…to California, a staunch Democrat state where a Democrat Governor could be ejected
The United States constitution must surely be the most elaborate and intelligent ever devised to underpin the functioning of a democracy. It is, of course, conservative, in the sense that making any change requires not only that significant numbers of people must want that change, but also means that they’ll have to find their way through an elaborate process to get to the point where the proposal can be put to a vote. And this must surely be the right approach. After all the thought which the fathers of the nation put into devising the system, and almost 250 years during which it has functioned pretty well, any alteration to the fundamentals really merits a little caution. In other words, no major changes carried by a 52-48 majority!
Within these secure boundaries, however, the people are given a surprising amount of authority. Those writers of the constitution and the system they created trusted the people to do the right thing. They were designing to ensure that fashion or fury would not overturn things too quickly. Still, as politicians (naming no names!) sometimes turn out to be disappointing or dishonest, mad or incorrigibly idle, one of the later amendments made to some state constitutions created mechanisms to enable such failures or disappointments to be ejected from office without the people having to riot or employ tumbrils and scaffolds. So, if a bunch of citizens really want to change the holder of an elective job, and they can convince enough voters that they have a point, the constitution allows the point to be put to the electorate, through what is known as a ‘recall vote’.
Such a recall proposal is being put in California at this moment. There is a move to chuck out the Governor, Gavin Newsom, a Democrat in what is a staunch Democrat state. This process has taken a long time and involved much canvassing of electors to support a recall petition which, to succeed, needs 12% of the state electorate to sign. That means nearly two million people in California, the largest state in the Union. The target was attained this summer and the petition has since undergone a process of detailed inspection to obtain approval. Newsom’s term has just over a year to run, but on September 14th the electorate of California will be asked to recall him. A recall doesn’t mean inviting Mr Newsom to have another go and run for office again. If recalled he will be dismissed, and a new Governor will take his place. So, in a second question, the electors are invited to choose a new Governor. They will have plenty of candidates to choose from: there are 46 hopefuls on the list.
Many are Republicans, some are independents ranging from the frankly wacky to the very serious, and a few are (unofficial) Democrats. The latter are all saying they don’t want Governor Newsom to go, but if he does, then the good people of California ought to have the opportunity to select another Democrat.
If the Governor does go, then whoever scores highest among the 46 on the ballot paper will get the job. Not for long of course. The next election is in November 2022. It’s not impossible that Governor Newsom could win the job back then, if he can secure the Democrat nomination (though that might be tricky if he loses now). The Republicans did discuss having only one GOP* candidate on the recall ballot but thought that this might not appeal to voters. Anyway, if a Republican wins next week he’ll become Governor and will probably then be the official GOP nominee next fall. The Republican top runners for the job if Mr Newsom falls are John Cox, who lost to Mr Newsom in 2018; and Larry Elder, a west coast TV chat show host. Mr Elder is currently in the lead among the challengers, but carries some personal baggage relating to his treatment of women earlier in his life; and he’s an ardent supporter of Donald Trump. Mr Cox, who might best be defined as a liberal Republican, has declined to endorse Mr Trump in the past, though Donald did support him wholeheartedly during his 2018 campaign.
So, what has Mr Newsom done to get himself into this mess? It must be said that although he is youngish (53, almost a boy in current US politics), good-looking, and a skilled politician with a long record of success, he comes with a blind spot common to many a politician: he’s inclined to tell electors to do things which he then fails to do himself – not a good idea when Covid-related issues are involved. For instance, the Governor told voters to stay home and not eat out if possible, but then attended a big party at a fashionable restaurant. He told the voters to home-school their children online but sent his kids to private tuition groups at tutors’ houses. Moreover, although he campaigns on poverty issues, he owns a large, expensive house, which doesn’t go down well with poor and traditional Democrats who remember the modest lifestyle of Democrat Governor Jerry Brown. What has really undermined his previous popularity however seems to be more conventional issues, mainly California’s screamingly high tax rates, which are now driving many residents and big businesses out of the state to Texas and points east. The effects of this are increasingly obvious, with tax yields falling, the state government deficit heading upwards, and unemployment rising rapidly – this even before Covid-19 arrived. In addition, the Democrat administration has been spotted trying to do things it should have avoided, in particular some shenanigans with a state insurance fund but also exerting political influence over appointments to non-political jobs. The Democrats even tried to disqualify Republican runners in the recall election, but the state Supreme Court blocked that move. On top of all this, the state government has been pretty inept at rolling out Covid vaccines and organising medical assistance against the virus.
Governor Newsom has raised a very large amount of money (over US$50m) to help him fight off the recallers. His opponents are estimated to have raised externally (i.e. apart from their own personal contributions) only $6m between them. Interestingly, there is effectively no cap on what the Governor, as the subject of the recall petition, can raise, including from individual donors, while his challengers do face caps; they’re treated like normal election candidates, and the rules are quite strict in California. So he’s going to win, right? Not necessarily. In fact, those big donations might just have the opposite effect on the outcome.
His opponents are making some hay out of Mr Newsom’s big spending and doing a good job of selling themselves as the little guys fighting big money. The Governor is very narrowly ahead in the polls, but in California nobody quite believes the polls. The state is more than a little politically correct, more than a little woke, and it isn’t seen as a good idea in some circles to admit to Republican leanings. This includes the wealthy who work in California’s booming high-tech sector, some of whom might be assumed to lean a little to the right but would rather spend all day standing on their heads than admit any link to the GOP. Especially to a pollster. Still, the general feeling is that the Republicans may have a slight edge. It’s whispered that Mr Newsom has been thinking that too. It was noted that after the most recent poll showed his lead improving – the first for weeks to show such a thing – the Governor was observed smiling broadly.
However, few forget the last recall petition, in 2003, which unseated Democrat Governor Gray Davis and brought to office the distinguished movie actor and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. In fact, the circumstances were not unlike the current challenge: Davis was accused of behaviour bordering on corruption, of hypocrisy, and of being out of touch with the people of his state. Then, as now, California was assumed to be fairly staunch Democrat territory. However, Davis was much more generally unpopular than Newsom is now, and the Democrats ran a candidate so that if Davis were recalled they might still retain the governorship. It didn’t work out like that. Davis was overwhelmingly rejected (though, oddly, he got twice as many ‘stay’ votes as his potential replacement), Schwarzenegger won with a huge majority – almost double the votes cast for the Democrat – while another Republican candidate also ran well, giving the GOP 62% of the total votes. So much for a ‘safe’ Democrat state (however, the voting population of California has almost doubled since then, so not too much should be made of this). Arnie ran again in 2006 and scored another resounding victory. He had proved himself a skilled politician by establishing himself as a centrist, so he was able to collect a significant number of swing, and probably even Democrat, votes, but this showed that a skilled Republican can still win here (though it may be wise to dispense with Trump’s help).
So, will Newsom survive? News from a faraway land over the past couple of weeks will not have helped. Vice President Kamala Harris was coming to California to campaign on behalf of the Governor but she pulled out after the events at Kabul Airport. Word is that she may have been glad of the excuse. She certainly doesn’t want to be associated with any more controversial losers.
*GOP: The Republican Party has been known as the Grand Old Party (at first occasionally as the Gallant Old Party) since the early decades following the North-South War between the States (Civil War).