California Gov. Gavin Newsom staved off an attempt to remove him from office Tuesday, prevailing in the state’s unusual recall election, NBC News projects.
Newsom, a Democrat, faced serious headwinds and multiple crises as polls over the summer showed him in real jeopardy. But Newsom, with the help of party leaders including President Joe Biden, succeeded in rousing Democratic voters with a message that warned a Republican replacement would roll back Covid protections and betray the state's progressive character.
The recall election asked voters whether Newsom should be removed — "yes" or "no" — and gave voters who wanted him ousted the choice of 46 alternatives.
Newsom thanked California voters for keeping him in office.
"We said yes to science. We said yes to vaccines," Newsom said in brief remarks at a news conference. "We said yes to ending his pandemic. We said yes to people's right to vote without fear. We said yes to women’s constitutional right to decide."
See election results and exit polling on NBCNews.com.
Newsom and national Democrats took no chances, pouring millions of dollars into what should have been a cakewalk, with memories fresh from the last recall in 2003, when California voters terminated Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Republican movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Newsom from the beginning sought to portray the recall as a right-wing power grab, but struggled to get Democratic voters to pay attention until the entrance of conservative radio host Larry Elder, who jumped into the race late and immediately shot to the top of the polls of replacement candidates.
“Let’s be gracious in defeat,” Elder told his supporters Tuesday night after they booed when he mentioned Newsom. “We may have lost the battle, but we are going to win the war."
Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in California nearly 2 to 1, so the only way the recall could succeed was if Democrats didn't bother voting or got behind the effort to remove Newsom. In the end, the state's liberals showed up in droves to back the Democrat and keep California out of the hands of someone like Elder.
National Democrats hope the race can be a model for next year's midterm elections, since Democrats have typically had a hard time motivating their voters in nonpresidential races.
Frustration with Covid-19 restrictions helped recall organizers gather the roughly 1.5 million signatures they needed to force the vote. But Newsom ended up making his support for mask and vaccine mandates the closing argument of his campaign, warning that a Republican replacement would undo his health restrictions if elected.
An NBC News exit poll found voters sided with Newsom on the public health measures, with a plurality, or 47 percent, saying Newsom’s Covid policies are about right, compared to 30 percent who said the measures are too strict. Another 18 percent said they aren’t strict enough.
The NBC News exit poll results of early and Election Day voters found 72 percent support Newsom’s mandate requiring students to wear masks in schools and 65 percent said getting vaccinated against the coronavirus is more a “public health responsibility” than a “personal choice."
The governor has been weighed down by a slew of issues facing the state, but those voting for and against recalling him had different views of which issues were most important, according to NBC News exit poll.
Among voters who wanted Newsom removed, the economy was the top issue for 25 percent of them, followed by homelessness, which was the top issue for 23 percent of those in favor of recall. Crime was the top issue for 17 percent, and the Covid pandemic for 15 percent, according to the exit poll.
The pandemic was the top issue for 43 percent of those who wanted to keep Newsom in office. That was followed by homelessness, cited by 21 percent; wildfires, 18 percent; the economy, 9 percent; and crime, 2 percent.
As polls showed Newsom likely to survive the recall, Republicans began to sow baseless seeds of doubt about the integrity of the vote, with former President Donald Trump calling it "rigged" and Elder's campaign promoting a website that claimed it had found fraud in the results before any were even released.