The California Recall Election Is Up for Grabs

In four days, Californians will finally decide whether to recall Governor Gavin Newsom. It is, without question, the highest-stakes political story of the moment in the United States, with vast implications not just for how California is governed but also for national politics and Democratic Party momentum going into the 2022 midterms.

Not surprisingly, everybody and their uncle is descending on the state to try to influence voters. Vice President Kamala Harris was here this week. President Joe Biden is going to fly in. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was rallying with Newsom. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was busy cutting campaign ads for the governor.

A month ago, the polls suggested a dead heat, with many showing that Newsom wouldn’t reach the needed 50 percent threshold; as recently as two weeks ago, even as the momentum shifted slightly in Newsom’s favor, the numbers suggested it was still a nail-biter. But over the past week, as more Californians have tuned into the election and more people have actually returned their mail-in ballots, it’s looking more likely than not that Newsom will survive—and possibly, according to some of the more recent polls, by quite a comfortable margin.

Call me a Cassandra, but I’m not yet resting easy. While Newsom’s position does seem far stronger than it did in early August, I’m not convinced that the governor is entirely out of the woods. I think Newsom will survive, but I’d be amazed if he did so in the same blowout fashion as when he won the governorship back in 2018.

Newsom is still having a huge problem motivating key parts of California’s Democratic constituency to bother to vote. Fewer than one in five Latino voters had mailed in their ballots with a week left until Election Day, compared to one in three white voters. Only 15 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds registered to vote had cast ballots, compared to nearly half of seniors. If those core constituencies sit out the next week, the Democratic governor’s margins could shrink significantly. That’s a not unlikely scenario given that, for the first time since late 2019,  a majority of Californians tell pollsters who ask whether the state is going in the right direction that they think it isn’t.

They’re worried about wildfires and water shortages, the resurgent pandemic, the state’s high unemployment rate and the vast levels of fraud associated with unemployment filings during the pandemic; they’re angry about sky-high housing prices and vast numbers of on-the-streets homeless; they’re concerned about crime and hunger and evictions. In short, even though Newsom, as the legislative session draws to a close, is racking up considerable triumphs on his key issues and pumping money into social programs that benefit millions of his state’s residents, many Californians simply aren’t satisfied. That makes it a peculiarly volatile electoral environment for Newsom to have to navigate.

That said, key Republicans and their right-wing media claque have already begun trying to delegitimize a likely Newsom win. On Newsmax earlier this week, Donald Trump announced, with no evidence, that the election was “rigged” for the governor, and that Democrats were manufacturing mail-in ballots to retain their hold on power in the state. Fox News’s Tomi Lahren told her audience that Newsom could only win through “fraud.”

This demagogic nonsense was toxic in 2020, when Trump ginned up his ragtag fascist mob to question the legitimacy of democratic elections, and it’s just as toxic in 2021. It has the potential to further undermine basic democratic tenets and to further send America down a fundamentally authoritarian path.

Meanwhile, the real risk to this election, and indeed to future elections around the country in coming months and years, is not some bizarre campaign to go from one door to the next stealing ballots out of mailboxes. It’s that GOP operatives, at an event hosted by ludicrous, and dangerous, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who has long been one of Trump’s chief cheerleaders and promoters of election-conspiracy theories, released Dominion’s election machine software into cyberspace, essentially providing nefarious actors a perfect opening to hack into critical election machinery.

For anyone who gives two hoots about election integrity, that’s the true scandal of this summer, up there with GOP efforts in Texas and other conservative-controlled states to make it desperately difficult for citizens—especially poor and/or nonwhite citizens—to vote. Californians have a chance next week to push back against GOP efforts to question and to sabotage any and all election results that don’t go their way. They have a chance, in voting NO on the recall, to also push back against an increasingly extreme political party that embraces the sorts of nutty laws now emanating out of Greg Abbott’s Texas. Let’s hope they seize that opportunity.

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