OAKLAND — Gov. Gavin Newsom opened a huge lead in initial returns Tuesday night as California decided whether to oust the Democratic governor in the state’s second-ever gubernatorial recall election.
With more than 5.2 million votes counted, 69 percent were rejecting the recall compared to 31 percent in favor, according to results posted shortly after polls closed at 8 p.m. Pacific Time. It remained too early to call the race as county election officials still have millions more ballots to process and report.
Democratic voters dominated the more than eight million ballots returned before Election Day, likely banking a substantial cushion for Newsom as they returned ballots at a faster rate than Republicans and independent voters. But political experts expected a late surge of pro-recall ballots from Republicans who waited until Election Day to vote because they distrust the mail process.
A string of recent polls suggest Newsom is poised to defeat the recall by a double-digit margin, but Democratic turnout loomed as a key variable. While there are roughly five million more registered Democrats than Republicans in California, conservatives initially reported higher levels of enthusiasm — a disparity that could allow Newsom’s opponents to narrow his advantage.
But late-election polling has also found that gap closing, and Newsom has repeatedly asserted in recent weeks that his campaign had successfully activated more Democratic voters. Newsom has battled back the recall by drawing on a panoply of deep-pocketed defenders to stock a campaign war chest with some $70 million, giving him an unrivaled capacity to communicate with voters. He also enlisted national Democratic figures like President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Newsom also exploited the ascent of libertarian talk show host Larry Elder, who quickly vaulted to the top of the Republican field. Newsom relentlessly hammered Elder for beliefs that are discordant with California’s Democratic electorate, like his opposition to abortion rights, minimum wage and climate change programs. He framed Elder as an heir to former President Donald Trump — an argument Biden amplified in an election night speech posing the election as a choice between Newsom and Trump.
Those dynamics have left Newsom’s advisers feeling supremely confident, enough that top aide Sean Clegg told reporters Monday that “there’s no scenario where we lose.”
Newsom’s argument that the recall was a costly distraction serving a larger Republican agenda appeared to resonate.
“I think it’s ridiculous that we have to have a recall, personally. Governor Newsom is not perfect, but it’s trying times, it’s been a stressful year and a half, and I think he’s guided us through a pandemic,” 40-year-old Hollywood resident Chris Ciccarelli said, adding he was impelled to vote in person on Tuesday after receiving a text message from the Newsom campaign. “What’s happening in Texas, I don’t want that to happen here, and it gets me very angry when I can see that there are forces at work trying to subvert the strides that we’ve made.”
But Stephen Polillo, a 39-year-old water utility distribution operator from South Sacramento, said he voted to remove Newsom despite being a registered Democrat. He felt the recall effort was fueled by legitimate grievances about Newsom, not “Trump’s right attacking a liberal state,” as the governor and his supporters have repeatedly asserted.
Even before polls closed Tuesday, Republicans were bracing for a loss. Elder questioned the integrity of the mail-ballot election and launched a website that solicited affidavits attesting to voting irregularities. He refused to say whether he would accept Tuesday’s results when asked by MSNBC this week.
Other Republicans feared that Elder’s vote fraud allegations would only serve to depress last-minute GOP turnout. Ron Nehring, an adviser to Republican candidate Kevin Faulconer, tweeted that Elder’s website was “the most irresponsible act I’ve ever seen from a CA candidate in my 20 years in politics” and said claims of vote-rigging were “equal to telling Republicans to throw their ballot away rather than mail it in.”
The prospect of recalling Newsom once appeared to be a political fantasy, considering activists file recall petitions against every sitting governor but have only qualified one previous gubernatorial election in 2003, when movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger took office.
But the pandemic reordered California’s political landscape. Conservative foes of the governor harnessed pervasive frustration with Newsom shutting down the state last winter and benefited from an extra four months to collect signatures after a Sacramento judge agreed to give more time due to Covid-19 challenges. Newsom in November energized the signature drive with his ill-fated decision to celebrate a lobbyist friend’s birthday at an opulent restaurant even as he was urging Californians not to gather.
Republicans seized on the French Laundry meal to lambaste Newsom as out of touch. They looked to stoke anger over protracted school closures and devastated businesses to argue Newsom’s mismanagement had caused lasting damage. The effort began to gain national attention as it appeared Republicans could have a real shot at reclaiming the governorship and breaking a generation-long losing streak in once-purple California.
Not long after recall backers gathered enough signatures to qualify the election, a receding virus and rebounding economy put Newsom back on firm footing. California’s mass vaccination program helped drive down infection rates to the point that Newsom was able to dissolve a system of county-by-county restrictions on June 15. Surging tax revenue defied dire fiscal forecasts and gave California an enormous budget surplus, billions of which Newsom converted to rebates back to taxpayers.
By the summer, Newsom had embarked on something of a victory tour. He touted California’s revival at triumphalist press conferences that doubled as campaign events, and he played game show host at glitzy lottery events that offered vaccinated Californians the chance to win prizes.
That upward trajectory led Newsom to convince the Legislature to move up the election date to mid-September, believing the electorate would be in high spirits. The Delta variant threw a wrench in that plan, driving up virus rates to the point that counties reimposed mask requirements and Newsom mandated vaccinations or negative tests for state employees, teachers and health care workers.
But rather than shy away from the types of restrictions that first propelled the recall, Newsom leaned into them. He made his closing argument a matter of pandemic contrast, posing a choice between California’s stringent rules — which Republican contenders vowed to unravel — and the looser approach taken by Texas and Florida.
Alexander Nieves and Colby Bermel contributed to this report.