Recall election: Campaign trip for Gavin Newsom could bring bigger benefit to President Biden

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden heads on Monday to the state that gave him the most votes last year, making a last-minute appeal to supporters to ensure California keeps its Democratic governor.

Polls indicate Republicans’ attempt to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom is likely to come up short in Tuesday’s election – for which many votes have already been cast.

So the trip may end up benefiting Biden as much as Newsom.

While Newsom is likely to win even without Biden’s help, the trip still makes good political sense, said Dan Schnur, a political science professor at the University of California who previously worked for California Gov. Pete Wilson and John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign.

“The trip associates Biden directly with a significant political victory,” Schnur said, “and he could use one right now.”

David Axelrod, who was a top aide in the Obama administration, echoed that view in a recent tweet about Biden’s trip.

“When you’ve stalled out a little, one good strategy is to jump on a fast-moving train,” he said.

President Joe Biden speaks as California Governor Gavin Newsom. on a screen, looks on during a meeting with state governors in Washington, DC on July 30, 2021.

In addition to a potential boost for Biden after tough weeks dealing with the military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the still surging coronavirus, the recall election gives Democrats a chance – along with November's gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia – to test potential playbooks and to generate momentum going into difficult midterm elections.

“I think it's a good opportunity for the president to amplify the real difference between his agenda and what we're seeing from a broad swath of the Republican Party,” said Ian Russell, a longtime Democratic campaign operative and past national political director for the campaign arm of House Democrats. “There's a sort of a broader push here that I'm glad to see from this administration, heading into the midterms.”

The fact that Newsom is facing any challenge at all in a state where only 24% of registered voters are Republican might seem alarming in itself for Democrats.

But under California’s recall rules, an election can be set in motion with just 12% of the number of residents who voted in the previousgubernatorial election.

“It's a low threshold,” said George Washington University professor Todd Belt. “So I don’t think it really is a signifier of the health of the party.”

Newsom won the 2018 election with 62% of the vote.

Keep Gov. Gavin Newsom, or kick him out?:What to know about California recall election.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and his wife First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom mark their ballots at a voting center in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.

While the 11.1 million votes Biden picked up in California last year were his biggest cache, the nation’s most populous state also gave former President Donald Trump his biggest haul: 6 million. Only a quarter of Trump’s supporters needed to get behind the recall effort for Newsom to face the voters.

And recalls may be California Republicans' only opportunity to capture the governor’s office given Democrats’ overwhelming advantage.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s last GOP governor, grabbed the seat away from Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in a 2003 recall election.

Since then, Democrats’ voter registration advantage has grown to 22 percentage points, said Mark Baldassare, president and survey director of the Public Policy Institute of California.

The institute's polls have not shown a Democratic defection for Newsom that was evident before Davis' 2003 recall.The three times this year the institute has surveyed voters – in March, May and late August – support for the recall has been well below the majority needed to remove Newsom.

“There’s such a gap that would have to be filled,” Baldassare said.

Pandemic politics are key in Newsom race – and for Biden

Motivation, however, is particularly important in special elections and Newsom’s aggressive approach to the coronavirus angered Republicans and some independent voters.

The backlash gained strength when Newsom ignored his own pandemic protocols when dining at one of California’s most exclusive restaurants in November.

But in recent months, pandemic politics appear to be working in Newsom’s favor.

Californians named COVID-19 as the top issue facing the state in the Public Policy Institute of California’s late-August poll. And a majority approved of how Newsom – as well as Biden – are handling the pandemic.

Newsom has leaned into that, telling voters no decision is more consequential to the health and safety of the state than the recall election. He’s highlighted the promises of GOP challengers to roll back mask and vaccine mandates.

“He's decided to make this the COVID election,” said Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in N.Y., and author of The Recall Elections Blog.

Newsom’s challengers, by contrast, have adopted a “kitchen sink” approach to criticizing Newsom, Spivak said, going after crime, homelessness and other issues.

Before any of the 46 potential replacements will have a chance, a majority of voters must say they want Newsom recalled. If that happens, the highest vote getter among the challengers becomes governor for the remainder of Newsom’s term, which ends Jan. 2, 2023.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder speaks to supporters during an Asian Rally for Yes Recall at the Asian Garden Mall in Little Saigon, Westminster, California, on September 4, 2021.

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A recent ad by Larry Elder, the conservative talk show host viewed as the GOP frontrunner, paints Newsom as an arrogant leader, closing tiny coffee shops while dining in fancy restaurants.

“You remind me of the guy in high school, who took my girlfriend, then went on to the next,” says the man in Elder’s ad. “You still think you're better than everyone else.”

Former President Barack Obama recently weighed in, telling voters in an ad that Republicans are trying to “overturn common sense COVID safety measures for health care workers and school staff.”

During a campaign rally at a union training facility in northern California last week, Vice President Kamala Harris sought to broaden the focus – and impact -- beyond her home state.

“They think that if they can win in California, they can do this anywhere,” Harris said. Bringing up recent GOP efforts in Texas and elsewhere to restrict abortion and tighten voting rules, Harris said the “recall campaign is about California – and it’s about a whole lot more.”

Vice President Kamala Harris and California Gov. Gavin Newsom wave to supporters on Wednesday during a rally against the California gubernatorial recall election in San Leandro, Calif.

'Governors are very, very important to any president'

That’s a contrast that Russell expects Democrats to continue to make as they try to turn the midterm elections away from a referendum on Biden and into a choice between parties with very different agendas.

“One of the reasons Newsom has been successful in putting open water between himself and those who support a recall is he's really forced a choice,” Russell said. “If you get rid of him, do you really want Larry Elder in the governor's office with his scary agenda?”

Keith Schipper, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said Newsom’s effort to nationalize the race won’t work because Californians are frustrated not just with the pandemic, but with affordability issues, unemployment, the homeless crisis and other problems.

“This is solely an indictment on the job that he has done,” Schipper said. “Obviously Gavin Newsom is scared that this race is closer than he ever thought it would be that he needs to call in the big wigs.”

A Newsom loss would be a huge embarrassment for Democrats. It would also hurt the party’s momentum and candidate recruitment efforts going into the midterm elections, said Spivak.

Biden needed to show up if for no other reason than to avoid blame if the recall succeeds.

“Governors are very, very important to any president being able to enact their agenda. Obviously, the governor of the largest state is extremely important,” Belt said. “And they don't want to leave anything to chance.”

Asked last week why the campaign trip is a priority when Biden has a lot on his plate, White House press secretary Jen Psaki had a pithy response.

“Because the election is Tuesday,” she said.

Psaki also noted that Biden’s campaign swing for Newsom is part of a larger trip to western states that includes a focus on wildfires in Idaho and California as well as a visit to Denver to promote the bills pending in Congress to fund Biden’s expansive domestic agenda.

“So,” Psaki said, “you have to do a range of things as president.”

Contributing: Joey Garrison,.

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