WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden has been beset by public health, military and climate crises in the past month. Not much time has been left to help fellow Democrat and California Gov. Gavin Newsom fight off an attempt to boot him from office.
With less than a week to spare, the White House is diving into the California gubernatorial recall election, coming to Newsom’s aid with visits from Vice President Kamala Harris and then Biden himself to try to alleviate lingering concerns about Democratic turnout in the unusual September vote.
Harris arrived back in her home state to campaign with Newsom on Wednesday after a previously planned visit was nixed due to the chaos surrounding the Afghanistan withdrawal. Biden is expected to visit California just ahead of Tuesday's election.
For Biden, it's a chance to flex his political muscle in a state where he and Harris remain popular. The outcome also will provide a test of Biden's clout after a difficult August and in advance of the 2022 midterms, when control of Congress and more than half of the nation’s governorships are up for grabs.
Harris and Biden are hoping to help bolster Newsom's chance to survive an unpredictable recall effort in a state that remains key to advancing Biden's agenda.
“It’s simply too big a state to lose an election in,” said Joel Benenson, a pollster for former President Barack Obama's campaigns. “You’ve got more to risk by not showing up than by showing up.”
Benenson noted that beyond the political implications for the Democratic Party of losing a gubernatorial seat, the outcome of the recall could have an effect on the makeup of the Senate if California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat opens up before her term ends in 2024 — leaving her replacement to be appointed by the governor.
The leading Republican in the race and the candidate Newsom has identified as his biggest threat — conservative talk radio host Larry Elder — told reporters in Los Angeles that Harris and Biden were trying to distract attention from Newsom's record on widespread homelessness, rising crime and long-running school and business closures during the coronavirus pandemic.
“They are so afraid they want to federalize this election. This is about California,” said Elder, who could become the state's first Black governor. “This federal firepower is not going to help him."
Elder spoke briefly with reporters after voting at an election center and before starting a statewide bus tour. Asked if he had concerns about the integrity of the election — all of the state's 22 million voters received a mail-in ballot — he said “there might very well be shenanigans, as there were in the 2020 election," referring to former President Donald Trump's unsupported claims of fraud in his loss to Biden.
A survey from the Public Policy Institute of California, conducted in late August and released last week, showed more likely voters would vote no than yes on removing Newsom, 58% to 39%. Among all likely voters, whether they would keep Newsom or not, about half say they do not have a preference on a replacement candidate or do not know their preference. Elder finished first by a wide margin among those who said they supported a replacement candidate.
The election has two questions: First, whether voters believe the governor should be recalled, and then, who should replace him. Voters will choose from a list of 46 replacement candidates — many of them unknown. With so many candidates dividing those ballots, if the recall effort succeeds, it’s possible a candidate could win with 25% or less of the vote.
The main concern for Newsom remains getting Democratic base voters engaged and aware that they need to turn out for an unusually timed election, according to Kyle Kondick, a nonpartisan political analyst at the University of Virginia.
“One way to do that is to bring in high-profile surrogates who will get a lot of news coverage and will help spread the word about the fact that the recall is happening," Kondick said. “And from a Democratic perspective, it’s hard to find two people better than Vice President Kamala Harris, who’s from California herself, and, of course, the president.”
Republicans have gone after Newsom for his handling of the pandemic and the economy, with business owners and parents expressing frustration over long-lasting restrictions on businesses, mask mandates and school closures. In contrast, Newsom has sought to nationalize the recall campaign, tying the effort to restrictive voting laws passed by Republican legislatures and warning during a campaign event last weekend that “we did not defeat Trumpism” in 2020.
Newsom’s campaign advisers projected confidence Wednesday, saying the governor’s decision to make the state’s coronavirus response a key piece of the campaign will amount to a winning message. In a briefing with reporters ahead of Harris’ appearance, Newsom strategist Sean Clegg predicted the governor will flip the narrative from 2020, when Republican voters turned out more heavily in the final days of early voting and on Election Day, helping the GOP win back several U.S. House seats.
Clegg asserted that Newsom’s lead will grow as more votes come in Tuesday and in the following days, when the latest of the early votes are counted.
Biden has already campaigned for Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, who faces election in November. In Ohio’s 11th Congressional District Democratic primary for a special House election this November, winner Shontel Brown painted opponent Nina Turner as anti-Biden to pull out a surprise victory.
The outcome of the California gubernatorial recall will offer an early test of whether Biden maintains his political potency after a tough August, during which his national poll numbers took a hit after the rocky U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and rising COVID-19 rates drew headlines.
It’s hard to overstate Biden’s popularity in California — he won the state with nearly 64% of the vote in 2020. And according to the PPIC poll, 58% of Californians approve of Biden’s job as president. Harris, meanwhile, remains one of the highest-profile Democrats in California, where she maintains a home.
But Biden and Harris have faced criticism from some within the progressive Democratic base, a subset of the party that also remains somewhat disenchanted with Newsom. And even if Newsom wins, a tight race could signal trouble ahead for Biden in next year's midterms.
About three weeks ago, Newsom sounded the alarm that Democrats “up and down the state haven’t taken this seriously,” pointing to an “enthusiasm gap” between Republicans and Democrats.
At the time, Newsom said he had requested visits from Harris and Biden and more engagement from national Democrats — and he got it. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, have appeared in anti-recall ads, while Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota campaigned with Newsom over the Labor Day weekend.
With Harris and Biden, Newsom will have the biggest names in the Democratic Party behind him, plus millions of dollars invested in turnout efforts from the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Governors’ Association.
Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who’s done extensive work in California, noted that the visits will offer Harris and Biden the opportunity to shift the focus after a disastrous August back to his infrastructure agenda and a potential victory in a deep-blue state.
Biden “probably welcomes the opportunity to get away for a moment from hurricanes and flooding and everything else that he has faced this last 30 days or so,” Mellman said.