SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California Gov. Gavin Newsom is using increasingly stark language as he campaigns in the final month of a tight recall election, calling it “a matter of life or death" that voters keep him in office and he is increasingly targeting a single Republican candidate: talk show host Larry Elder.
Mail-in voting already has started and Democrats worry their voters are less aware and motivated than Republicans, who gathered the signatures that gave voters a chance to boot Newsom from office a year early. Election Day is Sept. 14 but most votes will be cast before then.
Newsom, a first-term Democrat who earlier relied on the bully pulpit of his office to make his case, is now in campaign mode, with a packed schedule of events. President Joe Biden announced plans to campaign for him, and prominent Democrats are warning California's pandemic response, environmental leadership and progressive values are under serious threat.
Newsom's latest campaign ad, released Monday, puts the election in blunt terms: “What's at stake in the Sept. 14 recall? It's a matter of life and death," the narrator says. The ad calls Elder “the top Republican candidate" and highlights his opposition to mask and vaccine mandates.
Elder, who is seeking to become California's first Black governor, tweeted that Newsom has repeatedly “quashed our freedoms" with his actions during the pandemic that included the nation's first statewide stay-home order while “allowing crime and homelessness to balloon."
It would be a remarkable turn for voters to remove Newsom after they sent him to Sacramento three years ago with the largest margin of victory in modern state history. Once the recall qualified for the ballot Newsom was able to to keep any other prominent elected Democrat off the ballot, turning the contest into a highly partisan one.
Last week, he implored Democrats to pay attention, saying the race is close.
“His particular challenge is to persuade Democrats that they really need to take this seriously and that they need to go out and vote," said Jim Newton, who teaches communication and public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, and is a former political reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “One way to do it is to remind them that this is not just an empty exercise, that there are real consequences to it."
Newsom has found his foil in Elder, who does not support the minimum wage or abortion rights and has used his nationally syndicated radio show as a platform for conspiracy theories involving the coronavirus vaccine.
“I’d say he’s even more extreme than Trump in many respects,” Newsom said on a recent call with hundreds of women volunteers.
The messaging reflects Democrats' concerns that their voters are less enthusiastic than Republicans. Beyond Elder, leading Republican candidates include former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, ex-Congressman Doug Ose, former Olympian and reality show star Caitlyn Jenner and businessman John Cox, who lost to Newsom in 2018.
Voters will answer two questions: Should Newsom be recalled, yes or no? If so, who should replace him? They have 46 candidates to choose from on the second question. If a majority of voters want to remove him, the replacement candidate with the highest number of voters becomes governor, even if they fall far short of a majority.
Newsom and Democratic leaders are urging their voters to skip question two, reasoning it won’t mater if voters keep Newsom.
“The advantage of leaving Question 2 blank on the #RepublicanRecall ballot? Saves your time. Saves your energy. Saves your self-respect… from casting your vote for a candidate who isn’t worthy of your support - or the support of California voters,” California Democratic Party Chairman Rusty Hicks tweeted recently.
In East Los Angeles during the weekend, Newsom appealed to Latino voters, reminding them he appointed Alex Padilla as the state’s first Latino U.S. senator and expanded health care access for immigrants living in the country illegally. Elder, he warned, would strip away that progress.
“What kind of line item vetoes would he use across the spectrum as it relates to advancing health care and immigrant rights for our Latino community?” Newsom asked.
Not all Democrats feel that focusing on Elder is the most effective strategy. Aimee Allison, a leader of Women Against the Recall, said women of color, who are reliable Democrat voters, don't need to be told the stakes of the election. Instead, Newsom’s team should be focusing on ensuring the voters already on his side show up to the polls. Community organizing will be more powerful than television ads, she argued.
“Communicating that message is OK, but don’t spend all your chips doing that when you’ve got to actually get people to return the ballot,” Allison said of the focus on Elder.
One argument that could resonate with Democratic voters, particularly women of color, is that a new governor could have a chance to appoint a U.S. senator should Sen. Dianne Feinstein leave office before her term ends in 2024. Women Against the Recall initially started as a group called Secure the Seat, which urged Newsom to appoint a Black woman to the U.S. Senate to replace now-Vice President Kamala Harris. He ultimately chose Padilla.
Feinstein, who is 88, said she has no plans to retire early. But that hasn't stopped Democrats from hinting about the possibility of a would-be Republican governor appointing a replacement. The Senate is now divided 50-50 with Harris breaking ties for Democrats.
“Who would he have appointed to replace Kamala Harris in the U.S. Senate?" Newsom said Friday of Elder. “How would that impact the trajectory of this country? What would this mean for the future of the Democratic Party and our efforts to keep the House of Representatives? The Biden agenda moving forward?"