California’s gubernatorial recall has been a stomach-churning political roller coaster ride for Gov. Gavin Newsom — one that looked at the start like a longshot, and even a crazy impossibility, in the deep-blue state.
But the drive, started last year by determined conservative activists, beat the odds and turned into a very real and very expensive drama that has dominated California’s political landscape for months, from the big cities to the Central Valley.
Conservative radio host Larry Elder’s rise to the top of a field of 46 candidates turned the election into a real fight, forcing the Democrats to drop big money and bring in marquee names to ensure the governor’s survival.
Newsom is looking confident lately, with a variety of polls showing him with a double-digit lead against the recall in the final days. But it wasn’t always that way.
In a state that has been slammed by homelessness, rising crime, raging wildfires and exorbitant housing prices, Newsom’s performance had been under intense scrutiny when 2020 arrived. Then came Covid-19 and the closures of public schools and many businesses, which angered many Californians and put Newsom on defense.
Volunteers took to the streets and gathered 2.1 million signatures to get the issue on the ballot.
Newsom gave the recall forces fuel in November when he was caught dining maskless with lobbyists at a dinner at The French Laundry, a tony Napa Valley restaurant, just as he was urging Californians to avoid gatherings and wear face coverings. The move energized pro-recall forces — which won a key extension to collect signatures — and eventually moved 46 candidates to add their names to the ballot.
The recall included some wild and wacky moments, including Republican John Cox’s move to introduce a live, 1,000-pound Kodiak Bear named Tag as his campaign’s mascot. Many of his ads starred Tag, and Cox framed the election as a choice between “Beauty” (Newsom) and “The Beast” (Cox).
Newsom pushed hard to encourage Californians to get Covid-19 vaccines, playing game-show host at Universal Studios surrounded by “minions” and other animated characters amid a rain of confetti as he gave away incentives like $1.5 million prizes to get vaccinated.
This summer, the Newsom administration imposed masking mandates at schools and vaccine requirements for state employees, health care workers and public school staff. The governor touted those steps on the campaign trail as he drew contrasts between himself and his rivals, telling voters the election was a matter of life and death.
Elder, still the GOP frontrunner, had some rough going in the final days of the campaign. At a stop at a Los Angeles homeless encampment, a protester wearing a gorilla mask threw an egg at him. Elder, who is Black, said the attack was racist.
Elder also appeared alongside actress and #MeToo activist Rose McGowan, who endorsed the candidate over the weekend. McGowan said before she went public with rape allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, Newsom’s wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, had tried to intervene on behalf of Weinstein’s lawyers. Newsom’s team called her charges “fabricated” and untrue.
Kevin Paffrath, a Democrat, 29-year-old YouTube phenomenon and real-estate investor, turned out to be one of the surprises of the recall. Established Democratic candidates were discouraged from entering the race, and Paffrath’s nearly 2 million followers helped make him stand out as the most popular Democrat on the replacement ballot.
Reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner entered the race with fanfare and plenty of tabloid attention, but political gaffes, including a decision to abandon the campaign at its height to appear in an Australian reality show, turned her into a footnote with just 1 percent in the polls by the end.
GOP candidates debated their differences at a GOP debate in the Nixon Library featuring former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Assemblymember Kevin Kiley, businessman John Cox and former House member Doug Ose. Ose later dropped out of the race after suffering a heart attack. Elder and Jenner refused to debate.
On the eve of the Sept. 14 recall election — with millions of mail ballots already returned — President Joe Biden joined the final frenzy of the campaign to make a last-minute pitch to voters.
Biden is only the latest of the big Democratic names to join the governor in the effort to beat back what Democrats have dismissed as “The Republican Recall’’ fronted by Trump forces. Vice President Kamala Harris and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) also rallied for Newsom.
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