California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s campaign to retain his seat as governor is focusing on a pair of main themes, one quite clear and the other far less so.
The primary thrust of the campaign has been an effort to “nationalize” the race, with Newsom consistently raising the specter of Donald Trump, Trumpism, white supremacy, virulent nationalism, and “conspiracism” while only very rarely – and only when directly asked – discussing California issues like crime, homelessness, fire prevention, housing costs, taxes, and the like.
This deflective posture – from day one – has been clear to most political experts, many of whom believe that the governor’s inability to connect to voters and his thin record make this the only possible way to run the campaign.
“You won’t be hearing a lot of policy from the Newsom campaign,” said Isaac Hale, a postdoctoral scholar at the UC Santa Barbara Blum Center. “They will take every opportunity they can to nationalize this election.”
The strategy has manifested itself in numerous ways, all the way from the name of Newsom’s campaign committee – “Stop the Republican Recall” – to his constant invocation of Trump to his demand that Democrats around the country realize “what’s at stake” in the election.
“Newsom is clearly struggling to motivate his own base to turn out,” said UC-Berkeley and USC Professor Dan Schnur. “So nationalizing the election and demonizing the opposition may be his best chance.”
Another aspect of the nationalization effort has been brought up, if not by the campaign bluntly so far, and that is the possibility that Senator Dianne Feinstein may not complete her term, leaving open the potential that a Republican governor could appoint her replacement, thereby breaking the 50-50 senatorial deadlock in the GOPs favor. To this point in the campaign, the prospect has been vocalized at stage whisper levels by friendly media voices not obviously and directly connected to the campaign, but that could change if the now toss-up state of the race worsens for Newsom.
“If they get desperate, we’re going to be hearing a lot more about Feinstein,” Hale said.
Without having a direct opponent to run against, making the campaign primarily about someone or something other than Newsom allows the governor to create, control, and run against what they believe to be a very dislikable straw-man. While it is true that Newsom has in the last few days started attacking replacement candidate Larry Elder individually, those broadsides have prominently featured Elder’s putative ties to national conservative figures, movements, and ideas.
“The problem is that Newsom is unappealing generally, so they have to come up with some other strategy,” said author, columnist, and Chapman University Professor Joel Kotkin (long-time Democrat, now registered “no party preference”). “While Newsom is just creepy and vacuous, Trump is loathsome and a better target.”
There are definite advantages to a “national” campaign as it allows Newsom to tap other, more popular figures to act as campaign surrogates, more easily raise funds to add the kiloton of money he has on hand (Newsom has spent and will spend in the coming weeks much much more money than all of the other campaigns – the recall effort itself included – combined), and it could energize a key part of his base – the public sector unions.
“The outcome of the recall depends on exactly one thing: making sure Democratic voters know there is a recall, asking them to vote ‘no,’ and making sure they cast their ballot,” said Darry Sragow, longtime Democratic strategist and currently the publisher of the nonpartisan political reference repository California Target Book. “There are twice as many Democrats than Republicans in California – the math speaks for itself.”
The Newsom campaign is relying on organized “ballot harvesters” and the highly motivated and experienced public sector union foot soldiers, few of whom missed a paycheck because of the pandemic, to carry much of the logistical weight of getting out that vote.
Another non-policy issue that has emerged is the calling of the recall process itself into question. While about half of voters say they support the recall, well more than half say they want someone else to be governor come the next regular election. This has led to Newsom allies to call the process “illegitimate,” a “circus,” “unconstitutional,” “undemocratic,” etc. While this ignores the simple fact that the Newsom administration, with its legislative supermajority, could have at least tried to significantly change the process (beyond the tinkering around the edges that was done purely to benefit Newsom), it could influence those voters who seem to feel the whole concept is somehow unfair.
The filing of a federal lawsuit Monday challenging the constitutionality of the recall dovetails perfectly with this strategy. The suit argues – as UC Berkeley law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky did in his New York Times editorial recently – that the process violates a “core constitutional principle” of “one person, one vote” and should at least be modified before the election if not scrapped altogether. The legal argument upon which the suit is based can be described as “novel” (a polite word for ‘No, really? You’re kidding, right?’) and it is widely expected to fail, but it does however give the Newsom campaign a new, serious sounding talking point. While it is unclear if the Newsom campaign itself was involved in the process, Chemerinsky and his co-author, Professor Aaron Edlin, did specifically plead for such a lawsuit to be filed as soon as possible.
While “Vote no because Trump is bad” may not actually make any literal sense in a strictly California election, it is a rather clear and simple message to get across to voters. But the campaign’s recent foray into asking its supporters to leave the second question on the ballot – who should replace him if he loses the recall? – is a far murkier proposition.
Asking voters to do something unusual – purposefully leave half of their ballot blank – in an unusual election during this period of unusual focus on election integrity issues has many observers scratching their heads.
“By urging supporters to ignore the second question, Newsom is essentially telling us that he doesn’t care what happens to the state if he is removed from office,” Schnur said. “Not only does this message muddle the issue, it increases the likelihood that the most conservative candidate – the one who would be least acceptable to Newsom’s supporters – is elected.”
This new tack seems to be an effort to fill in the gap left by the lack of a “big name” Democrat fallback candidate, a tactical move by the Newsom campaign that may come back and bite the party badly.
“He is an ambitious politician who – when he looks in the mirror – sees a future President of the United States,” Hale said. “He didn’t really want a big-name backup, which may be personally good for him but of dubious value to the party. It benefits his chances, not the parties.”
The “First Vote No, Then Don’t Vote” – recently re-branded as “Just Vote No” – concept could have other ramifications. If the recall succeeds and current Republican front runner Larry Elder becomes governor, the thinking may be that in a regular election Elder could be easily defeated thereby opening up a clearer path for Newsom (whose 2022 campaign committee is already up and running) to possibly stage one of the biggest political comebacks in history (if the leading Democrat, Kevin Paffrath, were to prevail the path becomes a bit more awkward as it would involve attacking a fellow party member directly, but quite certainly feasible).
While this concept does not take into account that many, many legitimate Democratic contenders looking to move up a rung four years earlier than expected would also run, a close recall loss that left Newsom, for lack of a better term, with “more” votes than the actual winner could signal a certain amount of political staying power (such a result could at least be used to tar the loss as “illegitimate,” at least in the public sphere if the Chemerinsky-inspired lawsuit fails).
Hale doubts the campaign has thought this far ahead and, while he believes the message is both “confusing and unnecessary” that it will be drowned out by the “vote no, you can’t let the Republicans take the seat” argument.
Over the next four weeks California voters will be deluged with ads and texts and calls and door knockers telling them to make sure to keep a Democrat in the governor’s mansion. But, other than the fact that he’s already there, they will not be hearing much about why it specifically needs to be Gavin Newsom.