Feature 09.10.2021 6 minutes

After the Recall

California State Capital

Polls don’t look good, but there is still hope for those invested in California’s future.

With the September 14 California recall election rapidly approaching, it’s looking like California has all but blown our chance to fire Governor Gavin Newsom. After being within the margin of error for months, polls now show Newsom not only defeating the recall, but winning by a comfortable, double-digit margin. It’s looking grim—but lovers of the Golden State shouldn’t entirely lose hope.

First things first: Was the biggest blue state in the nation really considering firing a Democrat governor? Yes. And with good reason. If the policies of the Left worked as Democrats promise, California would be paradise. Instead, it’s rapidly devolving into a third-world dystopia, where the gated mansions of the wealthy overlook the shantytown slums of the poor.

The Golden State punishes the law-abiding with the highest income taxes, gas taxes, and sales taxes in the nation, while failing to deliver the reliable, basic services those taxes are supposed to pay for.

At the same time, California politicians actively reward law breakers, providing free healthcare to illegal immigrants and releasing convicted criminals en masse, including tens of thousands of violent offenders. Stores are closing because theft is rampant and unprosecuted. Next month, San Francisco plans to start paying former criminals $300 to $500 a month not to shoot anyone.

We’re losing population to states that are cheaper. We’re losing middle-class jobs as companies relocate to states that are less punitive to business. Our K-12 public schools are losing students because they routinely rank among the worst in the nation.

The homeless crisis sweeping California is in reality an addiction crisis, created and fueled by bad policy. The decriminalization of drug use, the tolerance of open-air drug markets, and the decision to stop enforcing the types of petty crime that keep addicts in thrall to the drug of their choice have as much if not more to do with the explosion of homelessness than out-of-control housing prices—which Democrats have also failed to fix.

California residents are confronted with the consequences of these political failures every day.

Even the most vigorous partisan begins to question the ruling party when they have to step over human feces on the sidewalk. Virtually every issue Governor Gavin Newsom and his fellow Democrats have promised over and over to fix has been getting worse rather than better.

Democrats are even losing ground on their own signature causes like income inequality and protecting the environment. CA is more unequal than any other state when cost of living is factored in, and politicians have failed to mitigate increasingly devastating wildfires, causing vastly more greenhouse gases to be released on Newsom’s watch than the meager amounts he’s cut.

The best way to turn California around and refute the agenda of the Left would be for a conservative to take power and start fixing their failures. But former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the only candidate with a track record of solving these exact kinds of state-created problems, is being passed over. Instead, recall proponents are pinning their hopes on talk radio host Larry Elder, who excites the base, but is unlikely to command wide appeal.

An Uphill Climb

Republicans hold the advantage heading into the national midterms as President Biden bumbles his way from one catastrophe to another. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are heading to California, ostensibly to help Newsom fight the recall, but what they’re really doing is trying to get a piece of his upcoming win to package as a defense of their own agenda.

Barack Obama also appeared in a final push ad supporting Newsom. He knows if conservative ideas and ideals are allowed to solve California’s problems, it will be much tougher to sell California-style socialist policies nationally. As big as California is, this fight is part of something bigger.

Even if all the polls are wildly inaccurate, the best-case scenario for Larry Elder is to eke out an off-cycle win with a fraction of the electorate, be blocked at every turn, and then lose instantly to whichever fresh new Democrat runs against him next year.

Democrats didn’t have a supermajority in the state legislature during the last two Republican administrations, so veto overrides and hardcore power plays were rare. But now they do. Democrats at every level will happily jump into full on “resist” mode, overriding every veto, blocking every appointment, suing over the scope of emergency powers. They will delay, deny, and run out the clock, confident that they will win back the governorship after one of the shortest gubernatorial terms in California history.

Another difficulty to keep in mind is that California’s top-two primary system doesn’t even guarantee Elder a spot on the ballot in 2022. Most recent polls have him in the high 20s, so unless he starts growing his appeal, he could be shut out by two Democrats and never get a chance at a full term.

All is Not Lost

But for those still hoping to turn California around, there may be a ray of hope.

While some think beating back the recall will make Newsom a sure thing for reelection next year, that’s not necessarily true. The millions spent by numerous disparate groups trashing Newsom will leave a mark, especially since his defense was to fear-monger about the competition after he tried and failed to defend his own record. And polls indicate a critical demographic, Latinos, have no great love for Newsom, struggling as they are with California’s sky-high cost of living and rising crime.

If he narrowly wins, Gavin Newsom goes wounded into what looks like a red-wave year. He is not a man of the people. He is a wealthy, out-of-touch elite who seems to care only about himself. He telegraphed this when he successfully prevented any major Democrat from being on the recall ballot, and even told voters to willfully surrender all say in choosing his successor by leaving question 2 on the ballot blank. His campaign slogan might as well be “Newsom or Nothin'”.

The French Laundry list of promises he’s made during the recall will be much fresher in the minds of California voters than the usual four years of forgetting politicians count on. Everything Newsom pledged to fix will likely be in worse shape by next year, given his proven inability to do anything other than double down on the failed policies of the past. California’s quality of life will continue to degrade, crime will continue to rise, and unless Newsom spends every day from now until November doing photo-op trash cleanup stunts, the garbage will continue to pile up.

No matter how many gameshow prize wheels he spins, few Californians are likely to feel more positive about Gavin Newsom than they did before this whole kerfuffle. His second set of campaign promises broken, Newsom will be vulnerable.

But will the mixed coalition of Republicans, independents, and moderate Democrats who are looking for an alternative to California’s entrenched, self-serving status quo get behind someone who can actually win?

We’ll see.

The Right is in many ways harder right in California than it is nationally, because we’ve been radicalized by the hard Left lunatics we oppose—the woman caught on video screaming obscenities in a pink gorilla mask and trying to egg Elder is characteristic of the type. That makes it tough for moderate candidates here to capture our enthusiasm. But failing to learn from losing statewide over and over is a path to complete political irrelevance.

If the Biden agenda is bringing back shades of the ’70s—with inflation, gas lines, and crisis and collapse in the middle east—then we should remember it took Ronald Reagan, an optimistic Republican running as a moderate, to turn things around. Reagan won the governor’s mansion in California by offering a palliative for left-wing excesses in Sacramento, and he was able to build on that success to broaden the appeal of the Republican party, capture moderate Democrats, change the direction of the nation, and rewrite history.

Could that happen again?

Yes. If the “left coast” rejects the Democrat policies that are failing our state, it would cause a political earthquake bigger than anything along the San Andreas. But that only happens if we are willing to choose discipline over drama, strategy over celebrity, and never stop fighting for California.

Our next chance is only a little over a year away.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

Also in this feature

Life Under Newsom

An interview with California State Senator Melissa Melendez on bipartisan discontent with one-party rule in California.

to the newsletter