A week from now we’ll know — maybe — whether Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor of a state utterly dominated by the Democratic Party, will lose his job.
If the recall election is as close as polls indicated just a few weeks ago, it might be weeks before the final verdict on Newsom and his governorship is delivered. However, as the month-long voting period nears an end, more recent polls, including one from the Public Policy Institute of California, and initial voter turnout data imply that Newsom is likely to prevail.
The earlier indications in polling of a too-close-to-call outcome were based on what appeared to be a yawning voter turnout gap. Republicans were motivated to turn out and Democrats appeared to be turned off, which gave the anti-Newsom faction a fighting chance of winning.
The polling clearly startled Newsom and his campaign advisors, so they turned from defending his record as governor for the past 30 months, particularly his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, to offense, branding the recall as a power grab by disgruntled fans of ex-President Donald Trump, a political pariah in California.
Talk show host Larry Elder’s emergence as the leading Republican successor candidate gave the Newsom camp a specific target and it unloaded on Elder as right-wing radical who would wreak havoc on the state.
Belatedly, Newsom’s aggressive assault has appeared to jolt apathetic Democrats, or at least enough of them, to narrow and perhaps close the turnout gap.
Given what’s happened in the final weeks of the campaign, Newsom is now favored to survive. However, win or lose, he should understand that he wouldn’t have been in danger of being dethroned had he conducted himself more judiciously.
His infamous unmasked birthday party with lobbyists in Napa’s uber-expensive French Laundry restaurant, while urging Californians to wear masks and avoid gatherings, turbocharged what had been a lackadaisical recall effort because it embodied the doubts about his character.
To many, Newsom came across as elitist, egomaniacal and hypocritical — and his lengthy internet monologues about the pandemic, his eagerness to suspend usual procedures and laws, his boasts about how well the state was managing the disease, and the evident unfairness of some of his decrees grated on many Californians.
The recall would probably not have made the ballot had Newsom heeded the examples of two predecessors, rather than insisting on doing things his way, whether we like it or not.
Republican Pete Wilson didn’t face pandemic, but his governorship was riddled with crises, including riots, drought, earthquakes and what was then the worst recession since the Great Depression. He just rolled up his sleeves, accepted that fate decreed him to be a crisis manager and did what was needed as each emergency erupted. Wilson didn’t try to be lovable, but his gritty attitude helped him win a landslide re-election in 1994.
Newsom also would have well-served to have emulated the second governorship of Jerry Brown, his immediate predecessor and his quasi-uncle due to generations of interfamily relationships.
Brown’s first governorship was not unlike Newsom’s — talking too much about grandiose schemes and delivering too little. Brown 2.0 exhibited a much mature attitude. He made few promises, largely kept those he made and concentrated on the basics of governance. When he faced a crisis, such as the near-collapse of the Oroville Dam, he let the professionals do their jobs and stayed out of the limelight.
If he survives the recall, which seems likely, Newsom should be honest with himself about why it happened. It’s time to grow up.
Dan Walters is a columnist for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.