The California ballot officially featured 46 candidates vying to replace Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in the effort to recall him. But in the end, the only one who mattered wasn’t even listed. Newsom was able to carry the day by effectively making the recall a race between him and former President Donald Trump — and Trump was the one who came up short Tuesday night.
Trump’s insertion of himself into the race likely helped run up the score in the incumbent’s favor as a last-minute reminder to potential voters why they should cast ballots against Elder.
Officially, Newsom was dueling it out with Republican radio talk show host Larry Elder, whom the governor and his supporters focused on to make it a two-person contest after Elder surged ahead of his competitors in the polls. Elder was a familiar voice in Southern California as a long-time radio host in a place where car culture is king and many get their news on their speakers. But Democrats effectively painted Elder as a proxy for Trump, with President Joe Biden going so far as to call Elder “a clone” of the former president while campaigning in California with Newsom in the race’s waning hours.
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The California vote offers hope for Democrats trying to avoid losing the House and the Senate majorities they hold by razor-thin margins, to pick up governorships and to keep Biden’s agenda moving forward. Newsom’s success in easily maintaining the governorship validates the Democratic strategy of running anti-Trump campaigns over the next 13 months, even though Trump himself is back home in Mar-a-Lago, Florida.
Democrats have been investing for months in tying congressional Republicans up and down the ballot to Trump, who left office with a dismal 34 percent approval rating. Their candidates for House, Senate and governorships repeatedly warn about unleashing the perils of Trump and Trumpism if voters back GOP rivals. The California results suggest this effort could well pay off.
Beyond California, the strategy has been on display most vividly in Virginia, which, along with New Jersey, holds its gubernatorial election this year. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, is seeking a second, nonconsecutive term and has for months pounded Republican rival Glenn Youngkin as “Glenn Trumpkin.”
Youngkin hasn’t made a big show of his multiple endorsements from Trump, instead promoting himself as a successful businessman and political outsider. But whether Youngkin likes it or not, Trump has inserted himself into the race. That includes a July 9 statement attacking McAuliffeas a "failed and unpopular governor" who once took a $25,000 campaign donation from Trump.
Elder wasn’t able to evade Trump in California, suggesting Youngkin won’t be able to, either. Though Elder once called Trump “almost God-sent,” telling an audience of conservatives in 2019, “The election of Donald Trump in 2016, in my opinion, was divine intervention,” two years later the candidate tried to instead talk up California issues. Elder didn’t run away from his past Trump support during the recall campaign, but mostly only discussed it when queried by reporters in interviews and otherwise appeared indifferent to it.
To be sure, California is an imperfect test case for the anti-Trump strategy. Democrats have a voter registration edge of nearly 2-1, which always made successfully recalling Newsom a daunting task. But the Trump-centric approach proved the catalyst for Newsom’s turnaround after he faced what in late July seemed like a realistic chance of getting recalled. At the time, a University of California, Berkeley/Los Angeles Times poll frightened many Democrats by finding 47 percent of the electorate favoring Newsom’s recall and a bare 50 percent favoring his retention.
With Republicans hammering the governor daily over California’s Covid-19 response, rampant homelessness and a range of other endemic problems, the Newsom campaign began focusing almost entirely on linking Elder to Trump.
Elder, a first-time candidate, also ran into trouble over stories about apparently failing to properly disclose his personal finances. And after more than 20 years of hosting a three-hour daily radio show and writing provocative books, opposition researchers had an easy time digging up past comments not likely to sit well with voters today.
But Trump’s insertion of himself into the race likely helped run up the score in the incumbent’s favor as a last-minute reminder to potential voters why they should cast ballots against Elder. Trump himself likely didn’t help the cause when he chimed in on the campaign’s final day that the contest was “probably rigged” and Newsom would therefore prevail – not exactly the kind of move to stir get-out-the-vote enthusiasm.
Early voting in Virginia begins Friday, after an Aug. 31 Monmouth University poll of registered voters gave McAuliffe a 47 percent to 42 percent edge over Youngkin. Though Virginia is much less blue than California, the referendum outcome showed Trump is still a motivator for Democratic voters. Which makes it no surprise that McAuliffe has continued rhetorically tying his opponent to Trump.
The head of the Democratic Party also seems to see wisdom in the Trump-centered strategy. At a Monday night rally with Newsom in Long Beach, California, Biden frequently targeted his White House predecessor. “All of you know in the last year I got to run against the real Donald Trump,” Biden said. “Well, this year the leading Republican running for governor is the closest thing to a Trump clone that I’ve ever seen in your state.”
From Biden’s perspective, tying any and all Republican candidates to Trump has the added benefit of shifting attention away from his own falling approval ratings. The U.S. military’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan, the ongoing pandemic and a range of other factors have put Biden on the defensive against Republican attacks.
That consideration, aided by the strong recall results in Newsom’s favor, mean we should expect to hear waves of anti-Trump rhetoric coming a lot more often through November 2022. From the White House on down.