California governor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday became the second governor in US history to defeat a recall election aimed at kicking him out of office early.
fter a contest he crafted as part of a national battle for his Democratic party’s values in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and lingering threats from Trumpism, the victory cemented Mr Newsom as a prominent figure in national Democratic politics, preserving his prospects for a future federal run.
It also ensured the US’s most populous state will remain in Democratic control as a laboratory for progressive policies on immigration, climate change, representation and inequality.
A Republican almost certainly would have replaced Newsom had the recall succeeded, bringing a polar opposite political worldview, though they would have had to contend with a state Capitol dominated by Democrats.
The recall, which turned on Mr Newsom’s approach to the pandemic, mirrored the nation’s heated political divide over business closures and mask and vaccine mandates, and both parties will dissect its outcome heading into the 2022 midterm elections.
President Joe Biden sought validation of the Democratic Party’s approach of tighter restrictions and vaccine requirements, urging Californians to show the nation that “leadership matters, science matters”.
The race was also a test of whether opposition to former President Donald Trump and his right-wing politics remains a motivating force for Democrats and independents.
“We defeated Donald Trump, we didn’t defeat Trumpism. Trumpism is still alive, all across this country,” Mr Newsom said as he campaigned in a state the former president lost by 29 percentage points.
Republicans had hoped for proof that frustrations over months of pandemic precautions would drive voters away from Democrats.
They also searched for evidence that voters were tiring of liberal leadership. Democrats have controlled every level of government in California for more than a decade, a period marked by a housing crisis and the increasingly damaging effects of climate change.
Republicans won back four US House seats last year, success that leaders hoped had indicated revived signs of life.
But a recall election is an imperfect barometer — particularly of national trends. Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1 in California, so the results may not translate to governors in toss-up states or reflect how voters will judge members of Congress next year. That the unusual contest was held at the tail end of summer meant some voters were not closely tuned in.
Voters were asked two questions: Should Mr Newsom be recalled, and, if so, who should replace him? Only a handful of the 46 names on the replacement ballot had any level of public recognition, but most failed to gain traction with voters.
Conservative talk radio host Larry Elder, who entered the race just three months before election day, quickly rose to the top of the pack. But that allowed Newsom to turn the campaign into a choice between the two men, rather than a referendum on his performance.
Mr Newsom seized on Mr Elder’s opposition to the minimum wage and abortion rights as evidence he was outside the mainstream of California. The governor branded him as “more extreme than Trump”, while Mr Biden called him “the closest thing to a Trump clone I’ve ever seen”.
Though Mr Newsom defeated the recall, he may soon be running against Mr Elder again. The governor is up for re-election next year, and the primary, which puts candidates from all parties on one ballot, is just nine months away.
The recall was initiated by an amateur political organiser, and around 1.5 million signatures from the public were needed to trigger the poll.