Gavin Newsom has reason to be upbeat after crushing an attempt to recall him on Sept. 14. Amir Aziz / Shutterstock Shutterstock Standard License
Orrin Heatlie, a retired, 25-year veteran of the Yolo County sheriff's department, officially filed his petition to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom on June 10 of 2020. By the deadline of March 17, 2021, his petition had gathered more than 2 million signatures, qualifying it for the ballot and making it the most successful recall signature drive in California history. The petition to recall Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 collected about 1.6 million signatures.
Heatlie and the well-organized, largely Republican backers of his drive also succeeded in forcing Newsom to spend the next six months defending himself in an effort to hold on to his job. But on September 14, election day, it all came crashing down. When votes were tabulated, the recall backers suffered one of the most one-sided defeats in the history of recall campaigns not only in California, but throughout the United States.
With all 18,185 voting precincts reporting at least partial results as of early in the morning of September 15, “no” votes—that is, votes against recalling Newsom—stood at 63.9 percent of the total votes counted. “Yes” votes—those in favor of kicking Newsom out of the governor’s office—garnered just 36.1 percent.
The deadline for certifying the final tabulation was October 22. As of September 15, some mail-in and provisional ballots had not yet been counted.
How One-Sided Was the Recall Campaign’s Defeat? Very.
In California, where there has been one previous recall election against a governor and nine against members of the legislature, only one effort to oust an elected official performed worse than the recall effort against Newsom. That was the 2008 recall vote against Republican state Senator Jeff Denham, who represented the 12th District, which includes parts of Monterey and San Joaquin Counties. Recall supporters could not even quite get to 25 percent.
Nationally, in addition to the Denham recall, only two attempts to recall Wisconsin state legislators have ended up with less support. There have been only four recall attempts against governors. Two have succeeded. In 2012, Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker prevailed against a recall attempt, but 47 percent voted to have Walker recalled.
The petition started by Heatlie was his second. He filed a recall petition against Newsom in February of 2020, but did not collect enough signatures to force an election. In fact, Heatlie’s successful petition was the fifth of six petitions to recall Newsom, the most recent also coming in June of 2020, filed by Carla Canada, a self-described “motivational speaker” from San Bernardino County. Canada also briefly ran as a candidate to replace Newsom, but quit before the September 14 election.
Though California recall elections are technically nonpartisan, the leading candidate, by far, among the field of 46 vying to replace Newsom was 69-year-old right-wing Republican radio talk show host Larry Elder.
Elder had a history of taking extreme positions. He has said the there should be no minimum wage, that discrimination against women in hiring is justified, and that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion should be overturned and is one of the worst in SCOTUS history. Elder, who is African-American, had even argued that slave owners and their estates should be financially compensated because when slavery was abolished in the U.S. “their legal property was taken away from them.”
Larry Elder, Leader Among Replacement Candidates, Gets Only 26 Percent
Due to the oddities of California’s recall election system, Elder was not running directly against Newsom, but against the other 45 replacement candidates. He collected 47 percent of the votes cast. He was the only one of the 46 to collect more than one million votes, with a total of almost 2.4 million (as of September 15). In fact, he was the only candidate to collect more than 500,000 votes. The second-place finisher was YouTuber Kevin Paffrath, who ran as an anti-Newsom Democrat, with just over 497,000 votes.
Many fewer Californians voted for replacement candidates than voted on the yes-or-no recall question. Almost 800,000 more voters declined to oust Newsom than all of the votes for replacement candidates put together. The Washington Post called the lopsided defeat a “historic embarrassment” for Republicans.
Prior to the election, Elder had refused to say that he would accept the results, and had suggested that if he lost, it would be due to widespread voter fraud. He said prior to the election that his campaign was planning to “file lawsuits in a timely fashion” challenging the results, and he added a section to his campaign website “demanding a special session of the California legislature to investigate and ameliorate the twisted results of this 2021 Recall Election of Governor Gavin Newsom.”
Elder’s absurd and, of course, phony allegations were joined by none other than former President Donald Trump, who issued a statement as balloting was taking place on September 14, calling the election “totally rigged.”
Recall Election a Possible Preview of 2022 Governor’s Race
All of that before election day. But after the overwhelming voter verdict against him became clear, Elder abandoned his charges, delivering a concession speech with no mention of “vote fraud” or “twisted results.” At the same time, Elder strongly suggested that he would run against Newsom in the 2022 gubernatorial election.
In his concession speech, Elder called for his supporters to be “gracious in defeat,” while immediately going on to declare, “We may have lost the battle but we are going to win the war.”
Later, in an election night radio interview, he said, “I have now become a political force here in California in general and particularly within the Republican party. And I’m not going to leave the stage.”
The recall appears to have raised the political stars of both Newsom and Elder, and very possibly provided a preview of the 2022 governor’s contest. The Los Angeles Times, in its report on Elder’s response to the defeat, anointed him “the putative leader of the state’s Republican Party.” The Times also noted, however, that Elder’s road to wresting the governorship from Newsom the old-fashioned way—in a scheduled, head-to-head election—would be even more difficult than in the recall election.
In a state where 46.5 percent of registered voters are Democrats and only 24.1 percent Republicans, Elder would need to double his share from the recall vote in 2022.
There are fewer registered Republicans in California than registered independents. The GOP, however, cannot count on independents to make up the gap between Elder and Newsom. According to data from the Public Policy Institute of California, more than half—52 percent—of California’s independent “likely voters” say they “lean” toward the Democratic Party, while only 36 percent say they prefer to vote for Republicans.
Results Lined up Closely with 2020 Presidential Vote
The recall election showed no significant realignment of California’s partisan preferences. With only a few exceptions, counties that voted for Democrat Joe Biden in 2020 also voted “no” on the recall question. Most counties that voted for Trump in 2020 supported Newsom’s recall.
Butte County narrowly supported Biden in 2020, but a majority voted to recall Newsom in 2021. The same flip happened in Fresno County, where “yes” votes edged out “no” by fewer than 1,400 votes, after the county went for Biden by an eight-point, 54-46 margin.
If Elder does indeed decide to oppose Newsom in 2022, the political odds may be stacked heavily against him. Quite the opposite for Newsom who, to the surprise of no one, confirmed the day after the recall vote that he plans to seek a second term as governor. But will Newsom serve out that second four-year term, if he wins it as expected?
“Remember this: National office remains very much on the mind of Newsom,” wrote CNN political columnist Chris Cillizza. “And this recall fight did nothing but help his profile in the activist and donor worlds.”
Even in the face of the crushing defeat, the man who started the whole thing, Orrin Heatlie, said he was “ecstatic.”
“This has been a monumental effort,” Heatlie told KXTL TV News in Sacramento. “This is the largest ever attempted petition drive in United States history, and we were able to do it with the bulk of volunteer help, alone and against all odds.”
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