First a caveat: It will be a few weeks before the final numbers come in, but between the Secretary of State (SOS) and Associated Press we have a pretty good idea of what happened and how the votes will fall. While my comments take into consideration that we don’t have an official tally, there’s enough data available to do a bit of analysis.
No doubt that the recall failed and it failed big. As of noon September 16, SOS reports 36.2% Yes and 63.8% No. That is a genuine landslide. It also is very good news for Newsom. In 2018, he won the governor’s race against John Cox (who got a miserable 4.4% of the candidate vote in the recall) 61.9% to 38.1%. So, between the 2018 election and the 2021 recall, Newsom gained 2 percentage points. While fewer people voted in the recall than 2018, the best possible outcome for someone facing a recall is that they actually come away more popular than they were when they last faced the voter.
Larry Elder was by far the most popular of the replacement candidates, with 47% of the vote. The next highest vote-getter was youtube Democrat Kevin Paffrath, who got 9.8% of the vote. Kevin Faulconer, the “moderate” Republican was second highest Repub with 8.6%. However, these numbers are a bit hinky as they only count the number of people who voted on the second part of the ballot and not all of the people who voted in the election.
As of today, 9,224,190 people voted on the recall question, but only 5,111,965 voted for a replacement candidate (55% of the total vote). Adjust for reality and Elder’s 2,402,420 is only 25.8% of the available votes. Compare that to the 4,112,225 people who voted on the recall question by not for a candidate. If None Of The Above (NOTA) were on the candidates ballot NOTA would have beat Elder almost 2 to 1. Isn’t math fun?
While California thinks Elder is a stiff, clearly, he is the most popular Republican in the state Republican Party (and it only took him a few months to get there). Elder says that his “strong showing” and new found popularity makes him a “major player,” but what does that mean? Sure, his booking fees for Fox News and conservative convention appearances just went up, but that’s show biz baby, not California politics, which is, despite outside observers’ claims, politics not entertainment.
Not only did Elder get lapped by NOTA, his Republican Party is nearly a third party in the Golden State. The Democrats make up 46.5% of registered voters. The Republicans claim 24.1% of registered voters, just 0.8 percentage points more than Decline to State/No Party Preference (23.3%). Elder is the overgrown child in a very small kiddie pool. If the dude is smart, he will resist trying to run against Newsom in 2022 – where he will get smashed – and focus on his entertainment career; because unless he moves to a rural California county or a red state, he has no electoral future in California.
The biggest loser in the recall is Kevin Faulconer, former mayor of San Diego and serious politician. As mayor of the state’s southernmost big city, Faulconer ran the place as a moderate pro-business, pro-choice, pro-LGBT Republican, the kind of Repblican that had no problem getting elected to a statewide office twenty-years ago. Leaning into that pedigree, he was set to run against Newsom in 2022. Plenty of campaign pros in both parties figured that out of all California high profile Republicans Faulconer had the best chance of making a showing against Newsom.
Faulconer’s logic was that, in 2022, the only Dem on the ballot would be Newsom. Thus, under our “jungle primary” system, in which the top two vote-getters face each other in the general, running as a “reasonable” moderate Republican, Faulconer could make the top two, beating out whatever far right-wing freak the Trumpies threw up. And, once in the runoff, maybe, maybe, Californians might be pissed off enough at Newsom to take a chance on Faulconer. It was a longshot strategy, but far more sound than, I don’t know, forcing a recall with no idea who was going to replace Newsom and winding up with a Trump mini-me in the bluest of blue states.
The recall forced Faulconer to fast forward his campaign, hoping that he could top the recall pig-pile and, if the recall failed, make a strong enough showing to give him some juice in 2022. And then Caitlin Jenner made a desperate play for attention, John Cox took his bear on the road, and Larry Elder decided that the clown car could fit one more clown and Faulconer’s base (which wasn’t big to begin with) shrunk to “Even though I am sane, I am still a Republican, though I am not sure why” Republicans, which netted him 8.6% of those who voted for a candidate or 4.7% of those who voted in the recall. The recall screwed Faulconer’s political future.
Let’s go back to the 4.7% of votes to be had that went to Faulconer. That means that, assuming that of all the voters who voted for Faulconer are Republicans, only 4.7% of Republican voters are “level headed.” Reality is 4.7% is a high estimate. Here’s why:
Though I voted No on the recall, I voted for a candidate to replace Newsome. I voted for Angelyne, because, well, to cop a Norm Macdonald, Angelyne. (By the way, Angelyne came in 18th place, two spots above legit former-elected official Republican Doug Ose.) However, if I took the second part of the ballot seriously and really needed to vote for the most competent, least evil person, it probably would have been Faulconer. Knowing that, I am certain that some of Faulconer’s votes came from Democrats who voted No on the recall but were concerned about Yes winning and could not fathom Larry Elder or Caitlin Jenner moving to Sacramento. So, if Faulconer needed help from frightened Democrats to poll a lousy 8.6/4.7%, obviously there is no room for a Republican like Faulconer in today’s California Republican Party.
The second biggest loser here is the California Republican Party. Their recall got trounced. They failed to do one of the most important things that a political party must do to stay relevant: Vet candidates to find the strongest possible person to front a campaign. Their strategy of not endorsing a candidate left them with the least electable candidate imaginable. Essentially, they piled a bunch of coal into train’s furnace and then decided to take a nap on the tracks trusting that everything would turnout okay. It gets worse.
While Republicans hold local power in some rural counties and a few minor cities, own some legislative seats, and have some reps in Congress, their presence is small and their power weak, especially in the state house. Search the Republican backbench and local party committees, and things get really sad. Back in the 1990s, when Republicans made up around 38% of registered voters the local parties served as farm teams for the big leagues, strong minor-leagers who could occasionally win a statewide election. Nowadays, the local parties seem to be a rag tag collection of whomever shows up and the people who show up tend to like the letter Q as much as they do G, O, and P. (If you want to see Republican cannibalization, give some minutes to this blog and know that it is a pretty good reflection of the petty turf wars that go down in the state GOP.)
Right now, big question facing the state GOP is: Can it recover from this stomping and actually play a constructive role in getting their purple district congress members reelected in 2022. In 2020, Orange County Republicans Young Kim and Michelle Steel flipped two seats from blue to red (seats which had recently flipped from red to blue). Their margins of victory were very slim, each won by a tad more than one percentage point. This begs some more questions:
How can a party that couldn’t organize a credible recall campaign, including the simple task of endorsing one candidate, help two vulnerable Republicans get reelected in purple congressional districts? How does a party in which Trumpies are a major presence try to sell Kim and Steel as moderates, especially when both have pretty Trumpy voting records and to deemphasize moderation is to turn off the base? Now that Larry Elder is the state GOP’s Great Red Hope, do they send him out to court “suburban moms” and independents? If Elder can’t or won’t do the job, will they import Rudy to help them? I’d like to say that that last question is a joke, but…
Besides Newsom, the big winner in the recall is the Democratic Party. This was an off-off year special election held in September, a month that usually doesn’t have elections, and yet, according to AP, the turnout was 78% of the 2018 election when Newsom won the governor’s office. And, as in 2018, the vote went overwhelmingly against the Republicans.
The high turnout (for a special election) says that Democrats are paying attention and that they are super engaged. They are taking things like the pandemic and the economy very seriously and are not “burnt out” or taking Democratic political power for granted. Conversely, everything that the Republicans are doing to appease their base – Texas/Florida pandemic denial, voter suppression, Jan 6th grandstanding, sucking up to Trump, voting against infrastructure, attacking on women’s healthcare, focusing on candidates like Larry Elder, etc. – seems to be doing more to energize the Democrats and the left than engage Republicans.
Additionally, the Republican tactic of identifying phantoms everywhere soundtracked by a drumbeat of “Unfair, rigged, deep state, fake, unfair!” does nothing to inspire hope in its members. Rather, conspiracy mongering and scape-goating fuels cynicism, which is a lousy long-term strategy, especially when faced with monumental defeats such as the loss of the presidency, the loss of Congress, and a curb-stomping in the recall.
Remembers, despite what the political press says, the Democrats are on a roll. They won the presidency and Congress. They got a huge stimulus through and it had an effect (job growth, recent news that 11 million people were pulled out of poverty). Despite Delta, the administration is doing the best it can on the pandemic (the majority of voters blame the GOP and unvaccinated for the Delta shitshow).
As time goes on, the chaos of the Afghanistan pullout will be dwarfed by the fact that Biden got US out of that war, something that an overwhelming number of Americans wanted. Whatever inside politics that is going on with infrastructure, the Democrats are actually working on something, while the Republicans keep yelling, “No!” Whenever there are Congressional hearings, it’s Democrats who appear constructive and Republicans the assholes, and that is because Democrats are playing to the country (while doing their job) and Republicans are narrowcasting to their base (while doing nothing).
Critics identify Biden’s missteps, complain that he isn’t doing enough fast enough, and point to some crappy things that he supports – all valid – but as long as the president and Democrats are seen as working hard to make progress, and score an occasional big win – as has happened – voters will give them a pass on the negative stuff. That is especially true when the alternative looks so bad. A/B Biden’s recent pandemic speech with news of healthcare rationing in Republican-controlled states with extremely high covid infection rates and tell me who has the political edge.
Shaken or stirred, drink up all of the above and think twice about embracing the conventional wisdom that the party in power loses the midterms. While what happen in California is California, many things that happen in California, good and bad, are precursor for what happens in the rest of the country. Besides, we are in pretty unique and unknowing times. Don’t take this as a prediction that we will prevail. Instead, consider it a reminder that the future is full of possibilities and that it is worth working for a better world.