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'A different time': Why the recall effort against California Gov. Newsom isn't history repeating

"Politically, we're a completely different state than we were in 2003," a Democratic strategist said. "If you look at the statewide races, the Republican Party has effectively become a third party in California."
Image: California Governor Gavin Newsom Holds Covid Briefing In San Francisco
California Gov. Gavin Newsom after touring a vaccination clinic with Mayor London Breed in San Francisco on Wednesday. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — The campaign to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom is already showing signs of turning into a circus like the one that brought down Gray Davis in 2003.

Axios reported Tuesday that Caitlyn Jenner, the former reality star and Olympian and stepparent to the even more famous Kardashian clan, is considering entering the governor's race if a recall petition qualifies for the ballot. NBC News has not verified whether Jenner intends to run, and she has not announced a decision.

Jenner could be the first of what many strategists believe will be a long line of celebrity and novelty candidates who could closely mirror those who ran in 2003, when adult film star Mary Carey, former child actor Gary Coleman and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt added their names to the list of more than 100 would-be governors. Action movie hero Arnold Schwarzenegger ultimately won the election.

Nearly 20 years later, the comparisons stop there.

None of the Republican contenders who have announced their intentions to run have statewide name recognition similar to Schwarzenegger's. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who is considered the likely front-runner, is not well known outside Southern California. Businessman John Cox lost to Newsom in 2018 by double digits, and Doug Ose, a former member of Congress, briefly ran for governor in 2018 before he dropped out of the race.

"The biggest thing Newsom has to do is keep a Democrat from running," said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist and former spokesman for Schwarzenegger. "So far so good, but it's also easy right now. We're in for several months of waiting."

Recall organizers say they collected more than 2 million signatures, well above the 1.5 million needed to meet the state's threshold. Counties have until the end of the month to verify signatures and report their tallies to state election officials. The state Finance Department will take about 30 days to produce a cost estimate for the election before a legislative panel reviews the findings. Only then would an election date be set.

If a recall qualifies for the ballot, voters will be asked two questions: The first would be whether they want to recall Newsom, and the second would be who should replace him. There is no limit to how many people can run, and whoever gets the most votes wins.

Since Davis was recalled in 2003, the political landscape of California has shifted increasingly to the left. Registered Republican voters were 35 percent of the electorate in February 2003, according to the state secretary of state's office, while this year they account for 24 percent.

By contrast, 44 percent were registered as Democrats in 2003, and this year it is 46 percent. In 2003, 15 percent declined to say what party they were in; this year, 24 percent of voters registered under "no party preference."

"Politically, we're a completely different state than we were in 2003," Katie Merrill, a Democratic strategist, said Wednesday during a Facebook Live panel hosted by the Sacramento Press Club. "If you look at the statewide races, the Republican Party has effectively become a third party in California."

Democratic strategist Ace Smith said during the panel: "It's a different time. We're in a state where, frankly, there used to be Republicans who used to be somewhat moderate. The Republican Party of Trump has lost [its] way."

The shadow of former President Donald Trump, who has been invoked repeatedly as a kind of political bogeyman, is another notable difference between the recall effort against Newsom and the campaign against Davis.

Since the effort to oust Newsom surfaced, California Democrats have collectively rallied around the notion that the campaign is a power grab by Trump loyalists bitter about losing the White House to President Joe Biden.

Last month, Dan Newman, a campaign adviser for Newsom, said the recall campaign was "pure partisan politics," while Newsom said white supremacists and right-wing militia groups, including the Proud Boys, are among the recall backers.

"We're just concerned about violence moving into the future as we move farther and farther away from the January insurrection and we put down our guard. We must remain vigilant about these groups and how serious they are," Newsom said on MSNBC last month. "All you need is about a quarter of the people who supported Trump to just sign a petition, and it appears they've done that."

In 2003, Davis had no such specter to deflect attention. He had already been embroiled in various crises when he won a second term in 2002, having been heavily criticized for reacting too slowly to an energy crisis that knocked out power for more than a million residents in 2000 and 2001. He apologized, but the debacle took a toll on his reputation.

Davis won re-election in 2002 with 47 percent of the vote. By 2003, just 27 percent of California voters approved of his job performance, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time. The option to recall Davis won 55 percent of the vote.

By contrast, 40 percent of respondents said they would elect to recall Newsom, 79 percent of whom identified as Republicans, according to a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research organization. Newsom's approval rating is also higher than Davis' was — at 53 percent among likely voters last month, compared to 42 percent who said they disapproved of his job performance.

"If no other Democrat gets into the race and it stays like this — the economy is recovering, the coronavirus doesn't spike again and all that looks good — then he's not going to be nearly as unpopular as Davis was," Stutzman said.

Unlike Davis, whose administration was hobbled by a $38 billion budget deficit, Newsom boasted a $15 billion one-time surplus at the beginning of the year, according to his 2021-22 budget proposal. During the pandemic, wealthy Californians made $185 billion in capital gains income, or money earned from the sale of assets, which resulted in $18.5 billion in tax revenue for the state, The Associated Press reported. Because of the surplus, Newsom's plan would spend $25 billion more than last year.

But record levels of homelessness and joblessness have continued to plague California throughout the pandemic, and experts warn that this summer could bring another catastrophic round of fires up and down the state.

As residents battle crises on multiple fronts, recall backers say it's too soon to celebrate victory.

"What a disconnect," recall fundraiser Anne Dunsmore said. "You got people living on the streets, being flooded out of their tents, and we're going to brag about a surplus? Go spend it."