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What 2022 election? California Republicans grim on beating Newsom

OAKLAND — Five months after California Gov. Gavin Newsom crushed the recall, the GOP field for a 2022 rematch is frozen in suspended animation. Republican candidates and donors still reeling from Newsom’s 24-point blowout are assessing whether they have the will for another round.

So far, the answer is a resounding no.

“I haven’t even paid much attention to it,” perennial California Republican donor Susan Groff said. “Actually, I haven’t paid any attention to it.”

Recall momentum last year came out of nowhere in this bluest of blue states — and vanished just as quickly. Two months from the candidate filing deadline for the 2022 gubernatorial race, no major Republican has launched a campaign to deny Newsom a second term.

The pandemic anger that fueled the recall signature drive has gradually subsided since the economy reopened last summer. Students are back in classrooms, even during the Omicron surge.

That’s not to say Newsom is invulnerable. Homelessness remains an intractable challenge and crime has affected so many residents that San Francisco Mayor London Breed said recently she cannot stand “the bullshit that has destroyed our city.” The governor on Thursday helped clean up a Los Angeles rail yard where thieves had strewn trash after raiding cargo trains, leading to viral images that Newsom said “looked like a Third World country.”

But conventional wisdom says the recall inoculated Newsom for his reelect year.

“If the recall was defeated by an overwhelming margin, you ran the risk of really being so close to the 2022 election that it would be very tough for a Republican to make the case to run against Gov. Newsom in 2022,” said Tim Rosales, a Republican consultant who worked for multiple recall candidates.

Several of the Republicans who sought to oust Newsom in 2021 have already bowed out. Libertarian talk show host Larry Elder, who received the most votes by far of any recall replacement candidate, said this month he would not run. Assemblymember Kevin Kiley, who’s had more success expanding his social media following than getting bills through the Democratic-controlled Legislature, is taking a shot at Congress instead.

“I’ve never seen us be this close to an election and not have a candidate of stature being talked about or even exploring openly on the Republican side running for governor,” Rosales said.

The remaining contenders, most notably former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, are still sizing up their financial prospects. Businessman John Cox, who lost overwhelmingly to Newsom in the 2018 general election and placed fifth among recall candidates, said he was examining whether there is “a support base there and there’s an avenue to success.”

Faulconer has been reaching out to funders to see if another run is viable after he finished a distant third among recall replacement candidates, receiving only 590,000 votes compared with more than 3.5 million for Elder. (Nearly 8 million voted to keep Newsom in office.)

Faulconer may not decide until February — weeks before the March 11 deadline to file, his consultant Stephen Puetz said.

“That’s what Republican, pro-business, center-right donors have to come to grips with. Either they want to mount a real challenge to Newsom, and they’ll make that decision over the next couple of months, or they won’t,” Puetz said. “If [Faulconer] does not run it’s because he does not believe there will be tens of millions of dollars behind his campaign, and in that case there’s no point running.”

That calculation reflects the reality of Newsom’s enormous financial advantage. The incumbent governor doesn’t just benefit from California’s overwhelmingly Democratic electorate, which repudiated the recall by the same margin as Newsom’s 2018 landslide. He also has a massive monetary edge.

Newsom’s reelection committee had some $24.5 million on hand at the end of September and has since raised at least $500,000 more, including from prominent players like Google and Warner Bros. By contrast, Faulconer reported having about $120,000 in the bank. He has not reported a major donation to his 2022 account since July of last year.

Newsom’s advisers are telegraphing optimism but careful not to guarantee re-election. Campaign consultant Sean Clegg acknowledged Newsom was in “a very strong position” after repudiating the recall but said the governor’s team was “prepared to be surprised,” noting Elder was off their radar before he entered the recall and swiftly vaulted to the top of the Republican field.

“[Newsom] is extraordinarily well positioned, but he is going to sweat who’s running until filing day and he’s going to work his ass off for re-election,” Clegg said.

That state of affairs has driven the Republican primary “underground” as candidates probe their prospects, longtime California Republican activist Jon Fleischman said.

“Those people that are seriously looking at it instead of declaring are taking lots of quiet meetings with prospective donors and analyzing if this is something they can actually get done,” Fleischman said. “The serious Republicans are trying to figure out if there’s a financial appetite.”

Republican donors and fundraisers described a dearth of activity. “We just had an election and people do get burned out,” Republican donor and Faulconer supporter Gerald Marcil said.

“I think maybe they’re worn out after the recall,” added Groff, who contributed to Faulconer before the recall coalesced and then spent $60,000 to help trigger the recall election. “I think it cost everyone so much money on the recall and nothing happened.”

Though the recall may have doused gubernatorial hopes for the GOP in California, Republicans saw it as a better shot than the 2022 general election. Conservatives harnessed pandemic-fomented ire at Newsom to collect enough signatures to force a recall. Newsom’s decision to dine at an opulent restaurant while urging Californians to stay home supercharged that effort.

They relished the opportunity for an up-or-down vote on Newsom’s record and banked on conservative turnout surging as Republicans saw a rare chance to unseat a Democratic incumbent. If a majority of voters had recalled Newsom, Republicans needed only a plurality to support one of their replacement candidates.

At the very least, the off-year election gave California Republicans rare national attention. The recall became a fixture on news networks last year, providing regular opportunities for Republicans to rail against Newsom’s pandemic closures and California’s woes.

But Newsom successfully framed the effort as a power grab by extremists and allies of former President Donald Trump — an argument amplified by President Joe Biden at an election eve rally. Newsom has continued to position himself as a bulwark against Republicans’ national agenda, regularly assailing Florida and Texas and regularly warning donors of another “far-right” challenge.

Many California Republicans see more promise elsewhere on the ballot in 2022. California will host several competitive House races that could tilt the balance in Washington. Campaigns for state attorney general and state controller offer the possibility of Republicans breaking Democrats’ monopoly on statewide offices.

“Who can deliver that win, if not on the gubernatorial level, on the statewide level, with some of these candidates running for attorney general and state controller?” said Jennilee Brown, communications director for the Lincoln Club of Orange County, noting people were “absolutely” looking beyond the governor’s race. “The checks and balances on Newsom do motivate people.”

At the same time, Newsom’s unambiguous win may deepen a sense of resignation among California Republicans who have been locked out of statewide office and relegated to a legislative supermajority. Every disappointing election makes it harder to rally wealthy California conservatives.

“A lot of Republicans have given up on California and they put their money into the national scene,” Marcil said.

The picture will come into sharper focus after the March filing deadline. Republican consultant Anne Dunsmore, who oversaw one of the pro-Newsom recall committees, said she believed there is “an ethical obligation on the part of a solid Republican to run against Gavin Newsom, just to keep him on point.”

But she acknowledged the obvious.

“Everyone is exhausted,” Dunsmore said. “We really just did a run for governor.”

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