Welcome to the Jungle Recall

In 2010, California voters approved Proposition 14, which fundamentally changed how general elections are conducted in the state. Prior to Prop. 14, the general election ballot would include the names of every qualified party’s nominee. The new system created the “jungle primary,” an open primary in which all registered voters could vote for any candidate running, regardless of party affiliation, with just the top-two finishers appearing on the ballot in November.

The rationale for the top-two system, according to proponents, was to disadvantage candidates with “extreme” views. To date, the only result in California, however, appears to be the further destruction of the Republican Party as a viable competitor in a one-party state. If the many state legislative contests that now just feature two Democratic candidates have resulted in winners with more moderate views, it’s not evident from the work of the state legislature.

Who Would Replace Newsom?

But California is about to experience a jungle free-for-all of a different kind. With more than 1.8 million signatures in hand, a special election to recall Governor Gavin Newsom is increasingly likely. The ballot will have two questions. The first would ask, “Shall Gavin Newsom be recalled (removed) from the office of governor?” Voters would mark “yes” or “no.” The second question, on the same ballot, would then ask voters to pick a candidate to replace Newsom should the first question receive a majority of “yes” votes. 

Who steps up to run as Newsom’s replacement is the biggest political question in California today. How that slate of candidates is constituted will influence Newsom’s chances of surviving question one, as well as who could end up running California if voters throw Newsom out.

California’s Democrats appear split on how to handle this. A narrow consensus advocates total refusal to support placing any Democratic candidates on the ballot under question two, instead emphasizing their support for Newsom. Their rationale is based on a concern that if an alternative Democrat is on the ballot, it would harm Newsom’s chances of surviving the recall since it would give California’s disaffected Democrats—and they are plentiful—a reason to vote to recall Newsom.

New Nightmares for Republicans

That may or may not stop some Democrats from throwing their hats into the ring, and for Republicans, it is a double-edged sword. On one hand, having a liberal alternative to Newsom would make it more likely that Newsom does not survive the recall. But if only one prominent Democrat appears as a replacement for Newsom on question two, and two or more prominent Republicans vie for the job, the Republican candidates would split the vote and the Democrat would win.

The nightmare scenario for Republicans goes something like this: The declared Republican candidates, John Cox and Kevin Faulconer, are joined by one or two other prominent Republican candidates, then Lorena Gonzalez, currently a member of the California State Assembly, jumps onto the ballot to run as the sole Democratic alternative. Gonzalez would then become the next governor because the Republicans have split the anti-Newsom vote three ways.

Gonzalez, one of the most polarizing politicians ever to hold office in California, represents the liberal urban precincts of San Diego. She is the author of the notorious Assembly Bill 5, the state law that makes it illegal for millions of Californians to work as independent contractors. There is not an environmental overreach, a union power grab, or a new race or gender mandate that Gonzalez wouldn’t support. Her style is combative. Her politics are extreme. Gonzalez could never win state office in a normal election. And even though she professes to be uninterested in entering the race right now, Gonzalez could win the jungle recall.

The reality of jungle primaries and the upcoming jungle recall in California is a twist on a challenge playing out across the United States. Historically, and now more than ever, the presence of third-party candidates can create electoral outcomes contrary to the intent of the voters. 

Over the past 200 years, several presidential elections have been thrown due to a powerful third-party candidate. In 1992, Ross Perot scooped up 19 percent of the conservative vote, easily throwing the victory to Bill Clinton in key battleground states. In 2000, Ralph Nader garnered 3 percent of the liberal vote, possibly throwing the victory to George W. Bush in what was an extremely close election. Very recently, the presence of Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgenson earned more votes than Biden’s margin of victory in three key states, Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin.

Green Libertarian Spoilers

In America today, because the Libertarian Party tends to attract more funding and grassroots support than the Green Party, the presence of these two smaller parties putting candidates on the ballot can tilt close elections to the left-of-center Democrats. Other examples of this across America are abundant and consequential. If just one-in-seven of the people who voted for Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate Shane Hazel last November had instead voted for the GOP candidate, there would not have been a January 5 runoff, which the GOP lost, which in turn cost them control of the U.S. Senate. 

Similar examples have played out in battleground state legislatures. In 2016, Libertarian candidate Tim Hagen got five percent of the vote in his run for a seat in the Nevada State Senate. The GOP candidate lost by only one-half of one percent, and control of the Nevada state senate passed from the GOP to the Democrats.

Whether or not jungle primaries are desirable, the presence of alternative party candidates is not something that can or should be discouraged on constitutional grounds or even as a matter of principle. But anyone favoring free enterprise and personal liberty should not only consider the shortcomings of many Republicans, but also weigh the consequences of one-party rule by Democrats. Even if the GOP has a weak candidate running for a particular office, is it worth voting against them when doing so can shift control of a state legislature, much less the U.S. Senate, into the hands of Democrats?

On the national level, a nightmare scenario for conservatives could easily end up even worse than what Californians face: Disaffected Republicans don’t just cast protest votes for Libertarian candidates, or stay home, but end up forming an entirely new political party. The challenge facing national Republicans today isn’t merely that of wooing Libertarians back into the GOP fold. It is convincing the pro-Trump and anti-Trump factions to remain under the same tent. 

And by the way, as all of this plays out, why aren’t billionaire conservatives pouring money into the Green Party so they can run viable candidates, everywhere, splitting the liberal vote?

The jungle primary in California, and now the jungle recall in California, evokes a basic strategic question: How can the GOP conduct an unofficial, voluntary but binding primary process, prior to the actual jungle primary or jungle recall, that reflects the general will of their registrants but nonetheless limits the number of GOP candidates? Will John Cox step aside to let only Kevin Faulconer run for California governor in the recall? Will Kevin Faulconer step aside to give John Cox a better chance as the lone conservative contender? 

Such a decision is not without precedent. In 2003, a tearful but heroic Darryl Issa stepped aside to give the more electable Arnold Schwarzenegger a better chance, and Schwarzenegger won. Issa’s decision was all the more commendable since he had been one of the primary funders of the recall campaign against incumbent Gray Davis.

Lots of Animals in the Jungle

Then again, the metaphor “jungle” is appropriate. Almost anyone can get their name on a recall ballot. Who will jump in? The 2003 recall saw 135 candidates. Will Larry Elder run? Will former Ambassador Richard Grenell run? What about another celebrity like Schwarzenegger? Why not? There are a lot of animals in the jungle.

The political opportunity in California with the upcoming recall is bigger than the outcome of the election. It is a chance to put the entire failed legacy of Democratic rule on trial. 

And even in the event of a nightmare outcome—the replacement of Newsom with an even more extreme Democrat—there is a silver lining. Californians will experience, to the extent they haven’t already experienced it, the full weight of one-party rule by leftist fanatics, environmentalist extremists, social justice “woke” warriors, public-sector unions, corrupt business special interests, and the billionaire oligarchs that pull the strings on these myriad marionettes. It can’t possibly end well.

If things go from bad to worse in California, and voters have to endure an acceleration of failed leadership from Democrats, they will be ready to vote for ballot initiatives and reform candidates offering new policies to an electorate that is finally paying attention.

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About Edward Ring

Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He is also the director of water and energy policy for the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. Ring is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).

Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / POOL/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images