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Calif. Gov. Newsom's Fate Will Be Decided In A Recall Election On Sept. 14

A MARTINEZ, BYLINE: The countdown is on in California with less than three weeks left until a recall election that'll decide the fate of Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat. The polls of likely voters still look tight between those who want to keep Newsom as governor and those who want to replace him, so there's a lot at play ahead of the September 14 election. And with us to sort it out is Scott Shafer, senior political editor at member station KQED in San Francisco.

Now, Scott, to remind listeners, those who brought this recall election say it's primarily about Newsom's handling of the pandemic. Those against it say it's a partisan attempt to take power in the state. So overall, do voters seem engaged?

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: Well, the voters who seem most engaged right now are those who support the recall, especially Republicans. And when you look at the overall electorate, all voters, there's, you know, just about 36, 38% support for the recall - not much. But when you look at the likely voter pool, it's much, much closer - too close for Newsom's comfort, that's for sure. And so the challenge for the no on the recall campaign - Newsom's team - is to get out the vote - especially Democrats to take it seriously. Newsom can survive this. He can, but only if Democrats turn out. And if they don't, he could be in real trouble.

MARTINEZ: All right, so turnout a top priority for Gavin Newsom. What has been his messaging so far?

SHAFER: Well, from the beginning, Democrats have tried to frame this as a right-wing power grab, an attempt by supporters of Donald Trump to basically undo the results of the last gubernatorial election. But, you know, as Trump sort of fades into the rearview mirror, that doesn't really work quite as well.

And so they're also trying to frame it as a race between Newsom and the leading Republican, who is conservative talk show host Larry Elder. He's very controversial. He calls himself the Sage of South Central, which is where he grew up - South Central LA. And he's made some very controversial comments in the past about women. And then just recently, an ex-fiancee came forward and said that he waved a gun at her during an argument when he was high on marijuana. He denies that, by the way. Nonetheless, she's sticking by her story.

So there's a lot that, you know, isn't known about this guy. He also says that Democrats make too big a deal out of racism. He is African American. And Newsom is saying, look; if this guy gets elected, if he replaces me, he's going to throw out the mask mandate, the vaccine mandate, and we could be looking more like Texas and Florida.

MARTINEZ: Well, let's just say for a second that a Republican is governor of California in 2021. What could a Republican governor get done in a state where Democrats have such a big presence?

SHAFER: Well, not much through the Legislature because they have supermajorities there, but there are appointments - for example, the public health director, heads of agencies - that have a lot of power. The governor also helps shape the budget. And also hanging out there - it's maybe difficult to talk about, but Senator Dianne Feinstein is 88 years old, and if she suddenly couldn't finish her term, the governor would appoint a successor. And if it's a Republican, that, of course, would be a political earthquake given that the Senate, as you know, is now divided 50-50. So there's a lot at stake.

MARTINEZ: And one more thing, Scott - has the Biden administration chimed in yet on this race?

SHAFER: They have. They were a little slow, but President Biden issued a clear statement a few weeks ago opposing the recall. And Kamala Harris, who, of course, is from San Francisco and knows Gavin Newsom quite well - she's going to be in California later this week campaigning with him. She's known him since he was mayor of San Francisco when she was the DA. And, you know, the administration knows that turning California over to a Republican governor would give the GOP a lot of momentum heading into 2022, and they want to avoid that.

MARTINEZ: That's Scott Shafer, senior political editor at member station KQED in San Francisco. Scott, good to talk to you again.

SHAFER: Good to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOCKHEAD SONG, "JET SON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.