An effort to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) officially qualified for the state’s ballot on Monday, thrusting him into a fight for his job midway through his first term in office.
To make it onto the ballot, the Republican-led recall petition needed signatures from just shy of 1.5 million people, equal to 12% of the number of voters in the last election for the office. Supporters had until March 17 to meet that threshold, but election authorities just finished tallying. In the end, recall supporters submitted 1.626 million valid signatures.
Officials have not yet set a date for the election, which will ask voters two simple questions: Do they want to recall the governor? And if so, who would they like to replace him? The election will likely take place later this year.
The recall election comes with a price tag, too. Some officials have estimated it will cost $400 million, or about $18 per California voter. That’s more than double what was spent on the state’s elections in 2018.
Newsom, who won office by a landslide in 2018 and has some not-so-secret presidential aspirations, saw his popularity plummet during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the petition began circulating before the virus began spreading last year, the crusade grew teeth as the pandemic raged across California throughout the winter. At the same time, the state’s vaccine rollout ranked among the nation’s slowest.
Newsom became the target of frustrated Californians, particularly regarding business and school closures. He previously said he wouldn’t force teachers to return to in-person instruction, which teachers unions across the state say its members will not do until a certain vaccine threshold had been met. Educators opposed to hasty reopenings pointed to outbreaks across the country linked to in-person learning. They noted that the risk of disease is higher for low-income students of color.
Though Newsom’s popularity bounced back to more normal levels as vaccination rates increased and schools reopened, Republicans eager to unseat him seized on the school debate, promising they would do things differently. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Donald Trump supporter who finished two terms as mayor last year, kicked off his campaign against Newsom in early February with that talking point.
“Parents across California are fed up, and they are demanding that their kids be back in school. Public schools should start safely reopening now. Not next month. Not next year. Now,” said Faulconer, who arrived in his campaign announcement by school bus.
Newsom’s office slammed Faulconer, his most serious challenger yet, as an obvious opportunist.
“Trying to exploit a global pandemic to advance a political career exposes his craven ambition,” the governor’s chief strategist, Dan Newman, told HuffPost earlier this month.
Unseating Newsom may be a long shot now, polling shows. He has a solid majority of support among likely Democrat voters, and the improved state of the pandemic, the Public Policy Institute of California found, “is likely to determine the fate of the 2021 recall.”
Orange County, a traditionally red region of the state, is among the biggest contributors to the recall effort. Officials tallied more than 200,000 signatures from the 3 million-person county alone.
Other Republicans who have said they plan to challenge Newsom include businessman John Cox, who lost to the governor in 2018, the far-right conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, and athlete-turned-reality star Caitlyn Jenner. No serious Democratic challenger has entered the race ― yet.
Newsom must also contend with voters angry that he recently did allow for some parts of the economy, including outdoor dining, to reopen in January when case rates were still high across the state. An upscale, multi-household dinner also haunts him he was photographed attending in November. Though it was allowed under the guidelines at that time, he admitted that “the spirit of what I’m preaching all the time was contradicted.”
This marks the second time in the last 20 years ― and only the second time ever ― that a gubernatorial recall effort has made its way onto the ballot in California, which is one of just 19 states that allow voters to oust state officials before the end of their term.
California voters angry over an electricity crisis and a car tax increase did just that in 2003 and replaced Gov. Gray Davis with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s actor. He was one of a staggering 135 candidates to qualify for the race (including HuffPost founder Arianna Huffington), which doesn’t require a majority to win and hands the victory to whoever rakes in the most votes. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, ascended to power with just 48.6% support and served two terms in the deep blue state.
But the circumstances are different today. While Davis won his election by a mere five-point margin in 2002, Newsom won by 24 points. Moreover, the Democratic Party now has a stronger foothold in California than it did at the time, going from a nine-point edge to a 22-point edge today.