as Lieutenant Governor under Jerry Brown before winning the governorship in 2018. Out of the $71 million his No on the Recall campaign raised, some $24 million remains which can be used for his reelection in 2022.

Even a casual glance at a map shows that voting followed largely the same pattern as Newsom’s 2018 victory and the 2020 presidential election: The coastal counties going for Democrats and the inland counties, at least in the north and center of the state, going for the GOP. In a county such as Los Angeles, rich with “minority” and immigrant voters, Newsom’s return was in the high-70s percentile, with over a million-vote spread. But in the Republican-leaning counties, even the largest one, Fresno County, went Yes on the recall but only very narrowly—50.2% to 49.8%  Five swing counties in Southern California with mighty histories of GOP domination changed the map by all going against the recall—San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange, Imperial, and San Diego.

The total number of votes cast, in the vicinity of 13 million, amounted to about 60% of the electorate, a far higher percentage than what is seen in many recall elections which often come in at only about 20 percent.

The State of California had sent out 22.2 million ballots to every registered voter. The turnout is impressive for a single-issue, off-season vote.

Any degree of complacency dangerous

But any degree of complacency, no matter how small, can be a factor in presidential elections because despite the large bank of Democratic votes in this largest state in the union, the number of Electoral College votes from the state remains the same. (Though in a presidential vote there are also many other offices to vote for as well as referenda and initiatives.)

One of the strongest points in Gov. Newsom’s favor was the way he handled the pandemic. The state had one of the highest vaccination rates and most effective masking and physical distancing policies, which served to keep infections and deaths down. He followed scientific advice and opened up the state only gradually and piecemeal according to medical expertise. Republicans had their most powerful argument for “freedom” countering such protective requirements, but as GOP governors in such states as Florida, Texas, and Georgia resisted them and COVID cases and hospitalizations soared, Newsom’s record began looking better and better by comparison.

Right-wing Larry Elder campaigned as if everyone in the state was a right winger. The strategy backfired profoundly. | Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP

Then, on July 12, the 69-year-old ultra-conservative African-American radio host Larry Elder entered the race, alongside 45 other candidates on the ballot vying to replace Newsom if he were recalled. That changed the valence of the race overnight. Now Newsom could focus his campaign on the main threat: a longtime Trump supporter and friend whose reactionary positions on virtually every topic spelled anathema to the majority of California voters. Elder did not even pitch his campaign toward the Black community, knowing that most strategic voters there would have no use for his white supremacist politics despite the allure of seeing California’s first Black governor. Incredibly, he gained vocal support from two well-known Latino political figures, both Democrats at least in name, former state Sen. Gloria Romero and former Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado. He attracted almost 45% of the vote amongst the 46 aspirants to the governor’s seat, at least four times what the next runner-up received, meaning he will likely be the main force in California’s Republican Party now, and perhaps nationally as well, in the period to come.

An accurate breakdown of the recall vote according to interest groups, issues, race, gender, religion, and ethnicity will have to wait until the complete numbers can be analyzed. Final numbers are expected on Friday. But some things are clear already. The labor community, women, the LGBTQ community, environmental activists, all favored Newsom’s remaining in office. Exit polling on Election Day suggested that Blacks and Latinos, who comprise some 40% of the state’s electorate, comprised 46% of the vote, surpassing the white turnout. Clearly, these communities with historic grievances knew where they would continue to be heard, even as they could remain independently critical on this or that action or inaction.

A large number of prominent Democrats came out to support Newsom—Elizabeth Warren and Vice President Kamala Harris among them, and on Sept. 13, the day before the election, President Biden. The president, who had won an election against Donald Trump last November, spoke of the threat of Larry Elder: “The leading Republican running for governor is the closest thing to a Trump clone that I have ever seen.” His main event for Newsom took place in Long Beach Mon. night at a rally that featured labor, college students, mariachi music, and numerous speakers.

“Trumpism has no place here,” Biden said, “and Trumpism will be defeated all across the United States of America because we’re better than that.”

Republicans were rumored to have begged Trump to stay out of the election, but predictably enough, he weighed in with a provocative question: “Does anybody really believe the California Recall Election isn’t rigged?”

Shortly before Election Day, Newsom responded to that charge: “It’s Act 2 in the Big Lie. That’s what we’re up against, Democrats.”

There were no reports of voting irregularities, and even Larry Elder did not make such a claim on election night.

Well aware that California is the nation’s most populous state, home to approximately one out of every eight Americans, Newsom framed the recall election in terms that ranged far beyond the state’s borders. “I said this many, many times on the campaign trail,” he said. “You know, we may have defeated Trump, but Trumpism is not dead in this country. The big lie. The January 6th insurrection. All the voter suppression efforts that are happening all across this country. What’s happening, the assault on fundamental rights, constitutionally protected rights of women and girls. It’s a remarkable moment in our nation’s history.”

Paying attention to Newsom victory

Senatorial candidates in the midterm elections of 2022 and in the presidential round in 2024 are surely paying attention to Newsom’s strategy and victory. The handful of California Democrats who flipped Congressional seats in 2018, and then lost them in 2020, likely have substantially more wind behind them now.

Known as a serious political thinker who is given to weighing the issues with a finely calibrated scale, Newsom waxed philosophical on election night. “I’m reminded of something, I don’t know, a few decades ago, someone told me when describing a difficult and challenging moment. Said, ‘The world is too small, our time is too short, and our wisdom is too limited to win fleeting victories at other people’s expenses.’ And he went on to say ‘We must all triumph together.’ So in that spirit of recognizing and reconciling this moment and trying to understand what’s going on not just here in the state but all across the United States of America, I just want to say this: tonight I’m humbled, grateful, but resolved in the spirit of my political hero, Robert Kennedy, to make more gentle the life of this world….

“I just think of our kids watching all of this. The nightly news, day in and day out, and I just wonder—I’ve got four young kids, oldest about to turn 12 this weekend—and what they’re growing up to, in a world, we’re so divided. These kids are increasingly fearful, isolated, disconnected. And we’re teaching them that. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

“I think we owe our kids a deeper sense of respect,” Newsom mused further, “and all of us as adults [have] a responsibility to disregard this false separateness. We’re so much more in common as a state and a nation than we give ourselves credit for.”

Though Democrats and progressives are properly elated by their success on Tuesday night, sober voices are calling for reform of the recall process in California. The recall dates back to 1911 as a progressive measure, but in recent years it has been abused as a vehicle for a legal putsch, upending election results that a small minority happens not to like. Proposals include requiring on a recall petition more than 12% of the votes cast in the last election (it’s the smallest percentage anywhere in the U.S.); a shorter window for signature gathering; ranked voting and instant runoff to guarantee that whoever replaces a recalled officeholder at least has the majority will of the voters; proven evidence of malfeasance by the officeholder to be recalled; placement of the incumbent’s name on the ballot in case they are recalled but there is still no other candidate with more votes; and that in case of a recall, the next in line would assume office (in this instance the Lieutenant Governor), which would mostly knock out the GOP’s motivation.

Commenting on the recall mechanism, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass from Los Angeles pointed out in a conversation with MSNBC host Joy Reid that the recall virus has gone wild in California, with over 60 recall movements active in the state now, all of them indicating GOP inability to win a regularly scheduled election and their resort to this method of grabbing power. On that same program, writer Matthew Dowd made it clear that the GOP actually no longer even believes in democracy and does not wish to be held accountable when they hold power. A third panelist, Jacob Soboroff, reminded audiences that during the campaign, when pressed repeatedly, Larry Elder would not commit to accepting the election results.

On election night, Gov. Newsom expressed thanks to the people of California for “rejecting so much of the negativity that has defined our politics in this country over the course of so many years.”

Later on that night he tweeted that the voters “rejected cynicism and bigotry and chose hope and progress.” He clearly has earned the mandate to pursue a progressive agenda in the state.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.