WASHINGTON — Covid-19 restrictions got Gavin Newsom into this mess. Now he’s counting on them to get him out of it.
Amid a contentious national debate over masks and vaccines, California’s embattled Democratic governor is betting his political life on turning next month’s recall election into a referendum on some of the nation's strictest mandates.
"What's at stake in the Sept. 14 recall? It's a matter of life and death,” the narrator of Newsom’s latest television ad states, arguing the top Republican candidate “peddled deadly conspiracy theories and would eliminate vaccine mandates on day one.”
Recent polls show a dead heat among likely voters on whether to fire Newsom, despite the state’s overwhelmingly Democratic tilt.
It is starting to show with some nervousness by Newsom. Vice President Kamala Harris, who won statewide in California three times, will campaign with Newsom next week, and President Joe Biden may visit soon, too.
While overall support for recalling Newsom has remained steady around 35 percent — about what former President Donald Trump earned in California last year — Republicans are far more motivated to turn out. Democrats, on the other hand, overwhelmingly assume Newsom will win and are telling pollsters that means they are less likely to bother.
"The big question," according to Eric Schickler, a pollster at the University of California, Berkeley, is whether Newsom and his allies "are able to get Democratic voters more engaged."
Newsom this month made California the first state in the nation to require all K-12 teachers to be fully vaccinated or submit to mandatory weekly testing and has implemented new masking requirements on school buses and in classrooms.
“I have no interest in taking us off the Covid cliff,” Newsom told a Bay Area TV station, alluding to states like Florida and Texas, where Republican governors have tried to prohibit local schools from implementing vaccine and mask mandates.
"Just consider the Republican candidates," he added. "Not only do they all share one thing in common — their support for [former President Donald] Trump — but they also support eliminating mask mandates in our public schools, eliminating vaccine verifications."
It’s an ironic turn of events for a governor whose job might not be in jeopardy had there not been a pandemic.
The petition to recall Newsom, while not mentioning Covid-19, gained traction in the backlash to the first wave of lockdowns and mask mandates Newsom implemented last year.
Organizers were only able to collect the 1.5 million-plus signatures needed to trigger the recall election after a judge extended the deadline by four months, citing the pandemic’s impact on canvassing.
And Newsom’s lowest political moment came when he defied his own restrictions and was caught dining inside without a mask at one of the nation's ritziest restaurants, The French Laundry, which further fueled the recall effort.
In a state where Republicans are outnumbered 3 to 1, some recall proponents have tried to broaden their appeal by focusing on less polarized issues like homelessness, the rising cost of living, power blackouts, crime, water shortages and wildfires.
“One of the challenges with these recall elections is people get grumpy and they start to feel like they can cast votes out of grumpiness,” said David Atkins, one of California’s Democratic National Committee members. “What's happening with Covid is it makes the stakes clear. It makes it harder for Republicans to tap into that generalized grumpiness.”
The governor and his allies are hoping to jolt awake Democrats and independents who have tuned out the race by warning them there's a real chance California could end up with a Republican governor.
The quirk of the recall ballot is that if a majority of voters who show up on election day say yes to recalling Newsom, it practically guarantees a Republican governor.
"They actually could do it if Democrats don't show up, so it's time to ring the alarm bells and let them know what's at stake," said Dan Newman, a top political adviser to Newsom. "There are just two very very different paths on how to end the pandemic."
Newman called the race a "binary choice" between Newsom and Larry Elder, a Black conservative talk radio host who is the clear polling leader among challengers.
Elder is an appealing foil for Newsom in a Democratic-leaning state.
The longtime radio host, who helped former Trump adviser Stephen Miller get his start in politics, has a long history of provocative comments about everything from working women to the minimum wage (he believes it should be $0).
A recent spat of negative stories about Elder has made Republicans think Newsom is worried about him gaining polling strength and is trying to push opposition research.
Elder said he'd repeal Newsom's mask and vaccine mandates before breakfast on his first day in the governorship.
While there are 46 candidates of various parties vying to replace Newsom, every leading Republican opposes mandates. Several say they favor a statewide ban on local mask and vaccine mandates, like Florida’s.
“We must draw the line and protect people’s freedoms,” said John Cox, who was the GOP gubernatorial nominee in the last general election and is running again.
Vaccine and mask opponents are a vocal minority, large enough to form the nucleus of the recall, but polls show most Californians favor an approach to the pandemic more like Newsom’s.
California has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, and 59 percent of respondents to a recent CBS News/YouGov poll said people who refuse to get vaccinated are “putting people like me and my family at risk.” Just 27 percent said they respect the decision to not get the shot.
Still, as Biden and other Democrats learned last year, turning out and even reaching voters during the pandemic is harder for Democrats, since their base takes the issue more seriously.
“We're so Covid-sensitive, our voters are so Covid-sensitive,” said Michael Trujillo, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist, “but Republican volunteers are happily going knocking on doors and voters are happily opening their doors.”
Democrats say they’ve had a harder time recruiting canvassers, with most volunteers preferring to make phone calls or send text messages, which have been shown to be less effective.
Of particular concern is Latino voters, with a recent Emerson College/Nexstar poll showing a majority of likely Latino voters support firing Newsom, due in part to Republican Latinos being more engaged.
Newsom has focused on campaigning in heavily Latino areas like East Los Angeles in recent days and is rolling out endorsements from prominent Hispanic figures like comedian George Lopez.
But Trujillo said past elections show there’s no substitute for face-to-face conversations on peoples' doorsteps.
"That's what does it," he said. "That's why you had a historic number of Latinos voting for Donald Trump, because we were unable to persuade our cousins, our uncles, our fathers to vote and to vote the right way."