With a recall against Gov. Gavin Newsom looming later this year, there’s a fair bit of nonsense circulating about his strategy for beating the attempt to oust him from office — chiefly, people arguing that a prominent Democrat should jump into the race to replace him.
A recall ballot consists of two questions: should the official be recalled — yes or no — and if so, who should replace him or her? The positively proper — nay, critical — Newsom goal is to try to keep a significant Democrat off the so-called “replacement line” on the ballot.
But I recently saw a Politico article quoting former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown where he definitively declared there “absolutely” must be a Democrat running to replace Newsom.
A columnist for the Los Angeles Times penned a piece with the ominous headline “Newsom’s recall strategy could cost Democrats the state,” opining that having another Democrat on the ballot was just a “cautious, risk-averse approach.” “Just in case,” he added.
Another Los Angeles Times story quoted a prominent academic stating that Democrats “need” a backup candidate, also “just in case.” He even suggested that Newsom and that other Democratic candidate should campaign together. “You never know what’s going to happen,” he admonished.
But we do know exactly what happened in the only experience we have ever had with a gubernatorial recall: the successful effort to remove Gov. Gray Davis in 2003.
In that recall, Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante reneged on his iron-clad public pledge not to run and jumped into the recall race in August, with the slogan, oxymoronic to many voters, “No on Recall, Yes on Bustamante.”
Too many high-ranking elected Democrats who should have known better bought into this confusing approach — and some of the more deluded ones actually urged Davis to adopt the same slogan, and even to campaign with Bustamante.
It’s axiomatic in campaigns that you can’t deliver a mixed or muddled message to voters, who are for the most part not very attentive to the nuances and intricacies of elections.
A “no on recall, yes on replacement candidate” messaging is roughly akin to a candidate for president, say a Pete Buttigieg or Eric Swalwell, adopting the slogan “I’m really strongly urging you to vote for Joe Biden, but if you don’t, then please consider voting for me.” Or, in a ballot measure campaign, if the proponents of one measure were to try the messaging strategy of saying “Vote no on Proposition 143, but if you vote yes, then vote no on Prop. 147.” Really?
Take it from someone who was there, Bustamante’s entry into the race caused two significant problems for our strategy. (Listen up particularly academics, journalists and long-retired politicians who want to weigh in on this matter.)
First, when we would try to convince focus group participants that the effort was, in fact, a “Republican recall” or “GOP power grab” — which is the Newsom tack — people would ask, somewhat understandably, “Well, how can it be Republican recall or power grab when Davis’ own Democratic lieutenant governor is running to replace him?”
Second, his presence in the race provided a worrisome number of Democrats who had soured on Davis with what they thought was a win-win two-fer: they could vote to get rid of Davis, but still replace him with another Democrat. It didn’t work out that way — Davis was recalled, and Bustamante received only 31.5% of the vote, losing badly to Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was in fact a lose-lose proposition for Democrats.
If Republicans and their right-wing allies succeed in ripping two of the last three Democratic governors out of office prematurely, regardless of who would replace Newsom, there will be no end to their malevolent mischief in threatening and harassing governors with recall attempts.
And since the state GOP can’t win a statewide general election, they would no doubt try to recall Newsom’s Democratic successor, too, if there was one. That’s why it is absolutely imperative that California Democrats’ No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 priorities must be to beat the recall itself, pure and simple.
For the reasons stated, having a Democrat running as a replacement candidate seriously complicates that goal of defeating the recall outright. Pure and simple.
Garry South is a veteran Democratic strategist who managed Gray Davis’ successful gubernatorial campaigns in 1998 and 2002 and was senior advisor to Gavin Newsom’s first run for governor in 2008-09, before Newsom exited the race. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.