Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a Los Angeles high school.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Civic Life

With 2022 campaign on the horizon, Gov. Gavin Newsom has the public stage to himself

Newsom is all but alone on the public stage with just six months to go before the June statewide primary, a testament to his defeat of the recall in California this fall.

After a Republican-led effort to recall him plummeted to defeat in California in September, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s prospects of gliding into a second term in 2022 appear as golden as the $23 million he has socked away for his reelection campaign.

Newsom is all but alone on the public stage with just six months to go before the June statewide primary, a testament to his dominating win in September and perhaps reflective of a post-election hangover among those who tried to oust him. Though a few of the Republicans who tried unsuccessfully to unseat Newsom in the recall said they would consider challenging the governor’s reelection, those opposition campaigns remain dormant for now.

At this point in the previous race for California governor, the field of candidates was wide and two debates had been staged.

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Republican campaign consultant Tim Rosales said anyone should be sober about the odds of dethroning the “800-pound gorilla” — Newsom.

“Even those who seem unbeatable can take a dive,” said Rosales, who worked for GOP candidates in the 2018 gubernatorial race and this year’s recall. “But is it challenging at this point to see how a Republican does it? Yes.”

Still, Rosales and other political veterans in California said the 2022 campaign promises to have a much different political climate than that of last summer, when the effort to oust Newsom was at its zenith.

During the recall, the governor and his allies cast the Republican candidates as sycophants of former President Donald Trump, who were supported by far-right and anti-vaccine militants. By next November, the Biden administration’s record in the White House will be the focal point of the nation’s midterm election, and rising concerns about crime, homelessness and the cost of living in California will have percolated for nearly a year.

“Most voters are trying to navigate a tremendous amount of uncertainty and upheaval on a day-to-day basis, and every elected official, including Gavin Newsom, should not sit there and assume they are on solid ground,” said Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic political strategist and publisher of the California Target Book.

The governor probably will have to navigate around a few land mines on his path toward reelection — possible outbreaks of new coronavirus variants, a potential economic downturn or the continuation of California’s withering drought among them, Sragow said.

Sragow said Newsom’s fate depends in great part on the caliber of his challengers — whether they emerge from the right or left of the governor — and said no candidate capable of unseating the Democratic incumbent has yet to emerge.

“The Republicans don’t have some dragon slayer — that we are aware of anyway — waiting in the wings. And the Democrats don’t, either,” he said.

Dave Gilliard, one of the Republican consultants who led the effort to recall the governor, credited Newsom’s decisive victory in September in large part to the failed strategy of the campaign’s Republican front-runner, conservative talk show host Larry Elder. Elder’s support for Trump and offshore oil drilling, along with his opposition to abortion rights and COVID-19 vaccination and mask mandates, alarmed Democrats and drove voter turnout.

But that won’t be the case next year, he said.

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“Public safety is moving quickly to the top of the list of people’s concerns, and then the cost of living, which has always been a problem in California and now more than ever,” Gilliard said. “If a candidate can focus on those [issues] and stay away from some of the other issues that have gotten Republicans in trouble in the last few years, I think they have a legitimate shot. I don’t think Newsom’s support is deep.”

California is home to the highest gas prices and unemployment rate in the nation, as well as some of the most expensive housing. Coverage of recent brazen smash-and-grab robberies targeting department stores in the San Francisco Bay Area and around the state has aired on television newscasts nationwide, painting for some voters a dire image of California and its years of Democratic leadership.

A recent poll in Los Angeles County, home to 1 out of every 4 voters in California, found that while voters continue to express empathy for homeless people, nearly 4 in 10 surveyed said that homeless people in their neighborhood made them feel significantly unsafe. A UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll in May found that 42% of those surveyed believed that Newsom was doing a poor job addressing crime in the state, up from 35% seven months before.

Newsom’s critics accuse the governor of helping fuel crime in California by supporting Proposition 47, the 2014 voter-approved ballot measure that reclassified some felony drug and theft offenses as misdemeanors. Earlier this year, the Newsom administration also expanded good behavior credits allowed under the rules of 2016’s parole overhaul measure, Proposition 57, allowing an additional 76,000 prisoners to qualify for an earlier release.

Newsom has long advocated for reducing recidivism through educational opportunities and mental health programs instead of enacting new tough-on-crime laws that have historically swelled California’s prison population, a stance shared by some prominent conservative leaders such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Last week, Newsom defended Proposition 47 when asked if it made shoplifters and other criminals believe there would be no consequences for their actions. He said that property crimes have been on the decline in California since the policy took effect and that police and prosecutors still have the authority to arrest and charge people accused of misdemeanor crimes.

“Prop. 47 has been conveniently used, in my humble perspective, as an excuse for things that don’t necessarily have to be — meaning people can arrest, they can hold people accountable and they should,” Newsom said.

Dan Newman, the governor’s political consultant, said the results of the September recall prove that Californians are more than satisfied by Newsom’s progressive political agenda and record, including his administration’s efforts to combat climate change, address homelessness and stem the devastation wrought by the pandemic.

No governor in modern history has been as severely tested, he said. Newsom has been forced to respond to massive wildfires, the bankruptcy of the state’s largest utility and a deadly pandemic — the likes of which the nation has not seen in more than a century, Newman said. Despite all of that, California’s job growth has far outpaced the nation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state is expecting a mammoth $31-billion tax surplus.

“I don’t see how you look at the election that we literally just got through as anything other than a big vote of confidence in his leadership, his record, agenda and vision. It was an up-or-down vote on him,” Newman said. “The same cynical, hollow criticisms from all these Trump fans were overwhelmingly rejected by voters.”

Newsom’s defeat of the recall was a display of political muscle, demonstrating his firm grip on the fractured elements of the California Democratic Party, including trade unions and environmental activists, the progressive and moderate wings, and factions from urban and rural California. Not a single prominent Democrat joined the field of replacement candidates.

Among the more than 8.4 million Californians who voted in September, 61.9% favored keeping Newsom in office and 38.1% supported giving him the boot — the same margin of victory Newsom received in the 2018 gubernatorial election, which was the largest in more than half a century. On top of that, Newsom’s anti-recall campaign raised $70 million in six months.

Elder topped the field of replacement candidates in the recall with 48.4% of the vote, far ahead of the pack. Democratic YouTube star Kevin Paffrath and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer received 9.6% and 8%, respectively. Republican businessman John Cox, who lost to Newsom in 2018, received 4.1% of the vote, and Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) won 3.5%.

Elder believes he would have weathered Newsom’s political attacks if it had been a traditional campaign, which can span several months if not years, instead of a breakneck, two-month recall election. Elder said the additional time would have allowed him to deliver his conservative message for lower taxes and reducing government regulations and offering parents a choice of where to send their children to school.

“I do believe that I am likable and appealing and if voters had enough chance to see me and recognize I don’t have a tail, I don’t have horns, and I had more time to raise more money, things just might have been different,” Elder said.

Elder’s recall campaign committees raised more than $23 million in just two months. The former candidate said Newsom’s strategy was to attack his Republican opponents rather than defend his record as governor because he knew voters were dissatisfied with his time in office.

“All the issues I campaigned on during the recall, I think have gotten worse. Crime is worse than it was when I was campaigning. ... Gavin Newsom oversaw the release of almost 20,000 convicted felons early. I guess he feels that that’s a good thing,” Elder said. “The quality of schools hasn’t gotten any better. The homeless situation has not gotten any better. And I think people are calming down a little bit more about the coronavirus now.”

Still, Elder is not sure if he’ll challenge Newsom in 2022. The electoral math just doesn’t work, he said, because Democratic voters outnumber Republicans in California by nearly 2 to 1. And most independent voters, who account for nearly a quarter of the electorate, tend to vote Democratic.

“I’m not sure that running again makes a whole lot of sense, but I don’t want to quit, I don’t want to give it up,” said Elder, who is writing a book about his experiences during the recall.

Matt Lesenyie, a political scientist at Cal State Long Beach, said that for Republicans to have a shot at dethroning Newsom, they have to rally behind a single candidate who can appeal to a broad swath of the electorate. But the California GOP, in the past, has not displayed the ability to do so.

“It would be great to have a top-tier candidate emerge and have a real policy debate that incorporates some conservative ideas in our politics, but what you see is crabs trying to crawl out of a bucket,” said Lesenyie.

As Californians wait to see who may jump into the race, Lesenyie said, Newsom will be enjoying the privileges and spotlight of the governorship — holding news conferences, traveling the state and, in January, releasing a proposed budget that will dish out billions of dollars in surplus revenue.

“Voters can see that he’s working,” he said. “Before the pandemic, during the pandemic, during wildfires, in between wildfires. He’s visible and a known brand.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.