California Democrats scramble to fight Newsom recall, close ranks

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OAKLAND — California Democrats are suddenly waking up to a nightmarish reality that in their solidly blue state, a small but determined band of GOP activists may soon set off a recall that puts Gov. Gavin Newsom’s future in doubt.

Alarmed party leaders, facing the threat of a chaotic and expensive election by the end of this year, have begun to issue “all hands on deck” calls. But it may already be too late to convince the disorderly Democratic ranks to put aside their political differences — and in some cases, ambitions — and stand in unity with their embattled governor.

“Every credible leader should be speaking out loudly and forcefully — now,’’ said state Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda), a former senior adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown.

The message must be “about why even unhappy Californians should not sign these poisonous petitions," he said in an interview. “Our collective action should be all about reducing signatures that would create this political chaos.”

But time is running out, he conceded. “It’s really about the next 30 days," when the recall campaign must show evidence they’ve collected 1.5 million valid signatures.

Newsom spent months focusing on reining in the coronavirus pandemic and working with local officials to reopen — and re-close — businesses and places of worship. He’s also pushed hard, yet mostly unsuccessfully, to reopen schools. While Newsom and the Democratic Party tried to keep the messaging on coronavirus, his opponents ramped up the effort to recall him, approaching the required number of valid signatures in a state with a low bar for instigating a gubernatorial recall.

Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis is now asking Democrats to stand against the recall. California voters elect their lieutenant governor separately from the top office, so she’s not in jeopardy should Newsom be ousted. But Kounalakis sees it as a cynical GOP attempt to sidestep a regular election cycle.

“Republicans see this quirky opportunity to slip a Republican governor into the bluest state in the union," she said in an interview. “And I think they are daydreaming."

But Matt Shupe, a spokesperson for the recall effort and Republican candidate Kevin Faulconer, said that Democrats and Newsom are clearly flailing as they attempt to counter the successful drive.

“California, in all types of ways, is in a really dire situation right now,’’ Shupe said. The recall, he added, is a way to “fix the state … with someone to vote for, not just vote against."

Newsom last week teased an agreement with teachers and their unions to reopen schools but on Tuesday said no agreement is ready. The inability to reopen schools may become another political liability for the governor as he works to preserve his job.

Republicans haven’t won a statewide election in California since 2006. That year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, himself the earlier beneficiary of the state’s only gubernatorial recall, won re-election after making a sharp turn toward the center. Democrats now hold a 46 percent to 24 percent voter registration advantage over Republicans, and the GOP continues to trade second place with voters who register with no party preference.

Democrats have supermajority control of both houses of the state Legislature in addition to every constitutional office, an unprecedented level of dominance in California — a state that gave rise to Gov. Ronald Reagan and Sen. Richard Nixon before the two Republicans entered the Oval Office.

Republicans face long odds in a straight-up gubernatorial race, and Newsom trounced GOP businessman John Cox in 2018 by a 62-38 margin. But a recall affords more opportunity as a free-for-all contest where a candidate can win with a smaller plurality under the right circumstances.

The GOP’s recall drive appears to make no secret of goals to unravel California’s most progressive policies. The logo for the RecallGavin2020 campaign posted on the California Patriot Coalition’s website today shows a California bear holding a state map with a litany of popular conservative causes. It says, “No More … free illegal immigrant health care … gun control … ammo regulations … threatening 2nd Amendment rights … overruling popular votes … threatening Prop. 13," among other issues.

It is starting to feel too late for Democrats to stop the recall train. Organizers say they have collected 1.5 million signatures, but need a few hundred thousand more to ensure they have enough that are valid. They have a month left, and they’re beginning to receive national reinforcements, most notably $250,000 last week from the Republican National Committee, as POLITICO first reported.

Joining Glazer and Kounalakis, both moderate, business-friendly Democrats, are some of the state’s most prominent progressive voices — even those who have had some significant policy differences with Newsom.

“It’s not Gavin who’s on the ballot — it’s California," said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), the Silicon Valley member who served as the national co-chair for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign — and who has an enthusiastic following among liberal Democrats in the state.

Progressive activist Joseph Sanberg, a wealthy entrepreneur who has previously talked about a run for public office — including governor — said such connections suggest an attack “on California values."

“This recall construct … is an anti-democratic vessel for unknown, secretive big money groups to take control of state politics,’’ he charged. "We can’t have a system where a dozen unknown, wealthy, unaccountable people can hijack state politics — and that’s really what’s unfolding," he said.

While Democrats are closing ranks now, there’s still some doubt about whether they will continue to put aside their differences with each other and Newsom. If the recall qualifies, voters will decide two questions on the ballot: whether Newsom should be recalled, and if so, who should replace him.

Democratic strategist Steve Maviglio recently told POLITICO that Newsom’s more frequent appearances around the state alongside a parade of local Democrats is an effort to keep his party on board — or “Operation Keep Another Democrat Out.”

California insiders have a parlor game now centering on whether any Democrats will break ranks and put their names on that second ballot — in a longshot effort to emerge as the top vote-getter among what could be potentially more than 100 candidates.

Some recent speculation has centered around state Treasurer Fiona Ma — one of the two highest-ranking Asian American officials in the state — and one who is already raising money for future campaigns. But Ma committed to staying out of the race last week.

“I’m flattered — but absolutely not," Ma told POLITICO. “If the recall makes it, I will not put my name on the recall ballot. I play on Team Gavin, all the way.”

Ma says she well remembers the last recall in 2003, when Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante broke ranks and joined the recall ballot to the dismay of his party — effectively ending his career not long after Schwarzenegger won the plurality of the vote and tossed Gov. Gray Davis from office. She warned that Democrats facing down a gubernatorial recall 13 years later should learn the lesson — and stand united. “We need to be focused on beating the recall," she said, "and keeping Gavin in office.”

But Sandberg said Democrats — like it or not — may have to consider offering alternative candidates on the ballot. He said he has considered a run for office in the past, but isn’t ready to do so this time.

Still, “Democrats are going to need to be practical," he said. “If there is a recall, that means there’s some chance it’s gonna pass," and if their voters are given no alternative, they may end up with a Republican governor.

Khanna has also been mentioned as a possible draw for progressives in a recall. But he dismisses any such effort, saying his goals are centered on the House, where has led opposition to the war in Yemen, among other issues. He said he is 100 percent behind Newsom.

GOP consultant Rob Stutzman, who served was Schwarzenegger’s spokesperson during the 2003 recall, said he believes a Democrat could join the recall race and avoid serious repercussions. He said voters are less loyal to parties than they used to be.

Stutzman noted that progressive Democrat Kevin de León faced little punishment after he challenged Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) for re-election in 2018; indeed, he’s since been elected to the Los Angeles City Council.

“So I don’t know that there’s a huge risk’’ for Democrats to break ranks and join a recall ballot, he said. They could ask themselves, “Is there a potential upside in a crowded field?”

Garry South, who was Davis’ political adviser, predicts that in the end, “there could well be there could well be a registered Democrat — one or more — on the ballot.’’

Newsom has taken the right tack in confronting the recall challenge by steadfastly refusing to discuss the movement and give it credence, South said, while forging ahead with the work of addressing the challenges of the Covid pandemic.

"His best defense is to be doing now is what he’s doing — which is doing his job,” South said, which includes opening mass vaccination centers, addressing business and school closures and getting the state into recovery mode.

"But if the recall qualifies," he said, "then we have to fight it, tooth and nail."

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