Recall: Newsom, Democratic leaders push supporters to skip second question on ballot. Should they?
With ballots starting to head to registered voters for California’s gubernatorial recall election, those wishing to keep Gov. Gavin Newsom in office will have a straightforward answer to the ballot’s first question of whether to boot the first-term Democrat: No.
Things get a bit trickier on the ballot’s second question, which asks voters — regardless of how they voted on the first question — to select a potential Newsom replacement from the field of 46 certified candidates.
The governor and his party leaders are telling supporters: leave it blank. But some political experts warn that such an approach could backfire, leaving deep-blue California with a strongly conservative leader in the governor's mansion.
Newsom has made the strategy clear this week in comments to the Los Angeles Times and Politico, and his party leaders have amplified the message across social media platforms ahead of the Sept. 14 election, which is largely being conducted by mail.
California Democratic Party Chairman Rusty Hicks said in a tweet that leaving the second question blank will save voters time, energy, self-respect and “from casting your vote for a candidate who isn’t worthy of your support — or the support of California voters.”
The messaging has been carried out by local Democratic parties, too. In Riverside County, Democratic organizers have been making it clear to voters that they are allowed to leave the second question blank and still have their vote recognized on the first question.
“If the governor gets 50% plus one (on the first question), this is over,” said Elle Kurpiewski, political director of the Democratic Headquarters of the Desert in Cathedral City. “When we look at who's sponsoring some of these candidates and who some of these people are that are running, there is no one that would be acceptable to me as a Democrat, or anybody else that I know of that's a Democrat.”
While nine of the 46 recall candidates are running as Democrats, none of them has widespread name recognition or substantial political experience. That dynamic is in stark contrast to the crowded field of candidates who ran in the state’s 2003 recall election, in which Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In the 2003 race, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat, ran as a replacement candidate, striking the somewhat paradoxical stance of “No on the Recall, Yes on Bustamante.” Garry South, who managed successful campaigns for Davis in 1998 and 2002, said that dynamic ultimately caused some voters to think they could have a “twofer” by voting to recall an unpopular governor while keeping a Democrat in office.
Bustamante’s run also complicated messaging from the California Democratic Party.
“The Democratic Party in 2003 was playing footsie with Bustamante, and even though the public (party) position was ‘No on recall,’ there was some significant sentiment with Democratic officeholders and even with the California Democratic Party that they should encourage people to vote for Bustamante on the second ballot line, and that proved to be self-defeating,” South said.
“We didn’t have a unified Democratic Party like Newsom has," he added.
Ultimately, 55.4% of voters opted to recall Davis, but the "twofer" never materialized. Schwarzenegger won easily on the second question, with 48.6% of the vote, while Bustamante came in a distant second, with 31.5% of the vote.
Pushback against party's messaging
The messaging from Democratic leaders has drawn pushback from some political experts, especially after a top strategist for Newsom told multiple mediaoutlets in the spring that California Democrats didn't need an insurance policy on the second question.
Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist who teaches political communications at USC and UC Berkeley, argues that Newsom is “taking a bad decision and making it worse” by telling voters to skip the second question.
“His original decision to keep other Democrats off the ballot constitutes an immense risk for his party and his supporters,” Schnur said. “But now, discouraging them from voting on the second question at all seems like a significant abdication of leadership.”
“Newsom is essentially saying, ‘If I don't win, I don't care what happens,’” he added.
The state party could take some steps to address the situation, Schnur said, by vetting the registered Democrats on the ballot, or meeting with the Republican candidates to see if one might be “less objectionable” than the rest.
If California Democrats only vote on the first question, there’s a greater chance of a more conservative candidate, such as GOP frontrunner and talk radio host Larry Elder, ending up with a plurality of the vote.
“Not only is essentially Newsom thumbing his nose at the voters in washing his hands of responsibility for what might come next, but practically speaking, he’s increasing the likelihood of one of the more conservative candidates winning the election,” Schnur said. “It’s counterproductive.”
Though Newsom’s strategy likely draws from what happened in the 2003 recall election, Schnur argues that Bustamante’s presence on the ballot didn’t make any difference in the ultimate result.
“Schwarzenegger was going to win either way,” Schnur said. “But what I think doesn't matter. The important thing is that Newsom and his team think that (Bustamante) did make a difference, which is why they're pursuing this path right now.”
Newsom's strategy has also drawn public criticism from at least one candidate on the ballot: 29-year-old real estate investor and YouTube personality Kevin Paffrath. As one of the only Democrats running in the recall — and the only one to gain any notable support in recent polls — Paffrath argues the party’s strategy requires “cognitive dissonance” to be carried out.
“Really, what folks are doing who are voting no on the recall is they're saying, ‘We want a Democrat,’” said Paffrath, who describes himself as a “centrist, JFK-style Democrat.”
“Well, if they want a Democrat, then at least pick your best backup Democrat option (on the second question),” he continued. “Otherwise, you're essentially resigning to having a Republican if Newsom loses on the first question.”
However, there could be some long-term political calculus involved in the Democrats’ strategy.
Some Republican recall candidates, including former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, already have campaign accounts active for potential runs for governor in 2022. Former U.S. Rep. Doug Ose, another potential recall candidate, dropped out Tuesday.
South speculated that California Democrats want to keep those candidates’ total percentage of the vote on question two as low as possible to avoid anyone gaining momentum heading into next year.
“To some degree, Republicans are going to look at the outcome of the replacement candidate vote for the Republican candidates to decide who might be stronger in 2022 to actually run against Newsom in the regularly scheduled general election,” South said. “If they all look weak, and they all look anemic, then none of them comes out of this with any kind of an advantage.”
“So, Democrats should just mark that ‘no’ box, fold up the ballots and send it back.”
Tom Coulter covers politics in the Coachella Valley. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @tomcoulter_.