How California's Recall Election Could Change State, National Politics
California Gov. Gavin Newsom is fighting for his political future in Tuesday's gubernatorial recall election, and whether he wins or loses, the outcome is likely to reverberate across state and national politics.
If a majority of voters say "yes" to the first question on the ballot, which asks whether Newsom should be removed from office, any of the 46 replacement candidates on the ballot would represent a dramatic change. The vast majority have no political experience, and most of the top-polling candidates are Republicans.
A Republican governor could make swift and impactful change in a few areas. Arguably the biggest would be the reversal of Newsom's COVID-19 policies, such as the indoor mask mandate at all K-12 schools or the requirement that teachers and school staff either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing.
"One need only look at states like Arizona, Georgia and Florida for the role of a governor who's anti-science in dealing with the pandemic," said Sonja Diaz, founder of the UCLA Latino Politics & Policy Initiative.
Diaz also said while Newsom has been willing to increase state spending to deal with the pandemic, a Republican governor would be likelier to cut spending.
"This means that we are not going to have the full arsenal of our government resources," Diaz said. "This is really hard because we know who suffers when bad policy exists … and that's Black and brown communities who have borne the brunt of the health and wealth impacts of this pandemic."
UCSD political science professor Marisa Abrajano said if Newsom is replaced by a Republican, the political effects could be felt across the country.
"We know that California is a bellwether for other states," Abrajano said. "If that scenario were to happen, it could embolden Republican governors in other states ... to continue with their policies, especially given the kind of polarized political environment that we currently live in."
A GOP takeover of the governorship could also boost Republican enthusiasm and fundraising efforts leading up to the 2022 midterm elections, when Democrats will be defending their slim majorities in both houses of Congress.
Perhaps even more consequential: Sen. Dianne Feinstein is 88 and the oldest sitting senator. A Republican governor would almost certainly appoint a Republican to fill her seat if she's unable to finish her term. That would give Republicans their Senate majority back.
Diaz said a Republican governor would also have the power to appoint conservatives to the state judiciary, cabinet positions and boards and commissions such as the UC Board of Regents or the Air Resources Board, which oversees much of the state's climate policy.
"Those are powers that you can see, from one day to the next, shift," Diaz said.
Something that is unlikely to change under a Republican governor is legislation. Democrats will still hold supermajorities in both the state Assembly and Senate. That means they will be able to pass laws and override a potential veto from the governor — if the party stays united, which Abrajano said is likely.
"They're even highly united right now as we've seen coalescing around Newsom, agreeing that other potential high-profile Democratic candidates not compete in the recall election," Abrajano said. "So you can imagine that if we are in that scenario that they would be just as united or even more highly united."
Polling looks much better for Newsom now than it did just one month ago, when likely voters appeared almost evenly split on the recall question. In a poll of likely voters released Friday by the LA Times and UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, 60% of respondents said they would vote "no" on the recall, while less than 39% said they would vote "yes."
If Newsom wins the vote, he could enter his 2022 re-election campaign stronger than ever — though Diaz said his strength would depend on his margin of victory.
"Is this within a 5-point margin? Is he going to hit it out of the park?" Diaz said. "To what extent is (the election) going to be called that evening? We don't know."
Predicting the election's outcome has gotten more difficult as voting habits have shifted. Republicans, who used to prefer early voting, are now likelier to vote on Election Day. Democrats could also benefit from the pandemic-related measure that requires all registered voters be sent a mail ballot.
A Newsom victory on Tuesday could also prompt leadership in the state Republican Party to do some soul searching, Abrajano said.
"Do they want to appeal to a larger base and revert back to a more moderate version of what Republicans are?" Abrajano said. "Or are they going to continue their strategy of extreme right-wing (policies) and (remain) the party of Trump?"
Both Abrajano and Diaz agreed a Republican governor would face an all-but-impossible re-election campaign in 2022. Republicans are such a minority in California, they said, that their only path to statewide victory is a low-turnout special election like the one on Tuesday.