Earlier this year, the conventional political wisdom in California was that for Governor Gavin Newsom to survive the recall election, Democrats would be wise to push the election date as far into the future as legally possible. They would have to hope against hope that a public disenchanted with a year-long closure of the state’s K-12 schools and unhappy with how businesses were treated during the pandemic would forgive and forget and ultimately give the governor a second chance.
That sentiment wasn’t based on hard numbers—even in March, polls showed that only around 40 percent of voters supported the recall—but rather on a hunch that Newsom’s support was soft. He wasn’t doing enough to motivate his base to turn out in high numbers to oppose a well-funded recall effort, and, as a result, he could stumble into a loss and allow a Republican to get the most votes on the second question in the recall—the one that asks who should replace the current governor were he to fail to survive the recall challenge.
Now, however, both the course of the pandemic and the financial cushion enjoyed by the state government are such that the sooner the election is held, the more likely Newsom will cruise to victory. Polling in late May showed that 57 percent of the state’s voters would vote to keep Newsom in office.
Since the Democrats control all the branches of state government in California, the party can use election deadlines and election law to try to schedule the vote at the moment most favorable to the governor. And that moment looks to be soon. There are still a number of prerequisites that have to be completed before a date is set—including a final verification, by June 22, of county-by-county numbers for petition signatures in support of holding a recall vote—which means that the election can’t be held in the next month or two. But it could be held as soon as possible after these formalities are completed, and it likely will. If I were a betting man, I’d say the election will be held before the summer is out or, at the latest, in early autumn, allowing Newsom to take advantage of a set of favorable conditions that only a few months ago would have seemed entirely improbable.
After 15 months of shutdowns to counter the spread of Covid, this week, with the state’s vaccination campaign moving at a rapid clip, the governor lifted virtually all remaining restrictions on how Californians can interact with one another and on what businesses can and can’t open. The color-coded tier system, which has been used at a county level to determine whether schools can hold in-person classes and whether restaurants can serve diners indoors, among other things, has been retired. And the requirement that vaccinated residents wear masks in public indoor settings has been withdrawn, bringing the state in line with the more recent CDC guidelines.
California was posting between 40,000 and 60,000 new Covid cases a day at the start of the year. It is now seeing an average of roughly 1,000 per day. Newsom is using the full policy arsenal of the state, now including giving $50 grocery store gift certificates to people who get vaccinated, and automatically enrolling residents in vaccine lotteries once they get their jabs, to push the vaccination numbers higher. Since upwards of 90 percent of elderly Californians are now fully vaccinated, the state has seen a vast, and sustained, drop in deaths attributed to the disease.
Economically, too, California is in a far different place from where it was a year ago, when a seeming financial and employment free fall threatened to strip the state of the ability to sustain investments in everything from public universities to subsidies for the purchase of electric vehicles.
The austerity budget enacted last year threatened to undo years of investments in progressive policies such as expanding health care access and protecting the environment. It also threatened to unravel Newsom’s political coalition, with unions representing government workers particularly enraged that he pushed pay cuts and furloughs on state employees. Now, by contrast, Newsom has the unprecedented luxury of presiding over a budget surplus and an infusion of federal dollars that, between them, have given the state an additional $100 billion-plus to play with. As I have written about in earlier columns, the governor is using that money to powerful effect, pushing a set of policies, from increased health insurance subsidies to broad investments in education systems and fire-prevention strategies, that will have tangible benefits for millions of his state’s residents over the coming months and years. He has reversed the pay cuts to state workers—and, in so doing, has brought the SEIU locals that had opposed him back on board. In fact, the SEIU local, despite the opposition of its incoming president, recently approved a $1 million donation to help fight against the recall effort. Newsom is also proposing a vast set of investments and policy changes to finally tackle the state’s shameful housing crisis.
There is, of course, no guarantee that the public health and fiscal good times will last, or that Newsom’s poll numbers will continue to stay strong. He has, after all, a long history of popularity-sapping gaffes, including, most recently, his now-notorious French Laundry luncheon while the virus was surging. But, for now, with the election likely just a couple of months ahead, things are clearly trending the Democratic governor’s way.