Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at Petco Park
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at Petco Park on Monday. Image from video stream

For months, Gov. Gavin Newsom communicated about the COVID-19 pandemic via frequent webcasts in which he cited the latest statistics and beseeched Californians to wear masks, wash their hands and avoid crowds.

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In the last couple of weeks, however, Newsom has shifted venues to orchestrated outdoor events at sports arenas and other mass vaccination sites.

Newsom’s change of background scenery attracts more attention from television news crews than his staid webcasts, which is probably its true purpose. It coincides with an escalating recall campaign aimed at short-circuiting Newsom’s political career and polls showing that his approval rates have taken a beating.

Tellingly, the events feature testimonials from local officials as to Newsom’s governing prowess.

At one event in Oakland, the city’s mayor, Libby Schaaf, gushed — extemporaneously, of course — “I can’t tell you how lucky we are in California to have Gavin Newsom as our governor.”

At a similar event in San Diego, newly elected Mayor Todd Gloria, chimed in, “Gavin Newsom has always done the right thing to protect public health, even when it’s hard.”

What began as a symbolic gesture of protest about Newsom’s management of the pandemic has morphed into a serious challenge. Recall backers — Republicans, mostly — are closing in on the 1.5 million signatures of registered voters they need to place a recall on the ballot.

Newsom feigns a lack of concern about facing a recall election later this year, brushing off reporters’ questions. “I’m not focusing on that at all,” he said Tuesday while opening a vaccination site at the 49ers football stadium in Santa Clara.

The string of outdoor events, however, implies that Newsom and his advisors believe he needs to polish up his image as an effective and caring political figure, given the negative tone of the recent polls.

That concern has even spread to the White House. On Tuesday, President Joe Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki tweeted, “In addition to sharing a commitment to a range of issues with @GavinNewsom from addressing the climate crisis to getting the pandemic under control, @POTUS clearly opposes any effort to recall @GavinNewsom.”

There are other signs that the recall campaign potentially poses a real threat to Newsom.

The signature-gathering campaign has been attracting some serious financial support and the two Republicans who aspire to succeed Newsom are beginning to joust publicly.

On Monday, John Cox, the Republican businessman whom Newsom defeated to win the governorship in 2018, launched a statewide ad campaign aimed at both Newsom and Republican rival Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego.

The 30-second ad, titled “Gavin Faulconer” depicts both Newsom and Faulconer as corrupt politicians, citing Newsom’s infamous attendance at a maskless birthday dinner in Napa and San Diego’s purchase of an asbestos-ridden building during Faulconer’s mayoralty.

“It’s time for a fresh start,” the ad says.

“John Cox needs a fresh start after burning piles of cash and repeatedly losing in landslide elections,” Faulconer campaign manager Stephen Puetz fired back.

Both Cox and Faulconer will run as replacements should Newsom be recalled or run against him in 2022 if the recall fails. However, their rivalry could be an impediment to Republican chances.

Were the recall to make the ballot, voters would make two decisions — whether to oust Newsom and, if so, to choose a successor. With low Republican voter registration, the GOP’s most viable strategy would be to have just one candidate and hope for a proliferation of non-Republicans on the ballot, thereby lowering the number of votes needed for a winning plurality.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.