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Politics

Well That Was A Big Waste Of Time

California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks during a campaign event with US President Joe Biden at Long Beach City Collage in Long Beach, California on September 13, 2021. - US President Joe Biden kicked off a visit to scorched western states Monday to hammer home his case on climate change and big public investments, as well as to campaign in California's recall election. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

The not-quite-best efforts of a C-Team of right-wing doofuses to seize the California Governor’s Mansion fell embarrassingly short on Tuesday. Gavin Newsom is still the governor today, as he was yesterday, as he has been since he was elected by historic margins in 2018. He won that election by 24 percent and carried elephantine Orange County by 4,000 votes, then rolled through yesterday’s recall election with an even more commanding margin both across the state (28 percent) and in a suite of seemingly hostile counties. This time, he won in Orange by more than 50,000 votes.

It would be reductive to think that there’s nothing we can learn from Newsom’s resounding win, which came a year after one of the most symbolically potent gaffes in recent memory, though the rush of takes misreads the most relevant dynamic of the election. The failed recall effort is not an ominous sign for the national future of the Democratic Party’s “stars,” nor is it an unambiguous piece of evidence that Trumpism’s specter is farting itself to death. For all the valid critiques of Newsom’s tenure as governor and the long-term contradictions that he is unable or unwilling to square, he also ended up pretty much exactly where he started. The results of the recall affirmed that California’s electorate hasn’t swung 20 points right in the last nine months. Okay.

The recall’s fundamentally anti-majoritarian structure and bizarre procedural mechanics legitimized a shallow vein of rage into an existential threat for Newsom, though to focus on the threat and the rage instead of the legitimation is to transpose forest and tree. All we truly learned by wasting all this time and money is that California’s recall law is outdated and easily exploited.

There are three numbers that tell the whole story: 12 percent, $275 million, 21 minutes. California is one of 19 states in the union with a mechanism allowing voters to trigger a recall election of state officials. Unlike any other state with a sizable population, California sets a low bar for doing so. Only 12 percent of voters from the most recent gubernatorial election need to sign a recall petition to force an election (most of the other states put the limit at 25 percent). The recall law was put in place 110 years ago as a check on the power of robber barons; Gray Davis is the only governor to actually lose a recall election (to Arnold Schwarzenegger, in 2003) but every Democratic governor in the past few decades has contended with near-constant petitions. Few of them ever cross that 12-percent line, and indeed, the 2021 petition needed some serious shenanigans to do so. Trump-appointed Judge James P. Arguelles granted petitioners a five-month extension to gather signatures, an expanded window that allowed reactionaries to limp over the line. Naturally, Arguelles’s former law partner Bradley Benbrook represented the recall effort.

The recall was always going to be a long shot, even if Davis went down 18 years ago. Davis was politically cooked by 2003, and an organized, well-funded effort led by a celebrity was enough to get by a scrambled Democratic Party that was saddled with an unpopular incumbent and then further confused everyone by running Cruz Bustamante as a backup candidate. In this case, Newsom had an unassailable structural and monetary advantage. Once polls showed a narrow race by August, he rallied Joe Biden and other national figures to campaign for him, and his considerably larger war chest helped him sink leading contender Larry Elder without much fuss.

The Newsom campaign portrayed the recall effort as the work of shadowy, powerful right-wingers, which was probably smart, although it is remarkable how small-time his opponents’ financiers are. The GOP had nothing to lose by taking a long shot at Newsom, and they haven’t lost much for having missed. Their only chance at winning was that a checked-out electorate didn’t notice what was happening and would therefore sit things out, leading to an unrepresentative outcome. They risked very little and stood to gain the most powerful non-federal office in the country. All it cost the state was $276 million in public money to find out that, yes, California is still pretty much the same state it was in 2020, when we elected Joe Biden by almost 30 percent. The first major news outlet to call the race for Newsom took just 21 minutes, and everyone else called it within an hour.

So what is there to learn from this? A big-time Democratic Party star with the strongest possible institutional support can outgun a weird AM radio screamer? A deep-blue state can’t flip all the way red thanks to one ill-advised dinner, dozens of wildfires, and one pandemic? A quite-online landlord influencer/stock market YouTuber can’t meme his way into a governorship? Is any of that surprising or even novel? The results of the Gavin Newsom recall simply reaffirmed that California remains California, warts and all.

The only real takeaway is that the recall law needs to go, so that we will no longer have to waste our time and money to let fringe conservatives grind some axes. Newsom’s mandate is more or less the same as it was three years ago, although there is now more pressure from his left wing to actually do the stuff he’s dragged feet on. Thankfully, the California legislature is moving forward on reforming the recall process. We can rest easy knowing that in 2032, when rich people try to recall Governor London Breed for Gina Carano, it will at least be harder to do so.