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Thomas Gallatin / August 17, 2021

Could California Elect a Conservative Governor?

New polls indicate Gavin Newsom’s recall is a toss-up, with Larry Elder leading the opposition.

On (or before) September 14, Californians will vote on whether to recall Democrat Governor Gavin Newsom. If they do so, they will at the same time register a vote for the candidate they choose to succeed him. Leading the group of Republicans vying to replace Newsom is longtime conservative talk-radio host and syndicated columnist Larry Elder, who quickly surged to the front of the field after throwing his hat into the ring.

In leftist California, the notion that a conservative could actually win a gubernatorial election is nearly inconceivable. Yet, given the fact that this is not a normal election, there’s a real possibility that a Republican could become the Golden State’s next governor. In fact, this would be the second time such a scenario played out, as Democrat Governor Gray Davis was similarly recalled in 2003 and replaced with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

One indicator that Newsom’s survival is no sure bet is his decision to suddenly go on the offensive targeting Elder. “He’s to the right of Donald Trump,” Newsom asserted. “To the right of Donald Trump. That’s what’s at stake in the election and don’t think for a second you can’t do damage in that role. Think about the judges he could appoint. Who would he have appointed to replace Kamala Harris in the U.S. Senate? How would that impact the trajectory of this country. What would this mean for the future of the Democratic Party in our efforts to keep the House of Representatives?”

The polling explains why he attacked. Even though Newsom, the former mayor of San Fransisco and lieutenant governor, won the 2018 election with a commanding 62% of the vote, those positive vibes have clearly mellowed. Earlier in the spring, polls indicated that Newsom had little to worry about, as a majority of voters rejected a recall. However, over the last month, that comfortable position has entirely evaporated. Recent polling shows his favorability sinking to 46%.

It certainly wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Californians aren’t happy with several significant and vexing problems, such as the state’s growing homelessness problem, a rising crime rate, and onerous zoning restricts that have made the construction of affordable housing nearly impossible. Then there are the environmental regulations that, ironically, have only made things environmentally worse. California is suffering through yet another massive wildfire season, exacerbated by poor forest management and an outdated electrical grid. Last but not least is Newsom’s heavy-handed COVID response combined with his own hypocrisy. Last November, he was caught at the high-end French Laundry restaurant in clear violation of his own mandated regulations on masks and social distancing. Yet he proceeded to keep his state locked down into this summer.

Back in 2003, when Californians recalled Davis, Schwarzenegger was able to take over the governor’s mansion despite winning just 48.6% of the vote. Of course, Schwarzenegger was a Hollywood mega star who was at best a center-left Republican. Elder is a principled conservative with star power, but that popularity is primarily limited to conservative circles.

Nevertheless, Democrats may find themselves in a bit of a pickle, as no prominent Democrats are running. And even if they were, any attempt to support them would be perceived as favoring a recall. Therefore, should the vote go against Newsom, let’s just say the prospect of another Democrat replacing him appears highly unlikely.

Fortunately for Newsom, his ace in the hole is California’s mail-in balloting — every registered voter will be sent a ballot in the coming days. This works heavily in Newsom’s favor because voters won’t have to bother with going to a polling station to cast their vote. Looking to the future, though, even if Newsom survives a recall, this fiasco has damaged his reelection chances in 2022.

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