Nation’s stormy politics could unsettle California recall

FILE - In this Jan. 15, 2021, file photo, Governor Gavin Newsom addresses a press conference held at the launch of a mass COVID-19 vaccination site at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. California could become the next testing ground for the nation's roiled, unpredictable politics: It's possible the state known as a Democratic stronghold and beacon for progressive ideals could dump Newsom. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via AP, Pool, File)

LOS ANGELES — California may become the next testing ground for the nation’s roiled, unpredictable politics as an effort to give voters a chance to fire Gov. Gavin Newsom moves closer to reality.

Not long ago, the notion that liberal favorite Newsom could be ousted by voters in the heavily Democratic state who elected him in a landslide two years ago would have appeared farcical. But the slippery politics of the pandemic and a tangle of confounding decisions on vaccines and reopening businesses and schools have conspired to make the first-term Democrat look vulnerable.

Newsom’s popularity is tumbling and a proposed recall election appears on track to qualify for the ballot.

A recall in the nation’s most populous state would become a marquee contest with national implications, watched closely as a barometer of the public mood heading toward the 2022 elections, when a closely divided Congress again will be in play.

California voters weary of restrictions that have cut them off from jobs, classrooms and friends, combined with anxiety from the continuing threat of the coronavirus, could create a volatile mix at the ballot box. Newsom also has weathered a public drubbing for dining out with friends and lobbyists at a San Francisco Bay Area restaurant last fall, while telling residents to stay home.

More recently, an ever-expanding fraud scandal at the state unemployment agency has his leadership during the pandemic under even closer scrutiny.

“When you have a very angry, frustrated electorate, they are being driven by emotion, not facts,” said pollster Ben Tulchin, who worked for former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis when he was ousted in a 2003 recall election and replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Former President Donald “Trump got elected because voters were angry,” Tulchin said. “Gavin (Newsom) needs to take this extremely seriously. There are enough people who are undecided, who are up for grabs. Voters are split on him.”

The election would occur at a time when the country is being shaken by political turmoil in the post-Trump era, and Newsom is losing ground with key voter groups. Independents now make up about 1 in 4 registrations in the state, a number roughly equal to Republicans. Young people, in particular, lean progressive but are less likely than their parents to adhere to traditional party loyalties.

At a time when millennials and other young people are worried about education, job prospects and affordable housing “they want solutions” and grow frustrated with bureaucracies that don’t work, said Elizabeth Matto, an associate research professor at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics.

While they lean to the political left, that doesn’t mean they reflexively vote Democratic, she said, noting many young Bernie Sanders followers didn’t support presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. They are looking for a candidate who “speaks to them and seeks to involve them in a campaign,” said Matto, who studies youth political participation.

Beyond the turbulent electorate, a fellow Democrat could enter the contest and provide party voters with an alternative. That’s what happened to Davis in 2003 when Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante joined the race and siphoned off support.

Republicans haven’t won a statewide race in heavily Democratic California since 2006, but the party senses shifting ground. Candidates already are lining up, hoping to tap into angst over Newsom’s pandemic rules that have reordered everyday life for nearly 40 million people.

California has become “the land of broken promises,” former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said last week when he formally launched his campaign and urged the state to reopen schools immediately.

Recall organizers have until March 15 to get the 1.5 million petition signatures needed to get on the ballot. They say they have 1.4 million in-hand, though the tally has yet to be fully verified by election officials.

“This past week more than 100,000 registered voters in California have signed Gavin Newsom’s pink slip,” recall organizer Orrin Heatlie, a retired county sheriff’s sergeant, said in a statement.

Organizers say they have sent mailings to 3.5 million households containing a petition and instructions for signing it, along with a postage-paid return envelope. Meanwhile, volunteers and paid signature-gatherers are in the field rounding up signatures.

If it qualifies, an election likely would occur in late summer or fall.

Voters would be presented with two questions: Should Newsom be recalled and who should replace him? If voters say yes to the recall, then whoever among the listed candidates gets the most votes becomes the next governor.

On paper, the odds favor the lanky, voluble Newsom, who not long ago was being discussed as a potential future presidential candidate. Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2-to-1, hold every statewide office and dominate the Legislature and congressional delegation.

Still, Faulconer argues voters are eager for a change after years of Democratic rule. Indeed, recent polling by the Public Policy Institute of California has found that among likely voters, Newsom is losing ground with independents, Latinos — even his fellow Democrats. Less than half of likely voters say the state is headed in the right direction.

There were cautionary signs in the November election that the state might not be as rigidly Democratic as registration numbers suggest.

Voters rejected an attempt to reinstate affirmative action, as well as a proposed tax increase on commercial and industrial properties. Republicans also recaptured four congressional seats they lost in 2018.

Republican candidates will need to overcome turmoil within the party following the Trump presidency, as well as the lopsided voter registration numbers.

While Faulconer’s positions on social issues and the environment square with many voters — he was elected twice in a Democratic-leaning city — “The bad news is that he is not Arnold Schwarzenegger,” who entered the race with worldwide celebrity, said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution who was a speechwriter for former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson.

Perhaps Newsom’s greatest ally is time. With the potential election months away, it’s possible a combination of sharply declining virus cases and widespread vaccinations will see California largely reopened.

But if pandemic problems don’t turn around, Newsom “could be in real trouble,” Whalen said.