LOS ANGELES - California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom defeated a recall campaign against him Tuesday thanks to a large Democratic turnout and broad fears within the state over the surging coronavirus pandemic.
Newsom rode a large Democratic turnout, which he and his proxies worked on ensuring for months in this very blue state. Even more important were public fears over the new wave of coronavirus cases. He has been among the most aggressive governors in the nation in demanding vaccinations and mask-wearing, policies his Republican rivals opposed.
"We said yes to all those things we hold dear as Californians," Newsom said Tuesday night. "We have so much more in common as a state and a nation than we give ourselves credit for."
The Republican front-runner, conservative radio talk show host Larry Elder, conceded more than two hours after the polls closed, telling disappointed supporters, "Let's be gracious in defeat."
"We may have lost the battle but we are going to win the war," Elder said, hinting at another run.
Newsom will stay in office for another year; he is expected to seek reelection in 2022.
The final results of the recall election may not be known for days, even though the ballot comprised just two questions. The first was whether Newsom, elected with nearly 62% of the vote in 2018, should be removed from office a year early. If he had failed to gain 50% of the vote on that question, the candidate with the most votes seeking to replace him would have headed to the governor's mansion. Forty-six people were on that list.
With an estimated about two-thirds of the vote counted, the "no" vote against recalling Newsom was ahead by more than 28 percentage points.
Many of those votes were early mail-in ballots, which heavily favored Democrats. The day-of voting has yet to be fully counted, but the state's traditional voting pattern appeared to be holding true, with more conservative inland residents favoring Newsom's recall and voters on the more populated, liberal Pacific coast opposing it.
Newsom's projected victory Tuesday will keep him in charge of a state that has become the liberal standard bearer on issues such as climate change and immigration policy for the rest of the nation.
Fear of the Republican front-runner, Elder, seemed to spur on some Newsom voters. Elder could in theory have replaced Newsom with far less public support than the governor secured in his effort to avoid the recall if a majority of voters said they wanted Newsom out.
"While I may not be the biggest supporter of the governor, I don't want to have a governor of my state who has maybe 10% of the popular vote," said Jacob Roush, a 36-year-old resident of Alameda County in the Bay Area who voted after his gym session and before work.
Roush added that he voted "no" on the first question, leaving the second one blank. That has been Newsom's advice to voters, telling them at rallies to "just vote no and go," depriving the rival field of legitimacy. Roush said he did not vote for a candidate because he did not agree with any of their policy positions.
Only one other California governor has been recalled, Democrat Gray Davis, whom voters bounced from office in 2003 and replaced with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. Davis was in his second term, and issues over energy supply and competence turned voters against him and toward one of the most famous movie stars in the world at the time. There are roughly 4 million more registered Democrats in the state today.
This recall attempt began soon after Newsom was elected in 2018, replacing retiring Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown after serving two terms as lieutenant governor. The initial reasons were vague, most focusing on his immigration policies in a state that declared itself a "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants the year before Newsom's gubernatorial election.
What gave the effort focus and momentum was the pandemic, which began ravaging the nation's most populous state in early 2020. Along with several of California's big-city mayors, Newsom acted quickly with restrictions that effectively shut down the economy, backed by generous support payments and tough anti-eviction laws to help keep residents afloat.
According to early exit polls, the pandemic was the top issue for California voters, with 3 in 10 saying it was most important in determining their vote. Nearly 70% of voters supported school mask requirements, according to the early exit polls, an opinion that appears to favor Newsom.
But Newsom's pandemic mandates had drawn sharp resistance from many small businesses, and Newsom had to open and close the economy on several occasions as the pandemic waxed and waned. He called it "toggling," depending on the severity of the virus at the time. Many Californians simply found it confusing.
Newsom also was his own worst enemy. In the fall of 2020, after weeks of lecturing Californians to remain at home as much as possible and avoid eating with other families, Newsom was caught dining at a friend's 50th birthday party at the three-Michelin-star French Laundry in Napa County. He apologized publicly for failing to "practice what I preach," but the hypocrisy it appeared to expose damaged him politically.
"I just don't think that the governor's actions during the pandemic were really reflective, I think, of our state's values as a whole," said Elyse Jackson, a 32-year-old stay-at-home mom who voted to recall Newsom at the polling place in her Oakland neighborhood. "And especially the incident at French Laundry didn't show good leadership."
But as covid-19 has surged again this year, mostly among the unvaccinated, the pandemic has helped turned the race decisively in Newsom's favor. The choice of Tuesday as the last day of the race - people in California have been voting for weeks by mail - was early in the window when it could have been called. With vaccines developed and the economy opening back up this summer, the date, chosen by a secretary of state Newsom appointed, seemed ideal for a governor hoping to convince Californians that the worst of the pandemic was over.
It has not turned out that way.
But polls have shown that voters, more than any other issue, fear the pandemic after experiencing a sense of an open economy briefly this summer. That has boosted Newsom's standing significantly in recent weeks, as he has imposed mask and vaccine mandates that President Biden endorsed during his visit here Monday night on Newsom's behalf.
A Public Policy Institute of California poll conducted late last month showed that 58% of likely voters would cast ballots against the recall - the highest number Newsom has posted to date. The same poll showed that 21% named the pandemic as the most important issue, nearly twice the percentage for the second-rated issue, jobs and the economy.
"Keeping a candidate in office that's going to protect health-care workers, protect children, enforce the mask mandate at this point . . . I'm on the front lines," Jolie Emenike, 41, said as she voted against the recall in Inglewood on Tuesday morning. "I work at UCLA Health in a hospital setting as a manager and am in the thick of it, seeing children get sick. I don't want to see the vaccine or mask mandate change."
Biden won California by almost 30 percentage points, and recalling Newsom for a Republican governor was never going to be easy.
Newsom and many state Democrats made sure that no prominent party member ran to replace him, leaving the ticket almost entirely Republican and with zero elected Democrats. Exit polls also showed that Latinos, who comprise close to a third of the state electorate, voted strongly to keep Newsom in office.
Party loyalty runs high here.
A Berkeley IGS poll published this month found 93% of likely Democratic voters said they supported keeping Newsom, almost identical to the 92% of Republicans who wanted to remove him. The allegiance held true in several voter interviews at polling places here and in the Bay Area, where Newsom is popular after serving as San Francisco's mayor in the 2000s. He campaigned there Tuesday morning.
Laurie Jones, 47, voted against the recall Tuesday in Inglewood, a city near Los Angeles.
Initially, she said, she was "on the fence" but felt compelled to prevent Elder from taking power. She said advertisements calling it a "Republican recall" swayed her.
"It worked," she said.
Newsom raised more than $50 million for the race, far more than any of his rivals. And he spent it down the stretch on advertising featuring former president Barack Obama and visits from popular national Democrats, including Vice President Harris, who was San Francisco's district attorney when Newsom was mayor there.
But perhaps Newsom's biggest asset, should he defeat the recall, has been Elder.
The radio host opposed the minimum wage, called for letting employers ask female applicants whether they plan to get pregnant, rejected the vaccine mandate for state workers, and endorsed former president Donald Trump's disproved assertion that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent. In a Tuesday statement, Trump, without evidence, called the vote here "rigged," adding that "many people are already claiming that when they go to vote, they are told, 'I'm sorry, you already voted.' "
In preparation for the aftermath, Elder set up part of his campaign website as a place to report potential voter fraud, and he has made clear that should he fail to win, he will assert that the race was rigged.
California is notorious for taking a long time to count votes. In 2020, the state took weeks to count all votes and certify its results.