California Gov. Gavin Newsom and his allies have spent the past few weeks ahead of Tuesday’s recall making one direct pitch to Democratic voters – “Vote no and go” – asking them to vote “no” on ousting Newsom and send their ballots back without bothering to answer the second question about whom they would like to replace him.
For Newsom, an embattled Democratic governor who’s taken heat for his pandemic restrictions as well as the state’s drought and wildfire crises, the strategy is about turnout. Running in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1, Newsom’s ability to keep his job rests on getting those Democratic voters to return their ballots. Republicans have a clear math problem in the state, but they’ve got enthusiasm on their side in this election, which means the pro-Newsom camp cannot afford for Democratic voters to be apathetic – or even slightly confused about the Golden State’s recall process and its two-sided ballot.
Voters will be asked two questions. One, do they want to recall Newsom; and two, whom do they want to replace him? The thinking is that if voters feel confused about the list of more than 40 names of potential Newsom replacements who are largely unknown, they might hold on to their ballots longer or skip voting altogether because they don’t have time to do the “research” or make an informed decision.
So far, Newsom’s gambit seems to be paying off with reams of Democratic voters returning their ballots early. But it has infuriated some of the Democratic replacement candidates like financial analyst and real estate investor Kevin Paffrath, who argue it is undemocratic to convince voters that they don’t have other choices on the ballot.
Paffrath and other Newsom critics believe that the advice to skip question two is self-serving – protecting Newsom from the embarrassment of having to face a real Democratic challenger in the recall contest or when he runs for governor again in 2022.
“It’s either stupid or sabotage,” said Paffrath, who has 1.7 million followers on his YouTube channel. He notes that the Newsom team’s effort to get Democratic voters to ignore other candidates has made it hard for him to engage their interest on his ideas to address the housing crisis, homelessness and the cost of living.
“I think it’s stupid, because Californians should vote on a backup. If Gov. Newsom loses the recall and Californians didn’t consolidate around a backup Democrat, then you just guaranteed a win for a Republican,” Paffrath said. He reasoned that if Democrats had consolidated around a backup candidate within their own party, they would “very likely be able to beat any of the Republicans running right now.”
While there are nine Democrats running, none of them are well-known candidates, which has caused some consternation among Democrats who are not close to Newsom about the lack of a fallback option. The fear is that Californians could vote to recall Newsom, perhaps angered by his pandemic response and the state’s wildfire, housing and homelessness crises, but that there’d be no strong Democratic alternative to replace him with. Under state law, a majority would have to vote remove Newsom, but if he is removed, the replacement candidate receiving the highest number of votes will be elected for the remainder of the governor’s term, which ends January 2023. That means that a new governor could be elected with a simple plurality.
That was especially a concern this summer when conservative talk show host Larry Elder, a Republican, shot to the top of the pack in polling of the replacement candidates.
The fear of a Republican winning has subsided some as Democrats have watched Newsom successfully weaponize the ideological contrast between himself and Elder, casting the leading GOP candidate as a Trump acolyte and trying to make the race about national issues that will energize the Democratic base.
Democratic consultant Michael Trujillo said Newsom and the Democratic Party ultimately made “an informed gamble” by telling their voters not to fill out question two.
“What Team Newsom was doing was preventing anyone from falling in love with any of the replacement candidates,” Trujillo said. “So, if you don’t fall in love with them, then you disincentivize anyone from voting ‘yes’ on the recall. That’s the whole play there.”
But critics like Paffrath don’t see it that way, arguing that this year’s recall is very different from 2003, the first and last time a California governor was successfully recalled. Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger ran as a moderate that year and was ushered into office after voters ousted the unpopular Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
“There is no Arnold on the ballot this time – there’s nobody with that broad love that Arnold had when he went in,” Paffrath said. “I think the 2003 election is their excuse, but it’s mostly motivated out of selfishness to keep Gavin,” Paffrath said of Newsom and his team.
There are nearly two-dozen replacement candidates who aren’t aligned with the Republican Party, but Newsom’s team argues that urging voters to skip question two is the only way to prevent a Republican takeover of California.
When Davis was recalled in 2003, there had been another well-known Democrat on the ballot. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante had entered the race as the backup option for Democrats, and was castigated for many years afterward (fairly or unfairly) as the spoiler. Though Bustamante said he opposed the recall at the time, the conventional wisdom was that his presence in the race gave Democrats who loathed Davis an excuse to vote “yes” on recalling him, because they could justify their vote by choosing another Democrat to replace him.
In that statewide special recall election in October 2003, 55.4% of voters said they wanted to recall Davis. When asked who they wanted to replace him, 48.6% chose Schwarzenegger and 31.5% chose Bustamante.
Even if early ballot return data suggests Newsom’s strategy is paying off – with Democrats overperforming their registration level in the state as of Saturday – and Newsom’s odds for keeping his office improving, according to the latest polling, many voters are still struggling with what to do with the second question.
About half of likely voters (49%) in a Public Policy Institute of California survey released last week either said they had not decided on a potential replacement candidate or that they were skipping the second ballot question altogether.
Of those who expressed a preference, 26% favored Elder while the other prominent replacement candidates were in single digits: former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer at 5%, businessman John Cox at 3%, state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley at 3% and Caitlyn Jenner at 1%. (The other potential replacement candidates were not named, according to PPIC).
A quarter of likely voters said they wouldn’t choose anyone or wouldn’t vote on that question; while a similar 24% said they didn’t know.
Among Democrats, 37% said they did not favor anyone or wouldn’t vote; while 30% said they were unsure; and 16% said they planned to vote for someone else who is not named in the second ballot question, which could include a write-in.
To clarify confusion for voters who don’t understand why they need to vote for a potential recall candidate if they just answered a ballot question saying they want to keep their governor, the California Secretary of State’s office has advised voters that the questions are separate from each other and that they are not required to answer both in order for their vote to count.
Despite concerns among Democrats like Paffrath that the effort by Newsom and his allies to get voters to skip the second question could deprive them of a solid backup option, some anti-recall voters said they were unbothered by the strategy.
“I read in the news that Newsom preferred for us to send it back with just a ‘no’ – don’t even put another choice,” said Democrat Lauren Wood, a 71-year-old singer songwriter who attended Newsom’s rally with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Saturday.
Wood said she was trying not to be anxious about the fact that Democrats don’t have a backup to Newsom. “I hope, I pray that he’s not going to be recalled. It pisses me off that we’re wasting this money on a recall when the election is in a year,” she said.
“The horrible, horrible shock was when (Donald) Trump won. So, if that happened, this (recall) could happen. I just hope Democrats aren’t complacent about this.”