Earlier this year, prominent Democrats across California, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) have urged other Democrats not to enter the recall election, focusing entirely on the first part of the recall ballot keeping Governor Gavin Newsom in. To date, no major Democratic candidates have joined in the second part of the ballot that allows Californians to select a new candidate, a list that currently includes former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, former Congressman Doug Ose, 2018 Gubernatorial candidate John Cox, and reality TV star and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner.
And for many experts watching the 2021 recall, this puts Newsom and Democrats in a dicey position.
“It’s confounding that the Democrats didn’t put some sort of candidate in,” former lobbyist Harry Schultz, who helped lobby during the 2003 Gray Davis recall, explained to the Globe on Monday. “They think that that by standing with Newsom as the only candidate, people in the state would have a straight ‘Newsom or Republican’ option. They think this gives him more votes, and granted, it may. But what they have done is put all their eggs in one basket. And they don’t really want to acknowledge what would happen if that basket falls.”
“The truth is that Newsom is a very scandal-prone Governor. Even back when he was Mayor of San Francisco in the mid 2000’s, he wasn’t immune. I can give a highlight reel, but I’ll name a big one, his affair with his secretary, whom he gave $10,000 for mental illness pay. He barely got out of legal trouble for that one. Lieutenant Governor, same deal. Scandals here and there.
“But when he was Governor, you really saw how much it could sink him. He was initially praised for taking COVID-19 head on, but by late 2020, it was unravelling. Business were getting hit hard with little to no relief, and despite saying that Californians should follow all the guidelines and lambasted those that didn’t, he was found at an expensive restaurant with a large group of people not even bothering with PPE or social distancing. They were even eating inside at a time where that broke numerous health guidelines. These were on top of so many other things. And look at what that did, it helped propel the recall movement significantly.
“So he is not only prone to scandals, but those scandals hurt him politically. And if a big one comes up later this year, akin to the ones New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been dogging for months and nearly led to his resignation, then that means Newsom may go.”
While the 2003 recall election had then-Governor Gray Davis in a very unpopular position from the announcement of the recall months before, largely due to energy company bailouts, the early 2000’s California energy crisis, accusations of political campaign corruption, the doubling of car registration fees, and multiple other factors, Newsom is entering the 2021 recall election with not nearly as much baggage, and arguably even some goodwill due to the rapidly falling COVID-19 rates and proposed $600 stimulus checks for Californians making $75,000 or below.
Feelings against the Democrat Party also aren’t as negative as they were in 2003 when Arnold Schwarzenegger won the recall election with 48.6% of the vote, beating Democratic then-Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante despite other prominent Republicans grabbing large percentages of the vote, including Congressman Tom McClintock (R-CA) who managed to come in 3rd with 13.4% of the vote.
Democrats refusal of a backup candidate could cost them
However, one wrong move by Newsom now could cost him and the party, with no Democratic candidate offered.
“Past elections are filled with the other party winning because the party in power fails to make some sort of contingency plan,” said Karen Harris, an election consultant, to the Globe. “We have sacrificial lamb candidates put up all the time just in case the other party screws up, and they win often enough. Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) won his first election in 1980 after his Democratic opponent got embroiled in the Abscam scandal. He was a 27-year-old kid who the party put in just to have someone just in case, and look what happened. Same thing happened to [former] Congressman Michael Flanagan in Chicago in the mid 90’s. There was a scandal with the sitting Democrat so bad that a Republican won in Chicago. And he was only in because he thought it would be fun to run.”
“And these are just two prominent ones. There are many more examples. And this is what the Democrats are risking by not putting in a candidate. If something happens with Newsom, which honestly is a decent possibility considering that San Francisco gets almost as many corruption cases as Chicago, the Democrats are out.”
“They aren’t even putting in some young gun in there who could use the attention for a tight upcoming 2022 race, like Congresswoman Katie Porter (D-CA). Someone who can use that recognition and possibly throw their high percentages in the recall race to shine their political resume. Or giving attention to a rising Democratic star. Presidential candidates do that with proposed Vice Presidential or Cabinet members all the time when they aren’t given as sunset posts.”
“Newsom is doing better now poll-wise, but it’s also only June. A lot can happen in 4-5 months. 4-5 months ago Newsom’s polls were cratering. Democrats are pretty much betting that nothing major will go wrong, which, is risky. They do know they are betting on nothing major going wrong in California or the Governor not making a huge mistake for a long stretch of time, right?”
Newsom may make it through the recall election untouched by more scandals, but if not, the Democrats would be left with no other candidate and would essentially give the election to the highest vote garnering Republican.
“It’s quite the risk,” added Schultz. “It’s like deciding to buy stock in only one company. And who knows, it may be Apple, or it may be Enron.”