In this election, Californians are presented with two questions. The first — a simple yes or no on whether Newsom should be recalled. The second question gives voters the opportunity to choose from over 40 candidates to replace Newsom — or they can write in a name not listed.
The election is based on a simple plurality, making it possible for Newsom’s successor to be chosen by a relatively small proportion of the electorate. Although all voters may vote on the second half of the ballot, there is no prominent Democrat seeking to replace Newsom, so supporters of the governor are being encouraged to vote no on the recall and ignore the second question.
Still, Newsom could face a serious challenge from Larry Elder, a right-wing radio host and media personality, running as a Republican to replace him. According to a CBS/YouGov poll, while the public remains deeply divided on the recall effort, of the Republicans competing against Newsom, Elder is the leading choice among Republicans and 2020 Trump voters.
In an effort to turn out his Democratic base, Newsom has described Elder as “to the right” of former President Donald Trump. Though it may be difficult to ascertain if Elder is indeed that far right, there is little doubt he is extremely conservative. He has called global warming a “crock” and a “myth.” (Elder has hedged a bit more in recent days, conceding that climate change exists but indicating that he is “not sure” forest fires in California are linked to it.) He has also shown a broader skepticism toward science — opposing mask and vaccine mandates entirely and saying they stand in the way of American freedom. And he has vowed to get rid of a legal baseline for the state minimum wage, arguing that “The ideal minimum wage is $0.00.”
Elder’s views on climate change may be the most significant for California. During the last decade or so, under the stewardship of former Gov. Jerry Brown and now Newsom, California has been a leader in the fight against climate change. For example, in 2018, Brown and the Democratic-led state legislatures passed a law that aims to get California all of its electricity from non-carbon sources by 2045. This — and other bills — were particularly important during the Trump presidency when the federal government did little to address climate change, even going so far as to remove the US from the Paris climate accords and otherwise rolling back federal regulations designed to fight climate change.
Moreover, because California is the state with the largest population and largest economy, its actions on climate change have contributed to a significant reduction in carbon emissions in the state and have become a model for other states in how to tackle the issue. Replacing Newsom with a leader who has a questionable track record on climate change could potentially reverse the Golden State’s progress on the issue, which would be disastrous for the state and country.
In addition to the national, if not global, impact of California ceasing to do its part to combat climate change, the partisan balance of the US Senate may be at stake in this recall as well. Though neither of California’s two US senators is on the ballot, Democrats cannot afford to lose a single senator — or Republicans will regain power in the Senate. And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California’s senior senator who has been in office since 1993, turned 88 years old in June.
Although Feinstein appears in good health, many Democrats in California and elsewhere have expressed concerns about her ability to finish out her term. If she were unable to do that, the governor would pick somebody to replace her until the 2024 election. Elder would almost certainly pick a conservative Republican who would give the US Senate majority back to the GOP.
Elder is seeking to persuade voters that a conservative outsider is exactly who is needed to shake things up in Sacramento — and that his experience as a right-wing pundit and media personality has prepared him for the job. However, governing a massive state like California, particularly at this time — with the Delta variant threatening the state’s progress on Covid — requires some training beyond conservative punditry and allegiance to the most extreme positions of the post-Trump GOP.
While some Republicans have had success running for governor in California — namely, Ronald Reagan who served from 1967 to 1975 and Arnold Schwarzenegger who served from 2003 to 2011 — there are some critical differences between Elder and his GOP predecessors.
Both Reagan and Schwarzenegger had more political experience than Elder when they sought the governorship. Reagan had been involved in conservative politics for most of the decade before he became governor and had even been, incongruously given his later politics, a labor leader. And Schwarzenegger, who entered office following the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis, was a moderate Republican who had previously served on state and national commissions, primarily around health and fitness.
The recall election in California may be the most important election in the US this year — and the consequences will not be limited to just one state. It may seem unimaginable to some that a state as deeply blue as California could have a governor whose views on climate and Covid-19 would rival those of any card-carrying MAGA supporter, but the quirky nature of the recall — and the name recognition enjoyed by Elder — mean that possibility cannot be dismissed.