According to Gov. Gavin Newsom, California residents have two days left to decisively reject a Republican takeover of the nation’s biggest and most powerful Democratic stronghold.
His leading rival, the conservative radio host Larry Elder, has promised that his first moves as governor would be to lift the vaccine and mask mandates that Mr. Newsom put in place. Mr. Newsom argues that his policies have helped California begin to recover from the worst of the pandemic. The recall election, he has said repeatedly, “is a matter of life and death.”
On Monday, President Biden is set to join the governor in Long Beach to make his case — the last in a stream of national Democratic leaders to offer their support in the final days of the campaign to help Mr. Newsom keep his job.
The governor’s opponents, meanwhile, say that Mr. Newsom, facing a dire threat to his political career, is merely reaping what he has sown over the course of a pandemic that has shuttered businesses and kept children out of classrooms.
Mr. Elder was making his own last push. On Sunday, he held a news conference with the actor Rose McGowan, who accused Mr. Newsom’s wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, of trying to bribe her to prevent her from publicly disclosing her sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. A spokesperson for Ms. Siebel Newsom told ABC News that the allegation was “a complete fabrication.”
Mr. Elder said he had continued to describe his candidacy as one meant to rescue Californians from, as he put it in a tweet on Sunday, the chaos, failure and corruption of the Newsom administration and to appeal to voters frustrated with pandemic restrictions, homelessness and crime.
Before voters are two seemingly simple questions: Should Mr. Newsom be removed from office? And if so, who should replace him?
Recent polls and voter turnout data suggest that a victory for Mr. Newsom is likely.
Which means that analysts will be focusing attention on the particulars of the next few days: Will there be a final surge of in-person voting by Republicans who have been dissuaded from dropping their ballots in the mail by baseless but widespread allegations of election fraud? How much support will each of the top Republican candidates garner? If he prevails, will Mr. Newsom emerge more powerful, with an energized base eager to re-elect him next year? Or will he be vulnerable, either to a Republican challenger, or to Democrats who believe they could better mobilize first-time, young and Latino voters?
Though more than 35 percent of California’s active, registered voters have already cast their ballots, tomorrow night is the deadline.
As of Friday evening, the last day of California’s 2021 legislative session, there were 298 bills sitting on the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom. They would do things like allow duplexes in single-family-house neighborhoods, expand access to police misconduct records and prohibit companies from using nondisclosure agreements to prevent employees from speaking out on discrimination.
Whether it’s because Mr. Newsom is too busy campaigning or he doesn’t want to touch anything controversial, it is a near-certainty that hundreds of bills will remain unsigned until after Election Day.
So: What happens if he’s recalled? The answer, in short, is he can still sign the bills if he wants. Depending on how close Tuesday’s vote is, it could take several days or longer for a winner to be declared. Beyond that, it will take several weeks for California’s Secretary of State to certify the election.
Were Mr. Newsom to be recalled, he would remain governor until after the election is certified, at which point the new governor would take the oath of office and assume his duties until January 2023.
The results of the California recall election won’t be known until Tuesday night. But some Republicans are already predicting victory for the Democrat, Gov. Gavin Newsom, for a reason that should sound familiar.
Soon after the recall race was announced in early July, the embers of 2020 election denialism ignited into new false claims on right-wing news sites and social media channels. This vote, too, would supposedly be “stolen,” with malfeasance ranging from deceptively designed ballots to nefariousness by corrupt postal workers.
As a wave of recent polling indicated that Mr. Newsom was likely to brush off his Republican challengers, the baseless allegations accelerated. Larry Elder, a leading Republican candidate, said he was “concerned” about election fraud. The Fox News commentators Tomi Lahren and Tucker Carlson suggested that wrongdoing was the only way Mr. Newsom could win. And former President Donald J. Trump predicted that it would be “a rigged election.”
This swift embrace of false allegations of cheating in the California recall reflects a growing instinct on the right to argue that any lost election, or any ongoing race that might result in defeat, must be marred by fraud. The relentless falsehoods spread by Mr. Trump and his allies about the 2020 election have only fueled such fears.
“I very honestly believe there were irregularities and fraudulent activity,” Elena Johnson, 65, a teacher in Los Angeles County who was in the crowd at a rally for Mr. Elder last week in Ventura County, said of the presidential contest last year. “It was stolen.”
Because of her concerns about voter fraud in the 2020 election, Ms. Johnson said, she would be casting her ballot in person on Tuesday instead of by mail. She said she was supporting the Republican because she thought California, her adopted home after immigrating from the Philippines 40 years ago, was on the brink. “California is where I came, and California is where I want to stay,” she said.
Since the start of the recall, allegations of election fraud have been simmering on social media in California, with daily mentions in the low thousands, according to a review by Zignal Labs, a media tracking agency.
But singular claims or conspiracy theories, such as a selectively edited video purporting to show that people with a post office “master key” could steal ballots, have quickly ricocheted around the broader conservative ecosystem. The post office video surpassed one million views, amplified by high-profile Trump allies and members of the conservative news media.
Nationally, Republican candidates who deny the outcomes of their elections remain outliers. Hundreds of G.O.P. candidates up and down the ballot in 2020 accepted their defeats. But at the same time, many of them joined Mr. Trump in the assault on the presidential race’s outcome, and in other recent election cycles, candidates, their allies and the conservative news media have increasingly expressed doubts about the validity of the electoral process.
And while false claims of wrongdoing have long emerged in the days and weeks after elections, Republicans’ quick turn in advance of the California recall — a race that was always going to be a long shot for them in a deep-blue state — signals the growing normalization of crying fraud.
“This is baked into the playbook now,” said Michael Latner, an associate professor of political science at California Polytechnic Institute. As soon as the recall was official, he added, “you already started to see stories and individuals on social media claiming that, you know, they received five ballots or their uncle received five ballots.”
Some Republican leaders and strategists around the country worry that it is a losing message. While such claims may stoke up the base, leaders fear that repeatedly telling voters that the election is rigged and their votes will not count could have a suppressive effect, leading some potential Republican voters to stay home.
They point to the Senate runoff elections early this year in Georgia, where two Republican incumbents, Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, were ousted by first-time Democratic challengers. Though the state had just voted Democratic in the presidential election for the first time in decades, the Senate races were seen as an even taller task for Democrats.
But in the months after the November general election, Mr. Trump fired off countless attacks against the legitimacy of the Georgia contests, floating conspiracy theories and castigating the Republican secretary of state and governor for not acquiescing to his desire to subvert the presidential election. When the runoffs came, more than 752,000 Georgians who had voted in November did not cast ballots, according to a review by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. More than half of those voters were from constituencies that lean toward Republican candidates, the review found.
“The person that they most admired in their conservative beliefs was telling them that their vote didn’t count,” said Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan of Georgia, a Republican, referring to Mr. Trump. “And then the next day he would tell him that the election was rigged, and then the next day he would tell them, ‘Why even show up?’ And they didn’t. And that alone was enough to swing the election to the Democrat side.”
“This whole notion about fraud and elections,” Mr. Duncan continued, “it’s a shiny object that quite honestly is about trying to save face and not own reality.”
Republican officials in California have performed a balancing act, trying to acknowledge their voters’ worries about fraud while ensuring that the same voters trust the state’s vote-by-mail system enough to cast a ballot. Party officials have promoted mail voting on social media, and have leaned on popular members of Republican leadership, including Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader, to cut videos preaching the security of voting by mail.
But some leading Republicans in the state have simultaneously denounced a bill passed by the State Legislature this month that would permanently enact a mail voting expansion that was introduced as an emergency measure in 2020. Republicans in the Legislature have continued to baselessly claim that mail voting invites fraud and that drop boxes remain unsecure.
“I can tell you story after story in my district,” State Senator Shannon Grove, a Republican from Bakersfield, said during a floor debate this month. She added that the Democrats who dominate the chamber would admit they had also heard complaints “if you guys were honest.”
The state Republican Party has also ramped up what it calls an election integrity operation, which aims to recruit more poll watchers and is directing voters to a hotline to send in complaints of fraud. The program, according to Jessica Millan Patterson, the chair of the state party, was designed to assure voters that the California election would be secure.
“My entire focus,” Ms. Patterson said in an interview, “is to build trust and faith within our process and make sure people are confident.” She added that she was not paying attention to the national conversation about voter fraud and that she was not worried about the Republican effort hurting turnout because “our No. 1 turnout operation is having Gavin Newsom as our governor every day.”
“I’ve always focused on California; everything outside of that is noise,” Ms. Patterson said. “We have to fix our own house before we can worry about what’s going on at the national level.”
Mr. Elder, the Republican challenger to Mr. Newsom who has claimed without evidence that there will be “shenanigans” in the voting process, has also set up a tip line for voters to offer evidence of fraud.
“We have a voter integrity board all set up — most of these are lawyers,” Mr. Elder said last week, according to CNN. “So when people hear things, they contact us. We’re going to file lawsuits in a timely fashion.”
The operations run by Mr. Elder and the California Republican Party closely resemble the one that the Trump campaign set up with the national G.O.P. during the 2020 campaign, which sought to recruit an “army” of poll watchers and prompted worries about intimidation of voters.
Some experts say that the rising popularity of such so-called election integrity operations risks further eroding trust in elections.
“The narrative that we need to build an electoral integrity force that is distinct from the state, and distinct from election officials, I think serves to undermine, and is designed to undermine, the credibility of professional election administrators,” Dr. Latner said.
These groups, he added, make it difficult “for election scientists and election administrators to work together and identify the real problems that we have with electoral integrity. Because there are real problems that need attention and need resources. They’re just not the ones that these people are complaining about.”
Mr. Elder initially staked out a position counter to those in his party who are focused on claims of fraud, telling a left-leaning editorial board over a month ago that he believed President Biden had won fairly last year. But after his campaign began to garner attention, he quickly reversed his position, telling conservative radio interviewers last month, “No, I don’t.”
Shawn Hubler contributed reporting from Sacramento, and Jeremy W. Peters from Los Angeles.
SACRAMENTO — As the campaign to oust him heads into its final weekend, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California is hammering home the choice he has presented to voters since the start of the recall — Donald J. Trump or him.
“We defeated Trump last year, and thank you, but we haven’t defeated Trumpism,” the governor has repeated for the past two weeks in a blitz of campaign stops and Zoom calls. From vaccine resistance to climate denial, he says, everything that terrified California liberals about the last president is on the ballot. And far more than his own personal future hangs in the balance: “This is a matter of life and death.”
His opponents dispute that. The governor, they say, is the problem, and the recall never would have come to an election had a critical mass of the state not resented his pandemic restrictions on businesses and classrooms, even as his own finances were secure and his own children got in-person instruction. The former president, they note, is not a candidate. “Newsom is scaremongering,” David Sacks, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist supporting the recall, tweeted recently.
Only three governors have faced recall votes in the United States before Mr. Newsom, and he and the Democratic establishment are going all-out in presenting the effort as a radical power grab, with some partisans even comparing it at one point to the violent Jan. 6 attempt to block President Biden’s election.
By invoking Mr. Trump as his opponent of choice, Mr. Newsom is reprising a message that he has used in the past to blunt criticism effectively, while also testing a strategy that is likely to be echoed by Democrats seeking to mobilize voters in midterm races across the country next year.
In effect, the leader Californians elected in a 2018 landslide is running less on the Democratic policies of a Democratic incumbent than on an urgent if familiar call to action against an existential threat to blue state values.
Polls suggest Mr. Newsom is making his case and has pulled ahead of his opponents — an abrupt focusing of Democratic minds after likely voters indicated earlier this summer that the race might be tightening. A survey released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California found that only 39 percent of likely voters, mostly Republican, support the recall, while 58 percent plan to vote no.
His edge among female voters has been especially strong, buttressed by campaign appearances in recent days by Vice President Kamala Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar. President Biden will campaign with him on Monday and former President Barack Obama and Sen. Bernie Sanders appear in his campaign ads.
He has amassed some $70 million in anti-recall contributions. That’s less than the hundreds of millions of dollars unleashed last year, for instance, in a fight over an initiative involving labor protections for gig workers, but still far more than the money amassed by the other 46 challengers on the ballot. And his team has mobilized a massive get-out-the-vote effort with tens of thousands of volunteers texting tens of millions of voters and canvassing for him in seven languages.
The governor also has had progress against Covid-19 to tout, with new cases plateauing across the state as 80 percent of eligible Californians report having gotten at least one vaccine dose. In contrast, Orrin Heatlie, a retired Republican sheriff’s sergeant from rural Northern California and the recall’s lead proponent, has not been able to campaign lately for the initiative he started. In a text message interview, Mr. Heatlie said he was sick at home with Covid-19.
The landscape has bolstered the governor’s claim that his removal would undermine the will of a majority of Californians, and reminded voters that the recall was a long shot until the pandemic. Initially supportive of Mr. Newsom’s health orders, Californians wearied of the governor’s complicated directives. Dissatisfaction boiled over in November, when Mr. Newsom was spotted mask-free at an exclusive wine country restaurant after urging the public to avoid gathering. A court order extending the deadline for signature gathering because of pandemic shutdowns allowed recall proponents to capitalize on the unease.
California has 5.3 million Republicans, and while the state does not release the party affiliations of people who sign petitions, Democrats note that only 1.5 million voter signatures were required to bring the recall to a special election. Most of the early energy and funding came from the far right: Fox News regulars such as Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee promoted the recall. Early rallies were heavily attended by anti-vaccine activists, QAnon devotees and demonstrators in “Make America Great Again” gear.
And, Democrats note, the right stands to gain nationally if Mr. Newsom is recalled. If Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat opens prematurely, California’s governor will appoint her replacement, and a Republican would shift control of the chamber to the G.O.P.
Longtime observers note, however, that the governor’s approach also is time-tested.
“Newsom’s strategy has been to remind voters what would be taken away if he were gone rather than what he’s given while he’s here,” Joe Eskenazi, a San Francisco political writer, recently wrote in the news site Mission Local, noting that the governor similarly framed a progressive opponent as “Gavin Newsom vs. The Abyss” in his 2003 San Francisco mayoral campaign.
It is also a variation on a strategy deployed in 2012 by Scott Walker, the former governor of Wisconsin and the only governor in U.S. history to have beaten a recall. A tea party Republican, Mr. Walker faced backlash for efforts to curtail collective-bargaining rights for most public workers. Rather than assume a defensive posture, Mr. Walker portrayed the attempt to remove him as a public employee union power grab.
The portrayal supercharged the state’s Republican base and unleashed a torrent of money from out-of-state conservative donors. The victory not only saved Mr. Walker’s job but also boosted his national political profile.
Mr. Newsom’s political future now rides on that kind of mobilization. The math is on his side.
Democrats outnumber Republicans almost two to one in California. His campaign acted early to deter any strong Democratic challengers. And even with his critics, Mr. Newsom appears to have more support than when Californians recalled former Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003. At the time, seven in 10 voters disapproved of Mr. Davis’s performance.
Paul Mitchell, vice president at Political Data Inc., a nonpartisan supplier of voter information, said more than a third of the electorate has already voted, with participation by independent voters significantly lagging and far more Democratic than Republican ballots so far.
“If they get to 60 percent turnout,” Mr. Mitchell said, “it’s almost mathematically impossible for Newsom to lose.”
But there’s no guarantee they’ll hit that “golden number.” Participation among young and Latino voters has been “paltry,” he said. Until recently, polls showed that many Democrats were unaware there was a recall.
And Mr. Newsom, notwithstanding 53 percent job approval ratings, has lacked the personal popularity of, say, former Gov. Jerry Brown, his predecessor. The governor must beat back the recall decisively, said Steve Maviglio, a California Democratic political consultant, “because if the margin is close, there’ll be blood in the water,” potentially complicating Mr. Newsom’s re-election in 2022.
The recall ballot asks Californians to answer two questions: Should Mr. Newsom be recalled, and if so, who should replace him? If a simple majority votes no on the first question, the second is moot. But if the recall passes, the governor’s post will go to the challenger with the most votes, even if only a tiny sliver of the electorate chooses that person — a feature that has prompted calls for reform from critics.
Nathan Click, a former spokesman for the governor who is now working against the recall, said Mr. Newsom’s team understood early that they would need to make their case quickly. As early as December — six months before the recall would officially qualify for the ballot — the governor’s supporters were echoing the language of their official petition responses, decrying proponents as “anti-vaccine pro-Trump extremists.”
In January, the state Democratic Party chairman called the recall “a California coup,” comparing it to the Jan. 6 insurrection. And in March, Mr. Newsom used his “state of the state” speech to denounce “California critics out there who are promoting partisan political power grabs.”
Now, the very name of Mr. Newsom’s campaign — “Stop the Republican Recall” — aims to mobilize the state’s dominant party. His television ads and social media implore voters to stop the “boldfaced Republican power grab.”
In speeches, Mr. Newsom attacks the front-running challenger, the conservative talk radio host Larry Elder, as a Trump clone who would recklessly undo the state’s progress in curbing Covid-19 infections and “vandalize” California’s identity.
As it did for Mr. Walker, the strategy has inspired gushers of funding. State campaign finance law caps donations to individual challengers but treats recalls as voter initiatives, allowing unlimited contributions. Mr. Elder, whose Trumpian rhetoric has been described as a gift in itself to Mr. Newsom, has so far raised about $13 million; checks to the anti-recall effort for more than $100,000 have alone totaled more than $50 million. Public employee unions and progressives have been especially generous to the governor.
Recall proponents predict a closer-than-expected finish, but either way, they say, they have succeeded. Mike Netter, who helped launch Mr. Heatlie’s petition, said their grass roots group has grown to some 400,000 Californians already organizing ballot measures on school choice and other conservative causes.
“No one believed in us, but we got on the ballot, we have all these people and we’re not going away,” said Mr. Netter. “I don’t think anyone ever expected Gavin Newsom to have to spend $68 million just for the race to be this close.”
The Sunset Strip in Los Angeles awoke on Monday to a hijacked billboard whose ad for the Netflix series “Lucifer” had been covered with one for Larry Elder, the conservative radio host and lead challenger in the campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The sign, outside the Viper Room nightclub, had “Gov. Elder” in the space where the act for the evening would be, and the billboard had been covered with sheets on which Mr. Elder’s surname had been painted in large block letters with an image of California.
“We have the strip to save,” the billboard said, a takeoff on Mr. Elder’s campaign tagline, “We have a state to save.”
The guerrilla street artist Sabo, a supporter of Mr. Elder, took credit for the installation, one of several posters and art pieces he has contributed to the campaign.
In a text message, he said he had chosen the billboard because the chairman of Netflix, Reed Hastings, had contributed $3 million against the recall, and because of the impact of the governor’s coronavirus restrictions on the local economy.
A half-dozen friends had helped, he said. “The Viper Room was closed all weekend,” he wrote. “The shutdowns have hurt them and the staff, along with most of the businesses on the strip.”
But, Sabo added, “I did this hit in the name of PUNK ROCK.”
By 8 a.m. Pacific time, the installation had been removed, and the Netflix advertisement was restored. “That was the fastest I’ve had a billboard taken down,” Sabo texted.