Arnie 2.0? California governor unlikely to fret over new recall vote, say experts
Eighteen years after Arnold Schwarzenegger stormed to power, California is likely to hold its second-ever governor recall election — but this time campaign veterans say the odds are stacked in incumbent Gavin Newsom’s favour.
Confirmation is expected this month that an anti-Newsom petition, fueled by his handling of the pandemic, reached the number of signatures needed to trigger the fourth governor recall vote in US history.
Voters would be asked if Newsom — a Democrat — should go, and who they want to replace him if he does.
Former Olympic gold-winner and Kardashian clan member Caitlyn Jenner is among those reportedly weighing a Republican bid to replace the suave 53-year-old from San Francisco, whose popularity fell last summer after he ordered the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home order.
But Dan Schnur, former communications director to Republican California governor Pete Wilson, said Newsom “is probably more annoyed than he is nervous.”
Donald Trump is loathed by many coastal Californians, and because most Republicans vying to replace Newsom either endorsed the ex-president or else are not credible and well-known, it is “very difficult to see how anyone can succeed,” he told AFP.
Of course, whether an unexpected entrant with the profile of “The Governator” could shake things up is “the 100-million-dollar question,” said Steve Maviglio, press secretary to Gray Davis during his loss to Schwarzenegger in 2003.
But Newsom knows the “math is in his favour.”
Re-elected just months earlier, Davis’ popularity had plummeted over energy blackouts and a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes forced by a massive deficit. A majority of voters opted to remove him in the recall election, with Schwarzenegger earning comfortably the most votes of all the replacement candidates.
The gulf between registered Democrats and Republicans in liberal California has more than doubled in percentage terms since 2003 — meaning even a celebrity candidate like Jenner may have limited impact, said Maviglio.
“It’s like saying a famous Democrat could run for governor of Wyoming — I mean, yeah, you can run, but there’s no way you’re going to win,” he told AFP, referring to the deep-red, rural US state.
Seen as a rising star of the Democratic Party with presidential ambitions, Newsom’s reputation may have lost some of its sheen due to the looming vote.
Praised at the start of the pandemic, much like New York’s embattled Governor Andrew Cuomo, Newsom was slammed by business owners for onerous pandemic restrictions during last summer’s lull in infections.
And a lunch Newsom attended with lobbyists at an opulent Napa Valley restaurant during partial lockdown has become infamous.
His polling fell from 65 percent approval last May, although it remains at a respectable 54 percent among California adults, according to the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).
Still, if he survives, the damage need not be terminal, said Schnur.
“Near misses count in horseshoes and hand grenades, not in politics,” he said. “It’s more of an annoyance than anything else.”
The greater reputational damage could be to California — which was mocked by the rest of the country last time for an eccentric field of 135 candidates including Schwarzenegger, a porn actress, and late Hustler publisher Larry Flynt.
In this era of wealthy, fame-hungry reality stars, and thanks to California’s low candidate filing fee, Maviglio predicts as many as 400 could enter this time.
“It’s been a while since California has really reinforced its stereotype to a national and international audience — that’s about to be addressed,” agreed Schnur.
“We’ve got the beach, we got the mountains, we’ve got Silicon Valley, we’ve got Disneyland… I guess we can deal with a little bit of political silliness every 18 years if we have to.”
No ‘slam dunk’
Even once signatures are tallied, an election is unlikely to be set for months, with November the most likely date.
Meanwhile, Newsom has been quick to dismiss the petition’s organizers as anti-vaxxers and supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Republicans insist one-third of signatories are independents or Democrats.
But just four-in-10 likely voters say they would remove Newsom — similar to the 38 percent who voted Republican in the 2018 California gubernatorial election.
By contrast, a month before the 2003 recall, “half or more likely voters consistently said that they would vote to remove Davis,” said PPIC analyst Rachel Lawler.
And as California rapidly reopens after a brutal Covid-19 winter spike, and vaccinations accelerate, that delay should favour Newsom, said Maviglio.
Of course, further Covid-19 outbreaks are plausible — as are massive wildfires or earthquakes in natural disaster-prone California, which could test Newsom.
“The good news for Newsom is that this election is going to be six months away,” said Maviglio.
“But nobody can say it’s a slam dunk.”