What you need to know about California’s weird and wild gubernatorial recall election

Republican voters are more likely to go to the polls than Democrats to choose among 46 candidates vying to topple Democratic incumbent Gov. Gavin Newsom and take over the governor’s mansion for just one year before the next election

When Californians cast their ballots in the state’s recall election in September, the nation will be watching, because the nation is always watching California.

Forty-six candidates are vying to replace Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, including several well-known Republicans, Olympian and reality star Caitlyn Jenner, a YouTuber and a conservative radio talk show host. The race is an anomaly, not bound by the usual framework or timeline of a standard gubernatorial election, and a rarity, occurring only because of the pandemic.

“You can’t talk about the 2021 recall without the pandemic,” said Mark Baldassarre, president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California, or PPIC. 

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Newsom’s governing during the pandemic not only gave his opponents reasons run him out of office, but enabled them to force a recall.

Last November, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge ruled that recall organizers had an additional four months to gather signatures because of COVID-19 restrictions. The ruling “was huge because it would not have qualified without that extra time,” said Wesley Hussey, a professor at Sacramento State.

The ruling came just days after Newsom was spotted at a dinner at Napa County restaurant The French Laundry while the state was under restrictions. Newsom called it a “bad mistake,” and it energized his opponents.

Voters will be asked just two questions in the recall: Should Newsom be removed from office, and if he’s removed, who should replace him? Though California governors have faced recall threats before, the efforts don’t usually make it to the ballot. The Sept. 14 recall will be just the second in California history, following the 2003 recall won by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The results of California’s 2021 recall won’t necessarily last very long, since the eventual winner will have to run for reelection next year. Still, Newsom is warning of potential consequences for “many, many years” if he loses.

“I think it would have profound consequences nationwide, and go to not just politics, but to policy and policymaking,” Newsom told the editorial boards of McClatchy’s California newspapers last Thursday.

Newsom said he doesn’t think national Democrats are worried enough about what it would mean if he lost, but he at least has the attention of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who filmed an ad for Newsom. In the clip, Warren asks viewers to vote no against the “Republican recall,” and accuses California Republicans of “abusing the recall process and costing taxpayers millions.”

Republicans have energy on their side. While they’re outnumbered in the state, a recent Los Angeles Times poll found Republicans were more likely to say they would vote than Democrats or independents. Hussey said Republicans are split on how the race could turn out for the party.

“The party has two kind of differing views,” he said. “The first is, the more Republicans who run, the better, because it might bring out different constituencies of Republicans who like different people, or maybe even independents.”

But not all Republicans in the state could be pleased with the top voting-getting candidate.

“The Republican Party doesn’t want to be in a position where the recall succeeds and the candidate who wins happens to be the most conservative, the most far-right, who has no chance to win in an election next year,” he said.

Voters will have a chance to size up some the candidates when they meet Wednesday for a debate at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

Here’s a look at the top candidates in California’s recall who have received at least 3% in polling released last week from the Los Angeles Times and UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies that surveyed 3,266 likely California voters. The poll has a sampling error of about +/-2 percentage points:

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a news conference in Oakland, Calif., on July 26, 2021. | Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

Gov. Gavin Newsom

Newsom took office after winning the 2018 gubernatorial race in a landslide, with 61.9% of the vote. A former lieutenant governor and San Francisco mayor, Newsom has received favorable marks as governor. A July 2021 PPIC poll found 59% of likely California voters approve of his handling of environmental issues and 56% approve of his handling of jobs and the economy. Still, the threat of recall is real.

Recent polls have found that a majority oppose the recall, while anywhere from 43%-47% say they want him out of office. As with all elections, it will come down to turnout, but off-year special elections can be especially unpredictable. The Los Angeles Times poll found nearly 90% of Republicans expressed a high level of interest in the recall compared with 58% of Democrats. While Republicans might be outnumbered in the state, if they’re more energized and show up in larger numbers, it could make all the difference.

Conservative radio talk show host Larry Elder speaks to supporters during a campaign stop in Norwalk, Calif., on July 13, 2021. | Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

Larry Elder

Elder, a conservative talk radio host, leads the field of Newsom contenders, with 18% support, per the Los Angeles Times poll. His “Larry Elder Show” is nationally syndicated, and he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2015.

In an interview with ABC7 News this weekend, Elder said he’s opposed to vaccine and mask mandates and that he believes in climate change but is “not sure” it’s played a role in California’s fires. In 2020, wildfires burned more acreage than any year on record, and the number of wildfires in the state is up from last year.

Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox talks to reporters before beginning a statewide bus tour in Sacramento, Calif., on Nov. 1, 2018. | Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press

John Cox

Cox was the Republican candidate for governor in 2018 when he lost with 38% of the vote to Newsom. He’s also previously run and lost races for the U.S. House and Senate in Illinois in 2000 and 2002, respectively.

This time around, Cox is running a campaign heavy on gimmicks. He announced his latest candidacy with a live Kodiak bear, and to make a statement about government waste, he brought an 8-foot ball of trash as the backdrop for a campaign event last month. Cox told editorial boards of McClatchy’s California newspapers that the first issue he would address as governor would be housing costs. He received 10% in the recent poll.

Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer speaks during a news conference in the San Pedro section of Los Angeles on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. | Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

Kevin Faulconer

Republican mayors of big cities are far and few between these days, but Faulconer was one of the few when he served as mayor of San Diego from 2014-2020. Faulconer pitched his path to victory as a road map for other Republicans who want to win in urban areas.

Faulconer has said as governor he would work to reduce homelessness and put the state on “war footing” to fight wildfires, and he polled at 10%.

Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, of Rocklin, a Republican candidate for governor in the Sept. 14 recall election, campaigns for school choice outside a charter school in Sacramento, Calif., on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. | Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press

Kevin Kiley

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State Assemblyman Kiley targeted Newsom last year with a lawsuit accusing the governor of overstepping his authority. Though a court initially sided with Kiley, an appeals court overturned the ruling, according to CapRadio. Orrin Heatlie, a lead recall organizer, told CapRadio that Kiley had been with the recall effort “from day one, when we first started the recall, and he has done more than anybody else in the field to help push that needle forward.” Kiley is polling at 3%.

In a photo provided by Kevin Paffrath, Kevin Paffrath smiles for a selfie in front of the California State Capitol in Sacramento on Friday, July 16, 2021. The 29-year-old YouTuber is one of the Democrats running in the recall against California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Paffrath’s videos typically touch on real estate and investment advice, and he’s never held public office. | Kevin Paffrath via the Associated Press

Kevin Paffrath

Paffrath is a YouTuber with 1.68 million subscribers on his “Meet Kevin” channel. He built an audience with videos about topics like cryptocurrency, investing and politics, and his new campaign videos are shot in the same direct-to-camera style as the rest of his content, with colorful thumbnails and titles to match, like a recent “i'm getting cancelled” video.

Paffrath is technically one of the few Democratic candidates in the race, but he’s also included clips from far-right broadcasting networks like OANN and Epoch Times in his videos. Paffrath sued the California secretary of state to get his YouTube name “Meet Kevin” included on the ballot, but a judge said, “The court finds that meet Kevin is not a nickname, it is not his formal name. The court finds, based on the evidence in front of it, that it is in fact a brand,” according to Fox26. He received 3% support in the recent poll.

Caitlyn Jenner, a Republican candidate for California governor, speaks during a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., on July 9, 2021. | Noah Berger, Associated Press

Caitlyn Jenner

The 1976 Olympic decathlon gold medalist and reality TV star is the most famous candidate in the race, with 14.7 million followers across Twitter and Instagram, but that name recognition doesn’t seem to extend to the polls: Jenner received just 3% in the recent Los Angeles Times poll. Jenner had to skip the campaign trail last month to film “Big Brother VIP” in Australia, and she’s been spotted with a film crew at the Conservative Political Action Conference and an interview with Sean Hannity. “We’re documenting history,” a senior campaign adviser told Politico Playbook.

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