California Gov. Gavin Newsom is likely to face a recall election this year, putting him into a uniquely high-risk, high-reward situation. He would be only the fourth governor tested by a recall vote in U.S. history, and it would come just as he’d normally be gearing up for a reelection campaign.
The downside risk is quite evident. Newsom could lose his governorship and his political career, like his predecessor Gray Davis in 2003. He could also lose his governorship but stage a comeback, as North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier did by winning a Senate seat in 1922 — a year after he was recalled.
Alternatively, Newsom could keep his job but greatly underperform his 62% showing in 2018, thereby making him potentially vulnerable in his presumed reelection race. This weakness could entice a strong Republican challenger to take him on, or even a strong Democrat.
And then there’s the path pioneered by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican whose star rose after he survived a recall in 2012: Newsom could emerge from a recall race as a newly powerful force in his state and the national Democratic Party.
Many recall races are blowouts. For example in 1995, California Republicans targeted Democratic Assemblyman Michael Machado for a recall after he squeaked into office. Machado won the recall with 63% of the vote. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats went after Republican state Sen. Jeff Denham in 2008 — his victory margin increased by more than 15 percentage points in the recall.
If Newsom joins these earlier colleagues and wins big, he might effectively scare away serious Republican contenders and big money GOP donors who may have been thinking about trying to unseat him in 2022. The impact down ballot could be significant and have serious nationwide implications. A strong performance for the whole ticket would help the Democrats keep Vice President Kamala Harris’ old Senate seat (in which they are already heavily favored), their supermajorities in the legislature and their stranglehold on the rest of the state government.
More important, a strong showing by Newsom could help the Democrats keep control of the House of Representatives.
As unbelievable as it sounds, although President Donald Trump lost the state by 29 points, 2020 was actually a good year for Republicans in California. After a drubbing in 2018, when they lost seven seats, Republicans managed to gain four congressional seats (one in a special election that they retained in November). These victories included three races in which Republican House challengers beat Democratic incumbents for the first time since 1994.
The gains helped Republicans significantly cut into the Democrats’ House majority, which is now one of the smallest in congressional history. The Republicans are counting on the traditional off-year out-of-power party bounce, plus gains from the once-a-decade reapportionments and redistricting in Republican-dominated states, to recapture control of the House and oust Nancy Pelosi from the speaker’s chair. Democrats would have virtually no chance to enact their legislative priorities in the second half of President Joe Biden’s term.
But a poor showing in California in 2022 could prove fatal to the Republicans’ national hopes. California is expected to lose a House seat when district maps are redrawn after the 2020 Census, and the GOP could lose some or all of its four-seat gain. A booming Newsom victory and a poor performance by the Republican gubernatorial nominee might sap the energy from these congressional races. In a close enough battle, California’s congressional seats alone could be enough to keep the Democrats in power.
The recall law may actually help Newsom here. Campaign finance laws for recalls are very different from regular elections. In California, a recall is divided into two actions, both taking place on the same day. There is an up-or-down vote over whether Newsom should stay, and also a replacement race featuring every candidate who may run (Newsom is barred from seeking to replace himself). In 2003, there were 135 people in that race to succeed Davis.
Calif. Gov. Newsom ready to ‘fight’ recall effort
Organizers behind a proposed recall of California Gov. Gavin Newsom face a Wednesday deadline to submit nearly 1.5 million petition signatures to qualify the proposal for the ballot. Newsom says he’s going to fight the recall effort. (March 16)
The up-or-down recall vote is not considered a candidate election. It is instead treated as a ballot measure. As a result, campaign finance limits — a $32,400 cap on what an individual or entity can give to a single candidate — do not apply. Newsom can raise unlimited funds from rich donors or business entities. The 2012 Wisconsin gubernatorial recall, which operated under similar fundraising rules, saw numerous individuals give a quarter of a million dollars each.
California is a failed state: How do we know? They’re moving to Arizona in droves.
The bigger dollar amounts can help Newsom — who frankly has more to offer donors, because a Republican will not gain control of the California legislature — overwhelm the field. He will effectively be running for office for two straight years, with this additional campaign spending allowing him to keep his name and face in front of the public. This extra spending could be another factor in sapping Republican enthusiasm in 2022.
If the recall gets to the ballot, as seems likely, Newsom is entering a real danger zone. His public life could be over. But if he pulls it off, Newsom could become a Democratic Party hero.
Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at Wagner College’s Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform, is the author of the Recall Elections Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @RecallElections