LOS ANGELES — On the same day California Gov. Gavin Newsom stopped in San Diego to announce a proposed $12 billion in new funding to tackle the state’s homelessness crisis, Republican recall contender John Cox brought his controversial “Meet the Beast” bus tour to the coastal city.
San Diego is also home to gubernatorial hopeful Kevin Faulconer, who served as mayor from 2014 to 2020.
As Newsom faces a recall, Southern California, a densely populated region with more than 12 million registered voters, is quickly shaping up to be a key battleground for both the governor and those who seek to unseat him.
“The more conservative side of the middle needs to make sure they carry Orange County, and the more liberal side of the middle needs to make sure they carry L.A.,” said Anne Dunsmore, campaign manager for Rescue California, one of the groups behind the recall effort.
In the 2020 general election, more than half of the nearly 18 million votes cast in California came from just five counties, four of them in Southern California, according to data from the secretary of state’s office. Los Angeles County voters came out in droves, casting the most ballots of any county in the nation, CalMatters reported.
Los Angeles, home to another recall contender, Caitlyn Jenner, has become a focal point for the governor in recent months.
In March, Newsom delivered his state of the state address from Dodger Stadium, a move many observers interpreted as the unofficial start to his anti-recall campaign. Newsom also visited the county in April to sign a bill that will give small businesses hit hardest by the pandemic a $6.2 billion tax cut over the next six years. In February, he toured mobile vaccination sites in Los Angeles, San Diego and the Coachella Valley.
“You have to go where the votes are and the votes are down here,” said Democratic strategist Garry South, who managed former Gov. Gray Davis’ 1998 and 2002 gubernatorial campaigns. “And right now the polling doesn't look too promising here for the recall proponents.”
According to a new poll by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, 36 percent of respondents across the state support recalling Newsom and 52 percent approve of his performance, down from 64 percent in September.
More than half of registered voters in L.A. who participated in the poll, 52 percent, said they would vote to retain Newsom as governor. By contrast, supporters of the recall appear to be concentrated in the Central Valley and the sparsely populated North Coast and Sierra Nevada regions, according to the poll.
In Orange County, once a Republican stronghold that is quickly turning purple, opinions appear to be split. Forty-five percent of poll respondents support the recall and 45 percent oppose it. Ten percent remain undecided.
“Democrats have made massive inroads in Orange County,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. “It’s now a mosaic of red and blue.”
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Republicans could rely on what was once described by Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters as California’s “fishhook.”
“Republicans could win elections by coming down the Central Valley, and this fishhook would turn through San Diego, up through Orange County, and if Republicans could just win 50-50 in L.A., they would win a statewide race,” Kousser explained. “There is no hook anymore. San Diego has been a reliably blue county ... and L.A. has turned solidly blue.”
In March, Democrats flipped a Republican seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors for the first time in decades. In 2018, Democrats captured four Republican-held congressional seats in what was once called the “orange curtain” because of its cultural divide from the rest of the region.
Republicans regained two seats in 2020, but nearly 54 percent of registered voters chose then-candidate Joe Biden over President Donald Trump, whose name has been repeatedly invoked as a political boogeyman by Newsom and his supporters.
Still, recall proponents see an opportunity in Los Angeles, where Newsom beat former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on his own turf in 2018. Villaraigosa came in third in the primary behind both Newsom and John Cox.
Dunsmore said Newsom’s 52 percent favorability is “an invitation for somebody to run, probably in L.A. because that is his weak spot.”
Villaraigosa has raised speculation about a second run, but he has not formally announced his intention to seek statewide office.
Throughout much of winter, L.A. was a coronavirus hot spot where tens of thousands of people were being infected daily and some hospitals were forced to create makeshift emergency rooms as intensive care units overflowed.
Latinos, who comprise nearly half of county residents, were among the hardest hit by pandemic.
“He’s weak in L.A., and he’s weak with Hispanics,” Dunsmore said. “They are not jumping down for him. The Hispanic community was disproportionately affected by Covid, and they know it.”
According to a poll released in March by Probolsky Research, an independent, nonpartisan research firm, 44.5 percent of Latino voters who responded would vote to recall Newsom. Only 41 percent said they would oppose the recall, compared with 49 percent of white voters, 49 percent of Asian voters and 72 percent of Black voters.
Newsom has attempted to paint the recall effort as a partisan power grab by pro-Trump Republicans, saying proponents are threatened by the “browning of California.”
“The real impetus of the recall goes back to my advocacy on behalf of our diverse communities,” Newsom said in March.
The initiative’s lead organizer, Orrin Heatlie, once posted online that immigrants should be microchipped. Heatlie has said it was hyperbole but acknowledged that he was inspired to pursue a recall after hearing Newsom speak on immigration, The Associated Press reported.