In the end, it wasn’t really even close.
California Governor Gavin Newsom easily survived his recall election on Tuesday, with voters rejecting his ouster by nearly two-to-one. The results won’t be official until next month, but as of now, the “no recall” vote leads by a resounding 27 percentage points. By any account, it was a big win for the third-rate politician who is utterly incapable of making a public statement without resorting to platitudes and clichés.
Was the election rigged? Some disappointed Larry Elder voters might want to think so. Certainly, there were some fishy stories, such as the bizarre arrest in Southern California last month of a man passed out in his car with 300 stolen ballots. And there were scattered reports this past week of voters being told they had already cast their ballots when they clearly had not.
Elder had the advantage of right-wing celebrity, which only goes so far in a cerulean blue state. He also made a point of appealing to black and Latino voters, who tend to be an afterthought for many GOP candidates. And the fact is, Elder drew nearly 2.4 million votes in a crowded field of 46 candidates. But the “no” vote on question one—the only question that mattered—currently stands at 5.8 million and counting. So even if one argues Elder didn’t “lose,” he certainly wouldn’t have had anything approaching a popular mandate had question one prevailed.
A truism of California politics goes something like this: if a ballot initiative—and we Californians love our ballot initiatives—polls at 60 percent or better before Labor Day, it has a good chance of winning in November. But if the early polls show the measure with 51 percent support, it faces an uphill climb come Election Day.
The same could be said of this recall. Newsom faced a legitimate threat as recently as two months ago, when a UC Berkeley poll found the “yes” vote was within the margin of error among likely voters. But it wasn’t so much a question of Newsom’s popularity as it was voter motivation. If enough Democratic voters didn’t bother to vote, there was a credible chance Newsom’s term could be cut short. Besides, nobody was really paying attention in July.
Two months and $70 million later, people were paying attention. Now we know the result.
In the end, though, why steal what you already own? Unlike Gray Davis in 2003, Newsom remained generally popular ahead of the election. Fifty-three percent of Californians approve of how Newsom has been doing his job, according to a poll published earlier this month by the nonpartisan, center-left Public Policy Institute of California. Forty-seven percent say the state is “headed in the right direction” (down from 56 percent in May.)
In other words, a solid plurality of Californians is OK with the status quo. They may dislike wildfires, rolling blackouts, sky-high gas prices, and the sight of homeless people shooting up and defecating on the sidewalks. But they did not see a viable political alternative—not when the Republican standard-bearer in the recall election advocates policies they emphatically reject.
It appears the election really was a referendum on Newsom’s hypocritical COVID-19 policies. And those hypocritical policies won in a landslide.
This is simply a fact that pro-freedom Californians will need to reckon with: vaccine mandates and mask requirements are very popular in the Golden State. This month’s PPIC survey found 61 percent of Californians favor requiring proof of COVID vaccination for large outdoor gatherings or certain indoor spaces. The same PPIC poll a year ago found that 34 percent of respondents wanted more COVID restrictions, 26 percent wanted fewer, and 39 percent wanted “about the same.” Most Californians, in short, are happy to comply.
Newsom and the Democrats caricatured the election as a “Republican recall,” but it really was a right-wing grassroots activist effort that succeeded in large part because a judge allowed petitions to circulate an extra four months. Republicans are a rump party in California for a reason. A Republican has not held statewide office in a decade. A great many Republican voters have left for other states. Many others have changed their party registration to “no party preference” out of dissatisfaction and disgust.
California “conservatives”—whatever that term might mean today—need to abandon our wishful thinking about savior politicians and do the tedious work of politics. That means laboring and building at the local level—beginning in our own neighborhoods. That means not only attending school board and city planning meetings but also running for those seemingly low-level posts because that’s how real candidates for higher office are made.
This is not an appeal for milquetoast moderation. Rather, it is an argument for seeing the state as it is and changing course accordingly. Larry Elder wasn’t going to save us. Nobody was ever coming to save us. We can only save ourselves.