California Gov. Gavin Newsom readies for recall election fueled by backlash to pandemic restrictions

California Gov. Gavin Newsom isn't new to criticism or attempts to remove him from office. Republicans have crafted recall efforts five times in the two years he's led the state. 

But after being hailed as one of the nation's most formidable leaders in the fight against COVID-19, the sixth attempt to recall Newsom looks like it will almost certainly lead to a historic recall election — something Newsom, himself, acknowledges. 

"Well, the reality is it looks like it's going on the ballot, and so we're ready to go," Newsom said of the recall effort at a news conference Tuesday. "We will fight it. We will defeat it."

The well-funded effort is promoted by determined Republicans — including big names like Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. It's fueled in part by backlash to Newsom's strict coronavirus measures that angered some Californians and has gained momentum thanks to a lengthened recall process due to the pandemic.

Those elements could create a perfect storm posing dire consequences for the high-profile Democrat who had been viewed as a potential presidential contender.

A monthlong review will begin Wednesday to check what organizers say is more than 2 million signatures backing the effort. Only about 1.5 million are needed to trigger a recall election. 

"It's really a rare experience for governors to face recall elections," said Ken Miller, a state and local government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. "Normally, you would think in California that Gavin Newsom shouldn't have to worry about facing the voters." 

But, Miller said,that isn't the case this time in the large state, known nationally as being deep blue but which has regions of strong conservative voters. Newsom could see an abrupt end to his political ambitions due to a number of factors, including the peculiar rules in a recall race. 

More:Here's what you need to know about the effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom

Recalls are rare but that's how Arnold Schwarzenegger came into office 

Only 19 states have laws that allow mechanisms for governors to be recalled. While successful recall efforts are incredibly rare, attempts are not. The effort against Newsom, for instance, is the sixth attempt to have him removed from office. 

Only four times in U.S. history has a recall effort against a governor garnered enough signatures to force an election. And only two governors throughout history have been removed from office in a recall election — one in North Dakota in 1921 and the other in 2003 in California after Gov. Gray Davis was removed from office and replaced by movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

He shares a laugh with former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom talks during a bill signing ceremony at the United Nations World Environment Day in 2005.

COVID-19 and the strict policies impacting Californians has been the major factor in the effort targeting Newsom — a complete 180 from the public admiration for the governor early in the pandemic. He was praised for being ahead of the rest of the country in issuing the first stay-at-home order and managing to keep infections low at the beginning of the pandemic when other states were seeing an explosion of cases. 

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But as the pandemic wore on, fatigue grew. Governors in other states, including Colorado and Michigan, have faced recall efforts in the aftermath of the pandemic but they haven't seen the same momentum as the factors working against Newsom. And California has one of the only precedents in removing a sitting governor.

Miller said the effort in California grew because of several factors, most notably a judge extending the period that proponents had to get signatures by four months, from November to March, due to the pandemic. The additional time allowed the group to get more organized and raise money.

The effort garnered more attention and supporters as Newsom drew headlines for public flubs, including him attending a dinner party at The French Laundry — one of the world's most exclusive restaurants — at a time when he was discouraging Californians from traveling to see family during the holidays. Support continued to grow as the state saw an alarming spike in cases over the winter, notably in Los Angeles, even with Newsom's strict safety measures. 

"It only took off because of public sentiment turning against Newsom as the pandemic were on and people were frustrated," Miller said of the recall effort, noting the various policies from school closures and a ban on outdoor dining that angered citizens. "The people on the receiving end of those government policies sort of formed a movement that gained enough strength to get this thing on the ballot."

The drive originally started more than a year ago in February 2020, before Newsom imposed closures to limit the spread of COVID-19. Proponents justified the recall based on the governor's position on a number of political issues, including taxes and immigration. It was conducted, though, amid frustration over pandemic-related shutdowns.

"He mismanaged this from day one," recall senior adviser Randy Economy, who said he was confident they had enough signatures to trigger a recall election. "It's his draconian policies. He's locked 40 million of us under house arrest for nearly a year. And it was his way or the highway." 

"It was his mess," Economy added. "We're gonna fix it by having him removed." 

Proponents called for Newsom to be removed from office based on his actions to implement laws they say harm California citizens, according to the petition circulated to voters. They also object to his moratorium on executions of death row inmates and his positions on tax matters, water rationing and parental rights.

Where recall effort goes from here

The review of signatures collected to recall Newsom will begin Wednesday, but the process is expected to be lengthy, with an election not expected before fall.

Organizers of the recall effort will turn in all petition signatures to the California Secretary of State's office — which is headed by Shirley Weber, a former Democratic legislator Newsom appointed in December. Election officials will have until April 29 to verify the authenticity and notify the secretary of state with the results.

More:As signature collection ends, California heads toward recall of Gavin Newsom

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Elections officials must verify that at least 1,495,709 registered voters have signed the recall petition. That's 12% of the 12,464,235 votes cast in the 2018 election that Newsom won. He captured almost 62% of the vote.

Proponents projected that a special election for the recall would be held in October or November if enough signatures are validated.

But even if a recall election is approved, experts say they expect Newsom and his allies will attempt to stall, hoping the pandemic will have subsided and the state's mandates will have relaxed. Already, schools are starting to reopen, along with theme parts and outdoor sports. 

"They will probably try to stretch out the process," Miller said, noting all the litigation that happened during the 2003 recall process in the state. "There's still enough uncertainty on some of these rules that I can imagine there will be attempts to kind of slow things down. And I think from Newsom's standpoint, the later this happens the better." 

Dan Strother, a Democratic media consultant in California whose clients include governors and mayors across the U.S., said he expects Newsom to pull through the effort, noting how different the state and the rest of the country will likely look in a few months as more vaccines are administered. 

"It's a bad time in America, but it's getting better," he said. "We're getting shots and things are about to open up, and three months from now it's going to be a different world."

If the effort makes it to the ballot, voters would be asked two questions: Do they want to recall Newsom, yes or no? And, if more than 50% of voters say “yes,” who should replace him?

But, there’s no limit on the number of candidates who can run to replace an official on a recall ballot. And whoever gets the most votes wins — even without a majority, so it’s entirely possible that someone could be elected in a recall while winning less than half the votes.

That’s what happened in the state in 2003. Then-Gov. Davis was recalled by 55% of voters. More than 100 people ran to replace him and Schwarzenegger managed to win with 48.6% of support.

Newsom paints recall as effort by extremists, QAnon

Newsom largely brushed off the recall effort for months but over the last two weeks, he launched a full-throttled effort against it that included everything from a fundraising campaign, national media tour, advertisements to having prominent progressive Democrats like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren weigh in against it. 

"When you get Warren and Bernie supporting him, that makes it far less likely that a progressive will get in the race as an option to him," Strother said. "I thought that was very, very important they did that." 

The governor is not only battling against those leading this effort to have him removed, he is also attempting to persuade other Democrats from entering the race should a recall election be held later this year — a tempting opportunity in a state that has seen celebrities and political outsiders rise to national leaders, a group that includes Ronald Reagan.

More:California Gov. Gavin Newsom goes on the offense as recall campaign ramps up

More:Commentary: Newsom's State of the State speech felt like campaign kickoff to sink recall effort

Some see a potential Democratic contender or prominent conservative outsider, possibly even a celebrity, as the biggest threat to Newsom. Schwarzenegger joining the race in 2003 generated worldwide headlines. 

Newsom has framed the campaign in public appearances and in an advertisement as a partisan attack led by far-right extremist groups, including QAnon, the Proud Boys and the Three Percenters. "This is a sideshow," he said Tuesday. "This is a circus." 

Strother said it's a smart tactic in a deep blue state that elected Biden with about 64% of the vote compared with Trump's 34%. No Republican has won a statewide election since 2006. 

"If I'm Gavin, I don't make this a referendum on Gavin, I make it a referendum on Trump and Trump Republicans," he said. 

Newsom has made a point to target members of the recall effort and frame the battle as one about the state's values, not politics. 

"As soon as you make this effort to replace Gavin and recall Gavin about Trump Republicans," Strother said, "it's no longer about COVID response and schools opening, etc. You saw how well loved Trump is in California. I'd hang Trump around their necks." 

Economy mocked Newsom linking the group to extremists and urged Americans to "stay tuned" to what comes next in the effort. 

"This is going to be the greatest political campaign in the history of America," he said. "Pull up a seat, America, and just watch exactly how democracy really works here when citizens take over and take control of their destiny."

Contributing: Kathleen Wilson, Ventura County Star; Laurel Rosenhall, CALmatters; Associated Press