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United States & World

What California's Recall Election Could Mean For Both Parties

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

California voters are deciding today whether to keep their Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, in office or recall a sitting governor for only the second time in state history. The race has attracted national attention, so much so that President Biden traveled to California yesterday to support Newsom at a rally.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The eyes of the nation - this is not hyperbole - the eyes of the nation are on California because the decision you're about to make isn't just going to have a huge impact on California; it's going to reverberate around the nation and, quite frankly - not a joke - around the world.

MARTINEZ: Marisa Lagos is with member station KQED. She has this report on how California got here and what the outcome could mean for both parties.

MARISA LAGOS, BYLINE: For Republicans, this election is perhaps a once-in-a-generation opportunity to oust a relatively popular governor in a state where Democrats outnumber GOP voters nearly 2 to 1. Former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican, is one of 46 challengers on the ballot hoping to replace Newsom.

KEVIN FAULCONER: I just - I firmly believe that one-party rule hasn't been working. It's time for a competition of ideas.

LAGOS: The thing is, this recall election might be the only way for Republicans to seize power here. Newsom won by an historic margin in 2018. And polls show that Democrats are still overwhelmingly with him. That's led top surrogates, as well as the governor himself to paint this election as a right-wing power grab with national implications.

Here's Vice President Kamala Harris stumping with Newsom in the Bay Area last week.

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KAMALA HARRIS: They think if they can win in California, they can do this anywhere. Well, we will show them, you are not going to get this done. Not here - never.

(CHEERING)

LAGOS: While the state's unique recall rules are making this race possible, it's also an election that likely wouldn't be happening without the global pandemic - and some missteps by Newsom, says University of Southern California professor Dora Kingsley Vertenten.

DORA KINGSLEY VERTENTEN: I mean, it's fine to be angry. But if you don't have a vehicle, you know, to express that, if you're really waiting around for the next election cycle, you got to wait 24 months or 48 months.

LAGOS: This was that opportunity. While almost every governor in California history has faced some recall attempt, most never get past the signature-gathering phase. But in this case, recall backers went to court and were granted an extra four months to keep collecting signatures because of the pandemic. Those four months occurred over the winter holidays, when COVID-19 cases were surging and Newsom was imposing tough restrictions - shutdowns and mask mandates that were already angering many conservatives here, says Kingsley Vertenten.

KINGSLEY VERTENTEN: They're unhappy. And they've been locked up. And they're mad, and they're worried and all those things we feel in the pandemic.

LAGOS: Then, in a gift to the governor's opponents, Newsom was caught on camera celebrating a lobbyist friend's birthday at the exclusive Napa Valley French Laundry restaurant, even as he urged Californians to stay home. Republicans rode the resulting anger onto the ballot. And Newsom's opponents in the recall, including conservative talk show host Larry Elder, continue to hammer that message.

Here's Elder at a recent rally in Southern California.

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LARRY ELDER: You work 60, 70, 80 hours a week, and this man shut it down. And so the hopes and dreams of people who mortgaged their homes, worked all those hours - gone forever - while he exempted his winery from the very mandates he was putting down the throats of everybody else.

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ELDER: It is outrageous.

LAGOS: But polls show most California voters support Newsom's aggressive pandemic approach. And instead of running from the issue, Democrats here have leaned in.

Here's Newsom last week.

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GAVIN NEWSOM: It's true. California has among the lowest case rates in America and among the highest vaccination rates in America because we believe in science. We believe in public health. We're not ideological. We're open to argument, interested in evidence. It's working, California.

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NEWSOM: All of that's on the ballot.

LAGOS: In the end, if Newsom survives this recall, as polls indicate he will, it seems likely both parties will be making similar arguments across the nation in next year's midterm elections.

For NPR News, I'm Marisa Lagos in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRAMESWORKS AND MURGE'S "CUSP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.