The Dixie fire in Northern California has consumed half a million acres of forest and spewed smoke across the continent. But at the same time as this climate change-induced catastrophe wreaks havoc, there’s also a political five-alarm fire raging, still largely below the radar. So far, it hasn’t gotten quite the national attention it merits. But over the next month, the rest of the country will likely realize just how dangerous, and potentially transformative, this fire could be. It threatens to set off a national political explosion that could affect everything from congressional redistricting to pandemic responses to efforts to tackle climate change and maintain green energy and transport policies.
Earlier this week, gubernatorial recall election ballots started arriving in Californians’ mailboxes. Voters have until September 14 to send them back. Many will, of course, vote early. But many others either aren’t aware that the election is taking place or are confused about how the two-part ballot works.
“Many voters will miss the ballot or think it’s junk mail,” says Ludovic Blain, executive director of the California Donor Table, a group that channels resources into organizing and reaching out to minority voters in the state. “And it’s counterintuitive: To keep the governor, you have to vote ‘no.’”
California’s recall process is, from start to finish, an exercise in dysfunction. The rules are bizarre to the point of being illegitimate. The ballot presents voters with two choices: whether the sitting governor should be recalled, and, if he is, who should replace him. Because of the arcane rules, the sitting governor needs 50 percent to avoid being tossed out on his rear end, but whoever replaces him just needs more votes than anyone else on the second ballot.
A few months back, Newsom made the hubristic and selfish decision to block any and all high-profile Democratic contenders from putting their name on the second ballot. There are, however, nine lower-tier Democrats on the ballot, including a 29 -year-old YouTube influencer who is apparently leading the pack. But they are all political lightweights with no experience on California’s main stage. Newsom’s strategic gamble in keeping the second ballot effectively Democrat-free has opened up a window of opportunity for the GOP: Out of the more than two dozen Republicans on the ballot, there are five or six with a shot at victory. Each stands a fairly good chance of being elected with only about 15 to 20 percent of the vote, in an election in which few eligible voters appear likely to cast a vote in the first place.
Constitutional law experts such as Erwin Chemerinsky believe this whole process should immediately be ruled unconstitutional, since it distorts the will of the people beyond all recognition. There’s a strong likelihood that a popular Democratic governor, who won election in 2018 with 61.9 percent of the vote—more than 7.7 million votes—could win nearly 50 percent of the vote in 2021 only to be replaced by an unpopular Republican who wins barely one-third of that percentage. In a state with 40 million people, it’s entirely conceivable that a new governor could be “elected” with fewer than 2 million votes.
Realistically, though, however unfair it is, it’s unlikely that any court is going to put the kibosh on the election this late in the game. Which means that, over the next few weeks, Democrats have no choice but to fight like hell to protect their power in a state that they have taken for granted would generate one Democratic victory after another after another over the coming years.
That won’t be easy. Operating under the assumption that they’d defeat the recall in a cakewalk, Democrats neglected to build up a strong ground game over the past months. As a result, the front-runner on the second question on the recall ballot is Larry Elder, a far-right radio host from Los Angeles. His politics—opposition to mask mandates, hostility to Roe v. Wade, support for Donald Trump, a belief in abolishing the minimum wage—puts him on par with Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and places him miles to the right of the great majority of Californians.
If this election were held on a regular Election Day, with the mass of Californians engaged and aware of the process, Elder wouldn’t reach 30 percent of the vote. He’d be as hammered by Newsom as Trump was by Biden in the state. But this isn’t a regular election; it’s a sneak attack on the political process. The minoritarian GOP has identified the Achilles’ heel that could threaten Democratic rule in the state, by marshaling a conservative base to win an election that virtually no one is paying attention to.
Voter mobilization experts are increasingly worried that turnout will be shockingly low, with numbers more typical of a primary than a general election, and that such a low turnout will work to the benefit of conservatives. Analysis of who is likely to vote in the election shows that white voters will be overrepresented, while Black, Latino, and Asian American voters will be underrepresented.
In liberal regions of the state such as the Bay Area, there’s no evidence of a ground game by Democrats to mobilize voters; by contrast, in conservative regions, such as the Inland Empire, and in politically contested locales such as parts of the Central Valley, Orange County, and San Diego, pro-recall groups have hit the ground running for months now. They are building up not just an effective recall effort in those areas but also reinvigorating a long-dormant GOP infrastructure in critical congressional districts that the Democrats have to either seize or hold on to in 2022 in order to preserve a majority in the US House of Representatives.
Voter outreach groups are increasingly concerned that Newsom’s campaign, which is sitting on a roughly $60 million war chest, is making a critical strategic mistake. They worry that his team, powered by high-profile Bay Area consultants wedded to high-tech solutions to any and all political problems, is putting almost all of the campaign’s efforts into mass media and social media advertising blitzes and neglecting the ground game, especially when it comes to reaching out to low-income and nonwhite voters. They are deeply concerned that Newsom hasn’t learned the lesson of states like Georgia and Arizona in 2020, where it was the old-school knock-on-doors strategy that ultimately mobilized voters to come out and vote for Biden.
“There’s no sign they’re listening to us so far,” says Blain. California Donor Table has been pleading with the governor’s campaign to release millions of dollars for an on-the-ground surge. To date, that surge of activity hasn’t happened, leaving Donor Table, various trade unions, and other groups with a grassroots infrastructure in the Central Valley and elsewhere to try to plug the gap as best they can.
Recent polling has shown that Newsom’s once-secure lead has all but evaporated, and that among likely voters he is either hovering at or just below the 50 percent he needs to survive the vote. One poll earlier this week even showed a large lead for the pro-recall campaign. Among Latino voters—a vital part of the Democratic Party’s coalition, which has been hit brutally hard by the pandemic, rising crime rates, and the drought—support for the recall now outpaces opposition, according to a poll this month by Emerson College Polling.
“If the vote were held today, he’d lose,” Blain says of Newsom’s chances. “I think he doesn’t understand how much he needs the field campaign.” But Blain also believes there’s still a small window—a week to 10 days, as the mailed-out ballots reach Californians—to turn the election around through massive voter outreach efforts.
“There is time to right the boat,” says Blain, “but it’s within the next week or week and a half. The ballots are dropping now.”