SANTA CLARA, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom has shifted into recall defense mode this week with daily appearances up and down the state, complete with local officials praising his work and swiping at his would-be opponents.
The Democratic governor still refuses to utter the word “recall,” as if doing so acknowledges his vulnerability. But his actions suggest he’s well aware the effort to place the recall on the ballot has a strong chance of qualifying and derailing a political arc that many believed could lead to the White House.
In the past eight days, Newsom has held news conferences touting mass vaccination clinics in Oakland, San Diego, Santa Clara and Fresno. Apart from two budget briefings, for the first time since March, he opened access Tuesday to all media in person, rather than relying on a pool reporter or taking questions only through a tightly controlled virtual news conference.
After spending a few weeks curtailing public appearances and dropping a budget announcement on TikTok, Newsom has reversed course with campaign-style events where he is trying to control the narrative. If the recall qualifies, the governor could find himself in campaign mode for the next two years while trying to navigate the state through crisis, spending this year trying to save his job and next year running for reelection should he survive.
Newsom, 53, is facing an unexpected California backlash as residents tire of stringent business restrictions and school closures. The state saw an unprecedented winter Covid-19 surge that filled hospitals beyond capacity, while California this week surpassed New York as the nation’s leader in coronavirus deaths at nearly 45,000, though its population-based rate is still lower than in most states.
The arrival of vaccines has given hope to residents in California. But the rollout got off to a slower start than nearly anywhere else in the U.S., and the state lacks sufficient supply to give shots to the millions of residents who believe they deserve them as much as anyone else getting priority.
Democratic strategist Katie Merrill said Newsom’s more intensive approach on the public stage is not only timely — but strategically important, as he confronts an emboldened and vocal army of Republican critics, fundraisers and potential opponents.
"It’s certainly smart for him, politically, to be doing more of these live events,” especially those that underscore some recent victories in the fight against Covid-19, she said.
The new approach coincides with the release last week of two respected California polls showing the governor’s approval rating has dropped since the fall. Public Policy Institute of California President and CEO Mark Baldassare, whose survey showed Newsom still clinging to 52 percent support from likely voters, wrote that the recall is likely to qualify but that the electorate will probably keep the governor in office.
Sources close to Newsom insist it’s not the recall alone that’s driving changes in his public schedule. They say Newsom’s move to live events comes after his administration lifted stay-at-home orders based on hospitalization declines, allowing him a chance to interact with public officials and reporters — something they say has been one of the stronger tools in the governor’s communications wheelhouse in the past.
The governor’s new approach became obvious with an appearance Feb. 3 to unveil a vaccination clinic at the Oakland Coliseum in conjunction with the Biden administration. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, a Democrat, ladled praise on him: "I talk to mayors all over the country, and I cannot tell you how lucky we are in California to have Gavin Newsom as our governor."
The sixth drive to recall Newsom, a goal once dismissed as a GOP fantasy, has come tantalizing close to collecting the 1.5 million valid signatures needed to qualify by mid-March — a development that could put an election before the voters later this year.
Newsom’s news conference in Fresno on Wednesday was disrupted by protesters yelling "Recall Gavin!" as elected officials and the governor touted the opening of the first Central Valley mass vaccination center. Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), introduced the governor over the shouts and noted wryly, "He’s made tough decisions that aren’t popular right now … as you can tell from some folks."
Republican fundraiser Anne Dunsmore, the campaign manager with dominant recall committee RescueCalifornia.org, said the movement to pluck Newsom from office has now raised $2.27 million from 13,000 contributors since November. Combined with money raised from a second recall committee, the effort has drawn $3.5 million, she said.
In the latest bad sign for Newsom, the windfall has enabled proponents to hire paid signature gatherers, who are getting $3.70 per signature, she said.
“After the first week, they came back and said they didn’t know it would be so easy," Dunsmore said, adding the professionals are expected to produce as many as 100,000 signatures a week — in addition to mountains of petitions arriving by mail.
One of Newsom’s most formidable GOP challengers, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, launched his own bid last week on a Los Angeles street near an open private school and a closed public school. He invited all media, and a bank of television cameras and reporters showed up to hear him announce his long-awaited candidacy.
Newsom’s 2018 Republican gubernatorial opponent, businessman John Cox, launched a television ad this week slamming both Faulconer and Newsom as typical politicians. He said he was the outsider who would solve California’s problems.
The governor’s allies aren’t ignoring the situation. During another vaccination clinic news conference Monday at Petco Park in San Diego, one Democratic local leader took a dig at Faulconer, who was termed out of office last year.
"It’s truly wonderful to now have a mayor committed to doing the difficult work," Nathan Fletcher, chair of the county’s Board of Supervisors, said in reference to newly installed Democrat Todd Gloria replacing Republican Faulconer.
But Newsom still won’t acknowledge the recall drive. "I’m not focusing on that at all," Newsom said Tuesday at an event to open a vaccination clinic at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. “I’m focusing on administration of vaccines.’’
Cox said Newsom’s nonchalance about the looming political threat is fooling no one.
“Who does he think he’s kidding?" Cox said with a laugh. "People have had it with his arrogant attitude. It’s all about producing results — and he hasn’t."
The changes come as GOP recall proponents, fueled by coverage on Fox News and within conservative circles, say that the recall has changed everything in Newsom’s world — whether he wants to admit it or not. "It’s driving the agenda," Dunsmore argued.
Dunsmore said mailings to homes of California voters, have been equally successful, producing signed petitions from more than just Republicans. While 66 percent are GOP voters, she said 22 percent have been signed by those unaffiliated with a political party and nearly 10 percent have come from Democrats, she said.
But Newsom has plenty of power on his side — not least of which is owning the bully pulpit in the nation’s most populous state.
"I think they realized that he needs to be associated with good news," said Democratic consultant Steve Maviglio, who added that Newsom has "been flanked by Democrats that’ll pump him up."
Maviglio was the press secretary for former Gov. Gray Davis before Davis was recalled in 2003 and replaced by movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger. He observed that Newsom’s approach may serve not only to blunt Republican attacks but to keep other Democrats at bay.
In the 2003 recall, Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante ran in the free-for-all among 135 candidates. Some Democrats still blame Bustamante for giving left-leaning voters justification to vote for the recall rather than keep Davis in office.
"Newsom’s sole goal should be keeping other Democrats out of the race," Maviglio said. "I think that’s what you’re seeing, with the Biden stuff, and being surrounded by elected officials who are Democrats and legislators, is ‘Operation Keep Another Democrat Out.’"
Newsom’s political adviser, Dan Newman, has dismissed GOP candidates as Trump acolytes and signaled that Democrats will not hesitate to remind voters that Faulconer and Cox not only voted for Trump in 2020 — but have repeatedly backed his policies in a state where Trump has been historically unpopular.
Still, Democrats say neither they — nor their governor — can afford to dismiss the GOP’s surprisingly successful effort, which threatens to be the second gubernatorial recall effort in less than two decades to go before the voters. No Republican has won statewide office in California since 2006, but a recall election involves unpredictable dynamics. In 2003, 135 candidates ran for office and Schwarzenegger emerged from the pack.
“Whatever conventional wisdom you have in politics goes out the window in a recall, where it’s a free-for-all," said Democratic strategist Roger Salazar, another former Davis press aide.
Christine Pelosi, who chairs the Democratic Party’s women’s caucus and is the daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said Republicans’ move is an obvious effort to sidestep Newsom’s regular election in 2022.
But she predicted the GOP attacks will not resonate by midyear "when Gavin figures out the vaccines, and kids are back in school in September," and the state is on the economic road to recovery from a devastating global pandemic over which Newsom himself had little control.
This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.