Current time in California: Sept. 14, 2:36 p.m.
Reporting from Sacramento
If Gov. Gavin Newsom does get ousted, the leading candidate to replace him is Larry Elder, an AM radio fixture for millions of Californians fed up with liberal Democratic politics. Leaders in both parties aren’t exactly happy.
Voter turnout for the recall appears high by nearly any standard other than the 2020 presidential election. Already, nearly twice as many people have returned ballots as cast votes in total in the last California gubernatorial recall election in 2003, when the Democrat Gray Davis was replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
This is what I keep thinking about: If Gov. Gavin Newsom had been spotted on the patio of a tiny neighborhood bistro just after urging California residents to stay home last November, we might not be blogging about a recall today.
Instead, Mr. Newsom was seen at The French Laundry, attending the birthday dinner of Sacramento lobbyist Jason Kinney. The images of him hobnobbing with guests, indoors, without a mask on, at one of the country’s most expensive restaurants, were immediately and powerfully symbolic.
The chef Thomas Keller took over the Yountville restaurant in the mid-90s and defined that era’s American fine-dining sensibility, equal parts playful and extravagant. Reservations were (and continue to be) impossible. Dishes such as the silky tuna tartare, held in a tiny, crisp cone, were (and continue to be) widely replicated, though most restaurants simply can’t replicate the atmosphere — the lush gardens, the perfume of fresh black truffles, the perfectly pressed uniforms.
As a line cook in my 20s, I studied the recipes and photographs in The French Laundry cookbook, hoping its knowledge would transfer to me, reading and rereading it so many times that the pages became soft and worn at the edges. But not long before Governor Newsom attended that private party, fueling support for the recall, I wrote about how a meal there felt a bit like sneaking onto an opulent spaceship, orbiting a burning planet. I was uncomfortable with its excess.
The restaurant’s luxurious ingredients, meticulous techniques and impeccable, formal service appeared as a kind of culinary anachronism. The 10-course tasting menu cost about $350 per person, and, during the pandemic, the restaurant started private indoor dining at $850 per person.
It’s no surprise the restaurant has become such an essential part of the recall narrative. Dinner at The French Laundry isn’t so much dinner anymore as it is a status symbol, like macaroni and cheese served in a giant golden egg.
SAN FRANCISCO — In Jose Orbeta’s opinion, the entire recall election is a “waste of time.”
“It’s a power grab by the G.O.P.,” said Mr. Orbeta, a 50-year-old Department of Public Health employee. He voted to keep Gov. Gavin Newsom in office, saying he had done a “decent job” leading California through the pandemic despite his “lapse of judgment” in dining at the French Laundry during the height of the outbreak.
Mr. Orbeta was one of many voters to cite Mr. Newsom’s handling of the coronavirus in voting to keep him in office.
Over 80 percent of eligible residents have been vaccinated in the heavily Democratic San Francisco, which along with the surrounding Bay Area was one of the first places to shut down in March 2020.
“A lot of California got out in front of it, and acting early was helpful,” said Wayne Losey, 54, who was voting in Chinatown before dropping his daughter off at school. Many voters said that while they had concerns about Mr. Newsom — “not progressive enough,” in the opinion of Rebecca Foster, a Mission resident, or “a little corporate,” as Mr. Losey put it — the alternative, Larry Elder, was worse.
Lachlan Ashenmiller, 22, was put off by Mr. Elder’s support for eliminating the minimum wage and his suggestion that slave owners, not descendants of slaves, could be owed reparations. “I’m not a huge Newsom fan, but I don’t want Elder,” said Mr. Ashenmiller, who said he got his information from friends posting infographics on Instagram and journalists he follows on Twitter.
But a few voters said they were supporting Mr. Elder in the recall. They pointed to local issues, like homelessness, in explaining their vote: “Filthy, nasty, crime rate’s up,” Patrick Harris, 53, said of his Tenderloin neighborhood.
At City Hall, bright blue tents signaling ballot drop-off sites dotted Civic Center Plaza. Volunteers played music and passed around a pink bakery box full of sesame balls. “Better late than never!” said one voter, pulling up in a silver Subaru Forester to drop off her ballot. “You’re not late,” replied Nate Orman, a public-school teacher volunteering at the drop-off site. “You’re right on time.”
With more than nine million ballots already cast early or by mail, Californians, from Mendocino County to Monterey Park, came out to cast their votes and determine Gov. Gavin Newsom’s fate. In Laytonville, the local Lions Club served as a voting center.
People lined up to vote outside the Central Library in Huntington Beach in Orange County, while election workers delivered registrar supplies. Richard Thompson, an assistant election manager, prepared for Election Day in the Redwood Playhouse in Garberville, Calif.; and one voter in Anaheim was accompanied by her young child as she cast a ballot in the recall election.
Statewide, some 13 million ballots were left to be cast or postmarked on Election Day, but the race was expected to have high turnout overall for an off-year election.
California has long cast itself as a leader in the fight against global warming, with more solar panels and electric cars than anywhere else in the nation. But the state’s ambitious climate policies now face their biggest reckoning to date in Tuesday’s recall election.
Many of the candidates vying to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom have sharply criticized California’s aggressive plans to slash planet-warming emissions, arguing that they are driving up costs across the state. Larry Elder, the main Republican challenger, has said that “global warming alarmism is a crock” and that he “intends to stop the war on oil and gas.”
Mr. Newsom, for his part, has insisted that California can’t afford to ignore the threat of global warming, particularly in the midst of yet another devastating wildfire season. He has vowed to speed up efforts to cut the state’s emissions, with plans to ban sales of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035 and restrict oil and gas drilling.
The outcome of the election could have nationwide implications for efforts to tackle global warming, given California’s vast size and influence. The state has long pioneered major climate policies, such as laws to bolster renewable energy or electric vehicles, that have later been copied by other states.
Any new governor would be unlikely to overturn many of California’s key climate laws, not least because the legislature would remain under Democratic control. But, experts said, that could still leave room for major changes. A new governor could, for instance, rescind Mr. Newsom’s order to phase out new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035 or his push to restrict oil and gas drilling, since those were issued by executive order. And any governor would also have broad influence over agency appointments and in shaping how existing climate laws are implemented.
“There’s the real potential for a huge shift in direction,” said Richard Frank, a professor of environmental law at the University of California, Davis. “California has had substantial influence over the direction of climate policy both nationally and internationally, and that could easily wane.”
On Monday, President Biden visited California to campaign for Mr. Newsom and to survey the damage from the state’s recent wildfires. While Mr. Biden highlighted the role of climate change in fueling larger fires, he left unsaid a second part: If California does decide to shift course on climate policy, it will be much harder for the president to fulfill his promises of cutting greenhouse gas emissions across the country.
A temporary change in California’s election rules aimed at protecting voters during the coronavirus pandemic could be instrumental in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s effort to beat back a proposed recall — and could become permanent if the governor signs a bill that state lawmakers passed on Sept. 2.
Voting by mail has emerged as a critical factor in the Republican-led recall, which political experts say will probably hinge on whether Mr. Newsom, a Democrat, can incite turnout in the state’s enormous base of liberal voters before the polls close on Sept. 14.
Because of the coronavirus, lawmakers ensured that ballots would automatically be mailed to every registered, active voter, turning an already popular option into the default through at least the end of this year.
As a result, political experts tracking returns in the recall are predicting that at least 50 percent of registered voters will cast ballots, roughly double the turnout that would be expected in a special election.
LADERA RANCH, Calif. — At the Oak Knoll Village Clubhouse, deep in the affluent suburbs of southern Orange County, a steady stream of late model crossover S.U.V.s parked in the lot at 9 a.m.
The vote center is nestled in an enormous sprawl of Spanish Mission and Tuscan-inspired tract mansions where supporters of former President Donald J. Trump have rallied in the past.
Lindsay Henry, 41, dropped off her ballot with her 19-year-old son, Tyler, at the Oak Knoll Village clubhouse in Ladera Ranch.
While her son voted for the recall, she said she voted against it.
“I’m definitely not a Gavin fan,” she said. “I just think it’s a waste of money if we’re going to have to do this again next year.”
Both mother and son chose Anthony Trimino, “a Laderian” they know personally, on the second question.
“He’s very faith-based and generous,” Ms. Henry said.
“He’s a good speaker,” her son added.
Candice Carvalho, 42, cast her ballot against the recall because, she said, “I thought it was important to show that Orange County isn’t just Republicans.”
She expressed frustration that the recall was taking so much attention at a critical moment in the pandemic.
“It was a waste of money and completely unnecessary,” she said. “And I’m a little shocked we’re focusing on this now.”
Ms. Carvalho said she doesn’t know much about the specifics of the recall law, but “it seems slightly too easy to put this recall on.”
A handful of voters heading into the polls said they were supporting the recall.
Leslie Geer, 39, who wore a flowered tennis skirt, was among them. The teaching assistant and mother of three said she wanted to vote in person because she was worried about mail-in ballot fraud.
She planned to vote for Larry Elder, who she said she listened to growing up, because he planned to lift vaccine mandates.
But, she said, “anyone would be better than Gavin Newsom,” who she blamed for poverty, homelessness and high taxes.
“We just need a fresh start,” she said.
MONTEREY PARK, Calif. — In Larry Elder’s California, the streets are awash in criminals, homeless people are running rampant, schools are failing and if it weren’t for poor management of forests — rather than climate change — the wildfire crisis wouldn’t exist.
“We’ve got rising crime, rising homelessness, an outrageous rise in the cost of living, declining public school standards,” Mr. Elder, the conservative radio host who is the leading contender to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom if the recall effort succeeds, said in a speech on Monday. “We have five seasons here in California. The fifth one is the fire season. And that’s because of the poor management of our forests.”
At Mr. Elder’s campaign events in Los Angeles County on Monday — the last on his schedule, save for a “victory party” Tuesday night at a hotel in Orange County — there seemed to be nearly as many journalists in attendance as supporters. He spoke in Monterey Park, at a hilltop park in San Pedro, with the Pacific Ocean and the Port of Los Angeles in the background, and dropped in during lunch time at Philippe the Original, famous for its French dip sandwiches.
In remarks outside City Hall in Monterey Park, a city in the eastern part of Los Angeles County that is majority Asian American, Mr. Elder sought to harness anger among conservatives and others over Mr. Newsom’s coronavirus shutdowns last year, and linked that issue with another that Mr. Elder has highlighted and run on: the failure of public schools, which were largely closed down last year in favor of remote learning, and support for school choice.
“As Gavin Newsom sat at the French Laundry restaurant with the very people that drafted the mandates that they were violating, they weren’t wearing masks, they weren’t engaging in social distancing, Gavin Newsom’s own kids were enjoying in-person private education,” he told a gathering of several dozen supporters, referring to a dinner Mr. Newsom, unmasked, attended last year at a wine country restaurant, an episode that energized the recall movement.
Taking a page from former President Donald Trump’s playbook, Mr. Elder’s campaign has also sought to stoke fears of rising crime and has portrayed the conservative radio host as someone who can restore “law and order.”
During the campaign, Mr. Elder has suggested if he loses he might blame voter fraud, just as Mr. Trump falsely did. On Monday, though, he didn’t take the bait when asked if he would accept the results if he loses (polls show that Mr. Newsom is likely to win.)
“Yes, because I’m going to win,” he told reporters in San Pedro. “I’ll be very happy with the results. I anticipate winning, so there won’t be a question about the results because I’m going to win.”
YORBA LINDA, Calif. — Sue Vonidstein, a 61-year-old former business owner, said she could not remember whether she had voted for Gov. Gavin Newsom when he first ran in 2018. An independent in one of the most conservative parts of Orange County, Ms. Vonidstein had voted for Democrats in the past. But as soon as she heard about the recall, she was certain she would try to vote Mr. Newsom out of office.
“He’s not acting like a governor, he’s acting like a dictator,” she said, pointing to his pandemic restrictions and support of vaccine mandates. “There are other governors allowing people to make their own choices. There aren’t people falling down dead on the street.”
Just a few miles away from Richard Nixon’s birthplace, voters lined up at a Yorba Linda park at a steady clip, many there at the urging of Republican leaders who had told them, without evidence, that casting a ballot by mail was less secure.
“We’ve gotten a governor out of office before — we can do it again, and we should do it again,” Ms. Vonidstein said, adding that she strongly opposed any change to the recall system, which has been widely criticized.
“We elect them, and if they are not doing a good job, we should be able to remove them, just like a business.”
For Jose Zenon, a Republican who runs an event-planning business with his wife, it is both the pandemic restrictions and the high taxes that infuriate him. Like other opponents of Mr. Newsom, he pointed to examples of his friends leaving for other states, such as Texas, Arizona and Nevada.
“That train out of here is really long, and we might be getting on it, too,” he said, just after voting for Larry Elder, the Republican front-runner and conservative talk-radio host. “The rules this governor made put a lot of businesses in an impossible position — we were without income for 10 months. Here we live in a condo, we want to have a home, but it’s just impossible. Something’s got to change.”
WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — If Frankie Santos could have scrawled “Absolutely no” to recalling Gov. Gavin Newsom on her ballot without invalidating her vote, she would have done so, she said.
“This recall is so dumb. It’s so not a good use of resources,” said the 43-year-old artist after voting at Plummer Park in Hollywood.
Ms. Santos said that she was among those who would favor changing the process to eliminate the possibility of a small group “so easily,” in her view, triggering a recall to remove a governor from office.
She is part of a growing chorus of people in the state calling for California’s system of direct democracy to be reformed.
To put a recall on the ballot, supporters must collect signatures equivalent to only 12 percent of all the votes cast in the last election for governor, the least of any state in which a governor can be removed by a recall vote.
The state has allowed recall elections since 1911, and every governor in the last six decades has faced a recall effort. Two, including the effort against Mr. Newsom, have qualified for the ballot. Gray Davis, a Democrat, was removed from office in 2003 and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.
A few feet from the polling station, typing on his laptop under the shade of a tree, was Jacob Sainz, who said he had voted “Definitely no” to recalling Mr. Newsom. He lamented that 1.5 million signatures were all it took to force an expensive election to take place.
“The governor’s almost at the end of his term,” said Mr. Sainz, a 28-year-old brand manager. “It’s a waste of money. A big waste of money.”
Plus, he noted, “I don’t disagree with most of his policies.”
Mr. Newsom is likely to survive the recall, according to polls. But not all voters in the area, the heart of a large Russian immigrant community, felt the campaign was for naught.
Dmitriy Belyavskiy emerged from the voting site decked out in a Trump 2020 cap, Trump wristband and a mask inscribed with “All aboard the Trump train.”
“Newsom is a big jerk. He destroyed California,” declared Mr. Belyavskiy, 45, a chess and history tutor who said that he had served in the U.S. Army after immigrating to the United States when he was 19.
His voice bristling with contempt, he listed grievances that he felt justified recalling the governor. “Illegal immigrants swarming in and stealing low-paying jobs; crazy taxes; high gas prices; the homeless crisis; crime,” he said.
Mr. Belyavskiy said he had voted “loud and proud” for Larry Elder, the top Republican contender.
This recall election has revealed something of a paradox among Californians: We hold dear our ability to recall elected leaders from office but believe the process by which we do so to be deeply flawed. In recent weeks, there have been a growing number of calls to reform the state’s recall laws.
As of July, two-thirds of Californians thought the process was ripe for change, according to a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.
But changing it is a difficult two-step process that includes amendments to the State Constitution.
The last time a governor faced a recall in California, in 2003, voters removed from office Gray Davis, a Democrat, and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s critics are hoping for a similar outcome when election results are released on Tuesday night.
But experts say that the political landscape in California has shifted significantly over the past 18 years, with a smaller share of Republicans and more hardened party lines making a recall less likely.
Between 2003 and 2021, the fraction of registered Republican voters in California plummeted to 24 percent from 35 percent, while Californians registered as Democrats increased slightly, to 46 percent from 44 percent, according to state data.
Voters registered without a party preference increased to 23 percent from 16 percent, and those voters tend to lean Democratic, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
These shifts have resulted in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly two to one. That means that if everyone voted in this election, and voted along party lines, it would be impossible for Newsom to be ousted. (Recalling Mr. Newsom requires approval from more than half of voters.)
If overall election turnout hits even 60 percent, the proposed ouster of Mr. Newsom would be highly unlikely because of how many voters are Democrats, according to Paul Mitchell, a vice president of Political Data Inc., a nonpartisan supplier of election data.
This is a different scenario than in 2003, when Republicans weren’t such a small share of the electorate and the election didn’t fall so clearly along party lines, said Raphael Sonenshein, the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.
Then, it was more common to hear Democrats opposing the Democratic governor, Mr. Sonenshein said. And Mr. Schwarzenegger had cross-aisle appeal as a moderate Republican, and also a movie star.
“Arnold was to many Dems a perfectly acceptable alternative,” Mr. Sonenshein said. “Today the party lines are much harder.”
Political experts have been saying for weeks that Mr. Newsom’s success in beating back the recall hinges on boosting election turnout.
But, for Mr. Davis, who was battling Mr. Schwarzenegger’s star power and his own lower-approval ratings, “It wasn’t clear in 2003 that it was about turnout,” Mr. Sonenshein said.
In fact, 61 percent of Californians voted in the 2003 recall election, far higher than what would typically be expected for a special election. And Mr. Davis still lost.
As the recall election drew to a close, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the candidates running to replace him made their final pitches to California voters on Monday.
Mr. Newsom was joined by President Biden at a campaign rally in Long Beach on Monday night. Larry Elder, a conservative talk radio personality and the front-runner to replace Mr. Newsom if he is recalled, addressed a group of volunteers at a rally in Costa Mesa, in Orange County. And on Monday, voters were turning in ballots at vote centers across the state, including at City Hall in San Francisco and Westminster Presbyterian Church in Pasadena.
Roughly 8.7 million ballots had been returned before Tuesday, the official Election Day and the last day to return ballots in person or by mail. Of those, a majority, 52 percent, were from registered Democrats; nearly 26 percent were from Republicans, and nearly 23 percent were from voters who belonged to another party or declined to state a preference.
After the polls overestimated Democratic candidates in 2016 and 2020, it is reasonable to wonder whether Gov. Gavin Newsom’s lead in the California recall election might prove as illusory as Hillary Clinton’s lead in Wisconsin or Joe Biden’s in Florida.
It’s not impossible. But Mr. Newsom’s lead now dwarfs the typical polling error and is large enough to withstand nearly every statewide polling miss in recent memory.
Opposition to recalling Mr. Newsom leads by 16 points, 57.3 to 41.5 percent, according to the FiveThirtyEight average. Polls in 2020 overestimated the Democrats by an average of about five percentage points.
There was no state in either the 2016 or 2020 presidential elections where the final polls missed by 16 percentage points. Perhaps the worst recent polling miss — Senator Susan Collins’s comfortable nine-point victory after trailing in the polls by three points — is in the ballpark, but would still fall five points short of erasing Mr. Newsom’s lead.
Many of the most embarrassing and high-profile misses for pollsters, such as the seven-point polling errors in Wisconsin in 2016 and 2020, might still leave Mr. Newsom with a double-digit victory.
It is hard to find many precedents for such a large polling error. According to Harry Enten, a writer at CNN, there are only four cases in the last 20 years where the polling average in a race for governor was off by at least 15 percentage points.
Mr. Newsom’s opponents can hope that the idiosyncrasies of a recall election might make it more challenging for pollsters than a typical general election. Special and primary elections often have larger polling errors.
But the polls were fairly accurate in the last California gubernatorial recall and dead-on in the high-profile effort to recall former Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin in 2012. The high turnout in early voting in California so far tends to reduce the risk that an unusual turnout would contribute to a particularly large polling error.
And California is not a state where the polls have missed badly in recent election cycles. The largest polling errors have been in Wisconsin, Maine and other states with large numbers of white working-class voters. That’s not California. Just 22 percent of California voters in 2020 were whites without a four-year college degree, the second lowest of any state, according to census data.
Perhaps as a result, statewide polling in California has generally been fairly accurate.
Joe Biden led the final California polls by 29.2 points, according to FiveThirtyEight.
He won by 29.2 points.
President Biden embraced Gov. Gavin Newsom’s go-to political tactic in this week’s recall election during a trip to California on Monday — tying the leading Republican contender, the right-wing talk radio host Larry Elder, to Donald Trump.
“All of you know in the last year I got to run against the real Donald Trump,” said Mr. Biden at a rally in Long Beach, sweeping a hand over his blue blazer and tieless dress shirt to outline the sign of the cross. “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.”
Earlier in Mr. Biden’s term, when his approval ratings were high, he took pains to avoid even muttering his predecessor’s name, referring to him, comically, as the “former guy.” But now, after a slide in public approval following the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, the president has returned to the unvarnished anti-Trump message that helped get him elected in 2020.
It is a message Democratic congressional candidates are expected to hammer in the 2022 midterms — that they, for all their flaws, are the only ones standing between a return of Trump and his acolytes.
“He’s the clone of Donald Trump,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Elder. “Can you imagine him being governor of this state? You can’t let that happen.”
It didn’t take long for Mr. Trump to chime in; he issued a statement Tuesday that criticized Mr. Newsom’s water management policies and returned to a familiar theme: The election is rigged.
At the same time, though, he predicted a Newsom win.
“People don’t realize that, despite the Rigged voting in California (I call it the ‘Swarming Ballots’), I got 1.5 Million more votes in 2020 than I did in 2016,” Mr. Trump said. “The place is so Rigged, however, that a guy who can’t even bring water into their State, which I got federal approval to do (that is the hard part), will probably win.”
SACRAMENTO — Whoever wins the recall election will govern from a city that before the pandemic was in the throes of a transformation from administrative capital into a hub of entertainment and culture.
But the pandemic slammed Sacramento hard.
So many downtown shopfronts are empty and so many banners advertise for new tenants that a visitor could be forgiven for thinking that a company named “For Lease” had taken over the city.
Larry Elder, the main Republican challenger to Gov. Gavin Newsom, paints a dark picture of California, one of devastated small businesses, rampant homelessness and crime.
Seen from the streets of the capital it’s easy to understand how that message gained traction.
Downtown Sacramento feels hollowed out and beaten down.
In the grid of streets surrounding the Capitol that once teemed with legislators, lobbyists and tourists, there are dozens of failed businesses: A cafe, a steakhouse, an art gallery, all deserted. A defunct jewelry store with nothing left but bare display cases; a Chinese restaurant, steps from the Capitol, with boarded up windows; a psychic’s consultation service where a sign says “open” but a padlocked metal gate says otherwise.
“It’s freaky out there,” said Ibrahim Abukhdair, owner of the The Blue Ox, a clothing store on K Street, a tree-lined avenue that runs through the heart of the city. His shop is one of the few businesses in the neighborhood that survived the pandemic.
“This is the heart of the state capital,” Mr. Abukhdair said, “And it’s a ghost town.”
Cesar Chavez Plaza, a downtown park, is almost entirely inhabited by homeless people whose precarious state forces them to perform in public what the housed have the luxury of doing in private.
And to add to a feeling of gloom in Sacramento, Darrell Steinberg, the city’s mayor, announced over the weekend that he contracted a breakthrough case of the coronavirus.
Last year the internet business review site Yelp calculated that 1,500 businesses closed down in the Sacramento area as pandemic restrictions set in. Many of those never reopened. A separate Yelp report from September 2020 found that California had the second-largest number of business closures, after Hawaii.
A quick walk from the governor’s office, in an entryway filled with trash, the staff of Ma Jong’s Asian Diner left a forlorn note for their customers telling them of the restaurant’s closure.
“The pandemic and lack of business downtown has been difficult,” it said. “Thank you for 16 years of great friendships and joyous memories.”