Hits and misses from the California recall election

In the end, it wasn’t even close.

© Justin Sullivan/Getty Images California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to union workers and volunteers on election day at the IBEW Local 6 union hall on September 14, 2021 in San Francisco, California.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom crushed the effort to recall him, winning himself the second half of his first term and a major mandate for the way he has sought to lead the state through the Covid-19 pandemic.

I sifted through the results and came up with some of the biggest hits — and misses — of the campaign that was. They’re below.

Hits

* Gavin Newsom: Yes, the recall only likely got on the ballot because of a self-induced error by Newsom: Being photographed, unmasked, at a ritzy northern California restaurant even as he was imposing strict Covid-19 measures statewide. And, yes, he probably would have liked to avoid the whole recall fight entirely. But, there’s also no question that such a convincing victory — and the national attention the race drew — gives Newsom a boost both for the remainder of his term and for his near-certain bid for a second term. Also, remember this: National office remains very much on the mind of Newsom. And this recall fight did nothing but help his profile in the activist and donor worlds.

* Larry Elder: Ask yourself this: Had you ever heard of Larry Elder before this recall campaign? Yeah, I thought so. While Newsom’s convincing win on the recall question made the “replace” question on the ballot pointless, it is worth noting — as NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald did — that Elder wound up getting almost 47% of the vote among almost four dozen candidates running to replace Newsom. That’s far above where polling had him — generally in the high 20s — and suggests the Trumpist base of the party turned out for Elder. All of that means that Elder has a future in GOP politics in the state going forward. (The LA Times suggested he had emerged as the “putative leader of the state’s Republican Party.”) All of which is a MAJOR win for Elder.

* Polling: Everyone loves to run down the polling industry when the consensus of numbers miss the mark in a race. But almost no one acknowledges when the polls get it right. And they quite clearly got it right in this election. The data over the past two weeks had shown Newsom pulling into a wide and comfortable lead on the recall question. And that’s exactly what happened on Tuesday.

* Democratic strategists: The big question in the coming 2022 midterm elections is how Democrats can fire up their party base given that they control the White House, House and Senate, a sure-fire recipe for political lethargy. Newsom was battling that same lack of passion in this race — right up until he started to shine a very bright light on Elder as a Donald Trump clone. Even though the former president wasn’t on the California ballot, he was, quite clearly, a vote motivator for plenty of base Democrats in the state. Of course, most states aren’t as strongly Democratic as California. But, even so, if even the prospect of Trump or one of his acolytes can (still) drive base turnout, that’s a valuable piece of information for Democrats heading into the midterms.

* Coronavirus competence: More than 3 in 10 California voters on Tuesday said that the coronavirus was the most pressing issue facing the nation right now. And Newsom won 80% of their votes. He had turned his messaging in the final days of the campaign to one centered on his competence in dealing with the virus and his willingness to make the hard choices necessary to get it under control in the state. “‘No’ is not the only thing that was expressed tonight,” Newsom said in his victory speech. “We said yes to science, yes to vaccines, yes to ending this pandemic.” You can be sure that Joe Biden and his team were watching the recall closely — and will be gratified by the vote of confidence for Covid competence since that is at the core of the argument the President is making to the public right now.

Misses

* The California recall process: What a colossal waste of time and money! Estimates suggest the recall could cost the state upwards of $300 million. And for what? To see a relatively popular Democratic governor win almost two-thirds of the vote? Even before Newsom crushed the recall, there was chatter about changing the (relatively lax) recall rules in the state to make it more difficult to get such a measure on the ballot. Which would be a smart move.

* Establishment Republicans: There’s very little chance that Republicans will be winning a regularly-scheduled gubernatorial election in California anytime soon. But there was quite clearly an opportunity during this recall to do just that. Newsom had been badly damaged by his hypocrisy on Covid-19 guidelines and there was a significant chunk of Californians fed up with the status quo. (Don’t believe me? Just go back and look at the polling from about six weeks ago.) The problem for Republicans is they had no Arnold Schwarzenegger — or anyone with even a smidgen of the Governator’s cross-party appeal. That Elder, a conservative talk radio show host, emerged as the strongest Republican candidate speaks primarily to how incredibly weak the GOP bench in the state actually is.

* Caitlyn Jenner: For all of the national attention that Jenner’s initial announcement drew, her campaign was a MASSIVE flop. She drew just over 1% of the total statewide vote on the “replace” question, a paltry showing given her name identification and celebrity. Jenner, of course, may have gotten exactly what she hoped for from the race — reels of footage for some upcoming reality TV project. But, as a political candidate? Jenner was a giant dud.

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