LOS ANGELES – The results of Tuesday’s recall election in which California Gov. Gavin Newsom defeated an attempt to remove him from office look all too familiar to the state's enfeebled Republicans — they were embarrassed again by Democrats, who haven’t lost a statewide race in 15 years.
The returns were incomplete Wednesday — about 26% remained uncounted — but Newsom’s 2.5 million-vote lead gave him an insurmountable lead. It was business as usual for him a day after his victory. He visited an Alameda County school to talk about the pandemic and investments in education, two key issues for him.
For the state GOP, it once again was a time to evaluate what went wrong. Despite pre-election polls showing high enthusiasm among Republican voters for an election that was driven by GOP activists, only 36% voted to remove Newsom. That preliminary result fell into a predictable range for statewide elections in recent years – an unwelcome sign for the party as it looks for a comeback.
When then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump in California in 2020, he grabbed 63.5% of the vote, compared to 34.3% for Trump. It was similar in 2018 statewide races, when no Republicans seeking top offices were able to break 40% of the vote.
That year, Newsom — in his first run for governor — received 62% of the vote, with Republican John Cox picking up 38%. Those double-digit margins reflect a simple political truth in the state at this time: There are a lot more Democrats in California than Republicans, with the party holding a statewide registration edge of nearly 2-to-1.
And issues being promoted by many conservatives — including dialing back environmental regulations, limiting the reach of COVID restrictions or echoing Trump's baseless claims of voter fraud — are out of step with the state's liberal-minded voters.
With the nation and state deeply divided by politics, the results showed “it is going to be harder for a hard, partisan Republican to get elected,” said Republican consultant Tim Rosales. He advised Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, who was among the Republicans running in the recall to replace Newsom.
Newsom spent the last weeks of the campaign warning about the threat to Democratic policies on climate change, the pandemic and the threat of “Trumpism,” while focusing his criticism on leading Republican candidate Larry Elder, a conservative who was seeking to becomes the state's first Black governor. Elder far outdistanced all other replacement candidates.
Even when comparing different statewide races, each with different candidates, in recent elections it's “showing the same results” for Republicans, said Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc., a firm that gathers voting research for Democrats, independents and academics. “It very clearly shows Republicans are not going to be competitive statewide” in the current climate.
Cox, who ran again in the recall, lamented what he considered a weak turnout from supporters, noting that the vote total was on track to fall well short of the 6 million votes Trump received in the state in 2020.
"Where were these voters?" he asked. “Is it people just don’t believe there can be any change?”
Republican registration in California has dipped to a meager 24%, meaning GOP candidates start at a huge disadvantage in any routine statewide race. Democrats control every statewide office and dominate the Legislature and congressional delegation.
But the recall was different. If Newsom was removed, his replacement would have been the top vote-getter among 46 replacement candidates that included no significant Democrats. That meant a Republican could slip into the governor's seat with support from a relatively narrow slice of GOP and conservative voters.
But it didn’t happen. Newsom easily carried the first question on the ballot, whether he should be removed, yes or no, making the replacement voting irrelevant.
While statewide races continue to look out of reach for Republicans, the party has made inroads in Congress. It captured four Democratic House seats in 2020. Those seats will be hotly contested again in 2022.
While the preliminary statewide recall results show Newsom with a wide lead, the recall contest is much closer in competitive House districts in Southern California, said Sam Oh, who ran winning 2020 campaigns for Republican U.S. Reps. Michelle Steel in the 48th District, and Young Kim in the neighboring 39th.
“The preliminary numbers after election day show the recall results are very close in these targeted seats,” he said, referring to districts held by Steel and Kim. “It’s setting up for a very competitive 2022 race again.”
Those districts, however, could be reshaped during once-a-decade reapportionment that adjusts district boundaries to account for population shifts. And the dynamic that drove the recall will be different than the factors in each House race.
Elder’s sudden rise to star of the GOP recall field was applauded by many conservative voters. After the conclusion of his first run for office, Elder teased a possible future run — “Stay tuned,” he told supporters.
But signs of Republican infighting that has plagued the state party for years continued during the recall, as the GOP looks for a way forward following Trump's presidency.
The day after the results were in, two GOP consultants who worked for rival candidates highlighted the party’s divisions during a Sacramento Press Club panel. Ron Nehring, a former state party chairman who backed former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, blasted the Elder campaign for raising accusations of voter fraud before the election was over.
“I find it astonishing that any campaign would seek to further erode public confidence in our elections with absolutely no evidence to do so,” Nehring said.
Elder’s campaign manager, Jeff Corless, pushed back, saying it was important for Republicans to ensure the elections have integrity. He said Elder often was asked if Democrats would steal the election.
“At the end of the day, election integrity is important and no one should have a problem with that,” Corless said.
State Republican Party Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson called Newsom’s victory “hollow” and predicted he would suffer in 2022, when he again is on the ballot.
“California remains a state where surging crime, raging wildfires, crippling drought ... unaffordable housing and suffocating taxes are a sobering reality,” she tweeted.
Associated Press writer Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento contributed.