As polls have tightened dramatically in recent weeks in the effort to recall Gavin Newsom, the Democratic California governor and his allies have been warning of doomsday scenarios if he is ousted on September 14 and replaced by a conservative Republican bent on unraveling the state’s progressive agenda.
But as some of the major candidates vying to replace Newsom met for a debate in Sacramento Wednesday night – where they portrayed him as ill-equipped to handle the state’s many crises – there are some early signs that rank-and-file Democrats aren’t wasting time returning their vote-by-mail ballots in their effort to stop the recall.
Four of the most prominent candidates bidding to replace Newsom sharply criticized his record at the debate sponsored by KCRA 3 and the San Francisco Chronicle. Conservative talk radio host Larry Elder, the leading GOP candidate in recent polls, declined to participate, but several candidates still took shots at him in his absence.
GOP California Assemblymember Kevin Kiley asked voters of all political persuasions to view the recall as a chance for a fresh start – noting that a replacement governor would only serve for a little more than a year, through the end of Newsom’s term in January 2023. Citing the threat of California’s raging wildfires as a prime example, Kiley argued that the recall is not about partisanship, but rather about Californians’ frustration with a breakdown in the functioning of government and its ability to protect them.
“It’s about the failure of our government to do the most basic things like manage our forests, and the result, of course, is that communities are at risk, and we keep having these catastrophic events,” Kiley said. “Everything has continued to get worse. The quality of life in California has continued to decline. That is the story of modern California as epitomized by Gavin Newsom – that we sacrifice the most and get the least in return.”
RELATED: What you need to know about the California recall
Voters will be asked two questions on the ballot: the first, “yes” or “no” on whether they want to recall Newsom, and second, who they would like to see replace him. Forty-six candidates of all political persuasions are running to replace Newsom, including the other three who took part in Wednesday night’s forum: Republican businessman John Cox, who was trounced by Newsom in 2018 when the Democratic governor won with more than 60% of the vote, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Democrat Kevin Paffrath, a financial analyst and YouTuber. (Newsom, Elder and reality television star Caitlyn Jenner, a GOP candidate, declined to appear at the debate).
While most of the fire was directed at Newsom, Faulconer leveled a sharp attack at Elder, faulting the talk radio host for his past comments about women. He alluded to Elder’s endorsement of pregnancy discrimination in his books, which was first reported by Media Matters, and his assertion that women exaggerate sexism, one of an array of controversial past remarks that were chronicled by CNN’s KFile last week.
RELATED: ‘Women exaggerate the problem of sexism’: Top California recall candidate Larry Elder has a long history of making disparaging remarks about women
“His attack on working women is unconscionable,” Faulconer said of Elder. The former San Diego mayor then directly addressed working moms: “I’m going to support your right to raise a family, to have a career. Unlike what Larry Elder is talking about, I’m going to make sure that California’s daughters have the same opportunities as California’s sons. We need a governor that’s going to stand up for working women and knows that every woman in this state can have a career, can raise a family.”
Paffrath, who was the only Democrat on stage Wednesday night, also criticized Elder calling him a “threat” to Californians and accusing him of paling around “with his disinformation friends” on Fox News instead of joining the debate. He urged his Democrats to consider him as a replacement candidate, even though Newsom and Democratic Party leaders have urged their party’s voters to simply vote “no” on recalling the governor and return their ballots without answering the second question.
Paffrath, in his debate debut, and Faulconer sparred over their respective levels of experience during an exchange over what steps they would take to build more affordable housing in California.
“It’s not the time for on-the-job training, for YouTube, somebody that’s never actually had to get legislation across, actually had to get the units constructed and built,” Faulconer said to Paffrath. “I think that’s a clear difference between you and me, my friend. And that’s why it’s important that we elect a governor that can actually hit the ground on day one, who has success working with Democrats and Republicans to actually get housing across the finish line like we did in San Diego.”
Paffrath defended his experience and described himself as a “JFK-style Democrat who can work with our Democratic legislature.”
“I have 11 years working in real estate, and my experience doesn’t include ripping off my city,” Paffrath said, alluding to the controversy over several San Diego building acquisitions while Faulconer was mayor – the subject of a recent audit by the City Auditor of San Diego. “A vote for any Republican, including the ones who are not here, is a wasted vote,” Paffrath added.
Paffrath also injected fresh energy into the forum with his off-beat ideas, including building an interstate pipeline to Mississippi to help solve California’s water crisis.
The three Republican candidates argued that Newsom’s Covid-19 restrictions were too far-reaching. Cox called Newsom’s handling of Covid-19 a disaster.
“This state is a mismanaged mess,” Cox said. “His pandemic management was an inconsistent disaster… We don’t have water. We live in fear of fires. Crime is rising. Housing prices are out of sight. Taxes are out of sight. The homeless problem has only gotten worse… We’ve got to stop with these politicians and celebrities and get a businessman in there.”
While arguing that local school districts should make decisions about mask mandates in discussion with parents, Faulconer argued that Newsom has been too quick to create statewide mandates and regulations.
“Our state is very big, it’s very diverse. That’s the wrong approach,” Faulconer said. “Our schools should have been open this past semester…. My daughter should have been in school this last semester just like everybody else’s kids across California – in the classroom, safely learning with great teachers. Zoom was no substitute. We had a governor that didn’t understand that and we’re still dealing with those consequences now.”
Early returns look promising for Democrats
At a time when 22 million ballots have already been mailed to voters in the Golden State, Democrats and labor groups are engaged in an intensive push to convince their voters to participate after poll after poll has shown that Republican voters are more engaged and fired up than Democrats as the September 14 election draws near.
The intense canvassing push by Democrats and allied groups to counter disengagement among Democratic voters will get a boost from the White House on Friday when Vice President Kamala Harris, California’s former US senator, rallies voters with Newsom in the Bay area. The White House also announced Wednesday that President Joe Biden will campaign for Newsom in California at an unspecified date.
In raw numbers, Democrats have a clear advantage in a state where they outnumber Republicans by nearly two-to-one. But many longtime California strategists say it is difficult to predict what the turnout universe will look like in an off-year election in September where every single registered voter in the state will receive a ballot.
Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc. – a firm that does work for Democratic candidates, progressive organizations and non-partisan campaigns – said he is seeing “huge early numbers for Democrats” as his firm tracks the ballots that are being returned in real time.
But he noted that there are many caveats at this early stage. Democrats grew accustomed to voting by mail in 2020, while Republicans preferred voting later in person, in part because of the distrust engendered by former President Donald Trump with his many false assertions about the security of vote-by-mail ballots.
Mitchell also noted that many of the early ballots coming back are from two huge Democratic strongholds in the Golden State that sent their ballots out to voters earlier than many other counties: San Francisco and Los Angeles counties.
Still Mitchell and several other Democratic strategists said the very early trends in ballot returns look promising for Democrats who want to defeat the recall. As of Wednesday, Political Data Inc.’s tracker of ballots returned showed that of the 1.5 million sent back so far, 57% of them were Democratic ballots, while only 21% were GOP ballots.
“Like in that cycling Tour de France metaphor, Democrats are on this big breakaway,” Mitchell said in an interview. “They have a big lead, but this race is going to go on for three more weeks, and Republicans could definitely catch up.”