CNN  — 

Earlier this year, when California Gov. Gavin Newsom was searching for the right message to convince disengaged Democrats to vote against the effort to oust him in Tuesday’s recall election, it would have been impossible to imagine a more perfect foil than conservative talk radio host Larry Elder.

In this deep blue state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1 and only one governor has successfully been recalled, few progressive voters had viewed the recall of their governor as a real possibility until late July, when the polls tightened. The Delta coronavirus variant was taking hold, angering many vaccinated Californians, who had thought the worst was behind them. And Elder, who had announced his candidacy earlier that month, emerged as Newsom’s chief opponent, promising that one of his first acts would be to eliminate the governor’s mandate for state workers to get vaccinated or else face weekly testing.

Many Democratic voters in a state that President Joe Biden won by nearly 30 points had not engaged or paid much attention as Newsom made an amorphous argument that the recall was an attempted Republican takeover by acolytes of former President Donald Trump and a symbol of the enduring hold of “Trumpism.”

But in Elder, Newsom gained a direct target who he could argue was “to the right of Donald Trump” and who would take California “off the Covid cliff,” citing the experiences of Florida and Texas and their conservative anti-mask-mandate governors as the model Elder would follow in responding to the pandemic. Elder’s long history on the radio and as a columnist provided reams of controversial statements for opposition researchers and journalists to scrutinize on other topics, like his disparaging comments about women – a key demographic for Newsom.

The sharp contrast between Newsom and Elder, specifically on managing the virus, allowed the Democratic governor to crystallize the choice for his party’s voters. He sounded the alarm that because of California’s unusual recall rules, it would take a majority to recall him on the ballot’s first question, but that if that effort succeeded, his replacement could be chosen by a small fraction of voters. (On the ballot’s second question, voters are choosing from a list of more than 40 candidates, and Elder has maintained a wide lead within that field).

Elder’s threat changed the Newsom strategy – and the trajectory of the race.

“There was a growing sense amongst political insiders that the anti-recall campaign’s focus on Donald Trump as the evil force we had to defeat was losing traction,” said Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, who is the publisher of the California Target Book, which tracks election and campaign finance data in the state. “Then his alter ego shows up in a state where Donald Trump got about a third of the vote. … Somebody smiled on Gavin Newsom and presented California voters with the opportunity to listen to Larry Elder.”

The Covid contrast

California Democrats were aghast once they began hearing Elder’s past remarks about women, his endorsement of pregnancy discrimination, his opposition to abortion rights and the minimum wage, and his skepticism of the climate crisis, among many other topics.

But Democrats recoiled most virulently from his views on Covid and his opposition to mask and vaccine mandates – positions that are sharply at odds with the majority of Californians, including many independents and some Republicans.

At the same time that Covid cases in children were growing at an exponential rate and hospitals in some Southern states were once again filling up with unvaccinated patients, Newsom was able to spend millions on television ads making the case that voters faced a “life or death” choice in the September 14 election.

“After all the years of hardcore far-right things that Larry had said, that reinforced the threat of what he was saying about Covid,” said veteran California Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. “Everybody believed he meant it.”

Anne Dunsmore, the campaign manager for the pro-recall group known as Rescue California, said Newsom’s effort to villainize Elder halted some of the momentum that she had been seeing for the recall effort among voters of all political persuasions: “He was unsuccessful to that point painting the picture around a face – ‘Here’s the face of what you’re going to have if you don’t elect me,’ ” she said. But with Elder, she added, Newsom “cast major fear upon the electorate.”

Newsom acknowledged Saturday that Elder had helped galvanize and grab the attention of Democrats who might have otherwise skipped the election, calling him “extreme even by extreme standards.”

“So I think people certainly have woken up to that,” Newsom told reporters at a campaign event in Oakland. “Larry Elder certainly makes the contrast with this campaign, this candidacy, much easier to express.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder speaks during a news conference in Los Angeles earlier this month.

Elder, 69, is vaccinated and claims that he is not “anti-vax,” but he also says that the choice unvaccinated people are making should be respected. He has made inaccurate statements about vaccines and masking, including in a recent CNN interview, when he said he doesn’t “believe the science suggests that young people should be vaccinated” or wear masks in school.

The talk radio host has suggested that Democrats and the press are using the controversies to distract from what he views as Newsom’s poor record as he blames the governor for steep job losses during the pandemic and the fact that many public school students could not attend class in person.

“This is about California losing business; this is about California losing jobs,” Elder said at a recent news conference. “It is about our poor government – schools where our kids were already behind a whole year, now they are behind another year, because Gavin Newsom ignored science and shut down schools even when the (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) said that people can go back to school.”

A bold agenda, but a tenuous connection with voters

For most of his career, Newsom, 53, had always been more tolerated than beloved by Democratic voters.

He had championed a bold and forward-leaning agenda on progressive priorities like the climate crisis, universal health care and LGBTQ rights – entering the national spotlight when he issued the first marriage licenses to same-sex couples as mayor of San Francisco in 2004.

But in interviews, voters often said they had difficulty relating to the impeccably coiffed scion of a politically connected San Francisco family who made millions by building an empire of wineries, restaurants and other businesses in partnership with philanthropist Gordon Getty.

Newsom first ran for governor in 2009 but withdrew after failing to gain traction in the polls and raising little money as then-California Attorney General Jerry Brown loomed as the likely heavyweight in the race. Newsom ultimately ran for lieutenant governor, and in a 2018 New Yorker profile he described himself as “undeserving” in that first gubernatorial race. “Jerry was the better candidate,” Newsom told the magazine.

More seasoned when he ran for governor in 2018, Newsom clobbered GOP businessman John Cox, who is running this year to replace him in the recall, winning with more than 60% of the vote. Brown appeared at a rally with Newsom shortly before that year’s election, praising his “vision” for California, but also joking that he’d be watching from his ranch about an hour from Sacramento: “So, Gavin, do not screw up.”

The 2020 effort to recall the Democratic governor started small – and initially appeared to have little chance – when signature gathering began that June by a group of conservative activists who didn’t like Newsom’s positions on immigration, taxes and the death penalty and his handling of the state’s homelessness crisis.

But frustration was building among conservatives, business owners and some parents about what they viewed as Newsom’s ever-changing pandemic regulations and shutdowns. In November, recall proponents got a major boost when a judge extended the deadline by four months for them to collect enough signature petitions to qualify for the ballot.

That same month, Newsom attended an unmasked birthday dinner at the elite Napa Valley restaurant The French Laundry while urging Californians to stay home and avoid gatherings outside their households to stop the spread of Covid. The now-infamous misstep – for which Newsom has apologized – symbolized what many recall proponents disliked about the governor.

Dunsmore said that at that point “the spigots turned on” in both fundraising and signature collections for the pro-recall side. Newsom was their best asset, she said, because so many Californians were angry about what they perceived as his hypocrisy and shifting Covid regulations.

“There was a wave of discontent. He turned it into a tsunami,” she said. “We just channeled it.”

The recall qualified for the ballot in late April and, after many administrative steps, the lieutenant governor in July set the date for the fall election, kicking the recall campaign into high gear.

As soon as they had a date, Newsom’s “Stop the Republican Recall” campaign joined forces with some 90 labor and community groups to call, text and knock on the doors of millions of voters to educate them about the ballot and the unusual timing of the September election. Newsom raised more than $70 million for the effort, dominating all of the candidates vying to replace him. Under California’s fundraising rules, elected officials who are targeted by recalls are not subject to the contribution or expenditure limits that apply to candidates trying to replace them.

All of the state’s more than 22 million registered voters were mailed ballots this summer, and early in-person voting began as soon as September 4 in some areas of the state.

More than 8.4 million preelection ballots had been cast as of Monday, according to data from Edison Research, which is 47% of the total votes cast in the state in 2020. Despite some earlier concerns from Democrats about a lack of interest in the election among their voters, they appear to be coming to Newsom’s rescue, with 52% of the preelection ballots cast coming from registered Democratic voters and 25% from registered Republican voters, according to Edison’s data.

GOP strategists are counting on Republicans, some of whom have been skeptical of mail-in voting because of Trump’s false claims, voting in person on Election Day. But because Republicans are so outnumbered – making up just 24.1% of the state’s electorate to Democrats’ 46.5% – the GOP’s chances of ousting the governor hinge on a huge Republican turnout and meager Democratic participation once all the ballots are counted. That scenario has looked increasingly unlikely.

Newsom’s campaign advisers said that in the end, the anti-recall message could be distilled into one thought: that a “yes” vote for the recall meant electing “a pro-Trump, anti-vaccine Republican who was going to reverse the mandates on day one.”

Republican strategist Rob Stutzman noted that Elder’s position on vaccine and mask mandates has been at odds even with the views of a fair number of Republican voters. “The idea of vaccination mandates for health care workers, public employees – and of mask mandates – are popular, and even 40% of Republicans, according to a CBS poll a couple weeks ago, support that,” he said, referring to a CBS News/YouGov survey question from August that asked whether a private business or employer should be allowed to mandate vaccines for its employees. More than 4 in 10 Republicans said yes. “So what Newsom is doing at the moment on Covid sits very well with the majority of voters.”

National Democratic leaders, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Vice President Kamala Harris and Biden, flocked to California to help Newsom frame the contrast on Covid, knowing that the recall election is an early test of the White House’s and Democrats’ pandemic management ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

“The eyes of the nation are on California,” Biden said at a rally with Newsom Monday night, repeatedly linking Elder to Trump.

It’s a reality Newsom’s team is well aware of. “The message that should be taken from this campaign is also a very simple message, which is: Don’t be timid on Covid,” said Newsom adviser Ace Smith. “The governor took bold action on mandates and masks, and the campaign seized on that and used it to literally create a simple decision for voters: ‘Do you want to be safe? Do you want your communities to be safe? Do you want your schools to stay open?’ “

“I believe on Election Day, you’re going to see a clear mandate not only against the recall, but for sanity on something as important as health,” Smith said.

Tuesday’s turnout – and the eventual results – will prove whether that theory holds.