Gavin Newsom was depicted as a dictator on a rally sign. A pastor called the governor a Marxist tyrant. Photo by Chris Stone

The political right wing has abandoned any commitment to small “d” democracy and instead seeks to maintain power by restricting who may participate in electoral politics.

If that sounds harsh, consider that right-wing activists, political consultants and Republican politicians have embraced a strategy that forsakes mainstream coalitions and instead caters to a small yet energetic minority of ideologues who seem to believe in victory by any means necessary. 

With less than a quarter of California voters registered as Republicans, the California GOP is dominated by its far right wing. Any attempt to win elections the old-fashioned way, by getting more votes in a regularly timed statewide election, is viewed as something of a fool’s errand. 

Recall campaigns, however, present an ideal opportunity for a rump party with unpopular ideas to excite volunteers, exploit donors of all sizes and hire professional signature gatherers to generate an off-cycle, low-turnout electoral win. 

Take the recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom, for example. The recall effort started before the pandemic, with the governor’s opposition to the death penalty as justification. But death row is such an existential issue that Republicans leaped at the opportunity to weaponize the pandemic and justify their shifty recall on the governor’s handling of the public health emergency. 

The idea is to exploit the state’s idealist and expansive recall provisions, harness public frustrations to secure an off-cycle election, get the base in a frenzy and maybe fill campaign coffers.

For me, this sort of ends-justify-the-means political opportunism rings all too familiar. 

In 2018, I was the target of a similar effort. After the Legislature passed a measure to raise funds, including a gas tax, needed to modernize and repair California’s crumbling infrastructure, I was the sole member targeted for recall despite the fact that I was one of 81 legislators, including a Republican, who had voted for the bill. 

The real motivation for the campaign against me was the fact that I had captured an Orange County state Senate seat held by Republicans for decades, thereby giving Democrats two-thirds super-majorities in both houses of the Legislature.  

Leveraging popular indignation over a higher gas tax (which was real, don’t get me wrong) offered an ideal pretext for winning back a seat in a low-turnout special election. After being recalled in 2018, I regained my Senate seat in the 2020 election, proving that Republicans couldn’t win in a normal election cycle.

The effort to recall Newsom is from the same playbook. Participation in a special recall election is expected to be substantially less representative than in a normal election. That anomaly doesn’t concern the organizers because that’s what they want. 

Today’s crop of Republican activists, both in California and across the nation, are quick to cite the Founding Fathers, use words like “patriot” and cloak themselves in the flag, but their commitment to functional democracy appears to be situational at best. 

Since the November 2020 election, Republicans have introduced voter suppression bills in 47 states, aimed at limiting who may vote, how and when they may vote and where they may go to vote. Republicans in Georgia have decided even to prevent voters from receiving food or water while standing in lines for hours to vote.  

If the voter suppression by Republicans is allowed to succeed, the result would be to roll back the gains in participation by racial and ethnic minority voters that have taken decades to achieve. Notwithstanding the patriotic posturing and gaslighting rhetoric, this strategy is intentional and abhorrent.

Yet here, we can do something about it. If and when the recall effort comes to a vote, a resounding “no” verdict would deliver a stinging rebuke to this cynical effort and hopefully deter similar disingenuous and undemocratic tactics in the future.

Sen. Josh Newman represents California’s 29th senatorial district, which encompasses parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties. He wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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