Explaining the high-stakes of Tuesday’s California governor recall vote

Vote could trigger biggest shakeup in state politics since Arnold Schwarzenegger took office

US Vice President Kamala Harris campaigned against the recall of California Governor Gavin Newsom during an event at the IBEW-NECA Joint Apprenticeship Training Center in San Leandro, Calif. on Sept 8, 2021. AFP
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California on Tuesday is holding a high-stakes recall election against Governor Gavin Newsom, in what could trigger the biggest shake-up in the state's politics since Arnold Schwarzenegger came to office in 2003.

Because of a successful, Republican-led petition in 2020, voters will say "yes" or "no" as to whether they want to force out Mr Newsom, a Democrat.

The ballot has drawn criticism for its $276 million price tag as California grapples with myriad costly challenges including the pandemic, a historic drought and deadly wildfires.

"The recall is a farce. It’s a waste of valuable time, resources and taxpayer money," Julia Smith, a Democratic political operative, told The National. "California has real problems."

In a Democratic-led state, the Republican recall petition mentioned frustration over Mr Newsom's pro-immigration policies, water cuts and rising homelessness. It garnered some signatures, but took off when organisers added complaints about the governor's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to a compilation of polls by FiveThirtyEight on Friday, at least 55 per cent of California voters are set to support keeping Mr Newsom in office.

“California, let us send a message to the world that these are the things we stand for, these are the things we fight for, and we will not give up," Vice President Kamala Harris, also a former California senator, said on a campaign speech Mr Newsom on September 8.

Mr Newsom has also drew support from current President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State John Kerry and former President Barack Obama, among other Democrat leaders. Mr Biden is due in California on Monday to rally for the governor.

A second question on the ballot features dozens of candidates—from young Democratic financial advice YouTuber Kevin Paffrath to former Olympic athlete Caitlyn Jenner—to replace Mr Newsom if more than 50 per cent of voters say "yes" to a recall.

Republican talk show host, Larry Elder, has been leading the race in a gubernatorial replacement. He is holding at 26 per cent in the polls curated by FiveThirtyEight.

"Elder does not come from a traditional political background, but like Schwarzenegger and former Gov Ronald Reagan, he understands the core challenges that California faces and has a knack for explaining issues in a way that can resonate with the general public," an editorial by the Orange County Register read.

Mr Schwarzenegger, a Republican, won a 2003 recall election against then Governor Gray Davis, a Democrat.

Mr Elder has expressed interest in job growth over addressing climate change and removing the state's mask mandate. He is also against abortion and Covid-19 vaccine requirements.

Conservative talk show host and gubernatorial recall candidate Larry Elder votes at a polling station in Los Angeles, California, on September 8, 2021 ahead of the special recall election.  AFP

The spectre of another state leader being stripped of office has infuriated some in California.

"Short of breaking the law or doing something ethically or morally egregious, public servants should be allowed to finish their terms. We have elections for a reason," Steve LaBate, who is a small business owner in Los Angeles, told The National.

"These recalls should never have been allowed to happen while the Democrats have a super majority in the state legislature," he continued, warning the Republicans' successful petition against Mr Newsom has potential to influence ongoing and future recall efforts.

"The standard is too low, and the state constitution needs to be amended immediately. It’s becoming an electoral strategy for Republicans in a state where they otherwise almost never win."

Much is at stake as California juggles its many crises, and the election complicates efforts to address them.

The state is seeing a resurgence of Covid cases spurred from the Delta variant, making a wave worse than its first surge, while historic wildfires continue to spread amid a drought.

California was the first state in the US to go into lockdown, with Mr Newsom enacting some of the toughest coronavirus restrictions for longer than many other states in the country.

Many residents were upset by mandatory mask mandates, local fines for non-compliance, and the closures of state beaches and parks though those were determined by local municipalities, not Mr Newsom.

According to data obtained by Politico, the Republican-led recall petition didn't take off until anger brewed over how Mr Newsom attended an indoor party maskless at a popular restaurant called French Laundry in November. Signatures also gained steam when he initiated a new stay-at-home order in December.

With restrictions loosened in January, Los Angeles County, the largest county in the US, saw a drastic spike in Covid-19 cases and became a national epicentre for the country's outbreak at the time.

A gubernatorial turnover could thwart the state's ambitious plans to tackle climate change and work to address the pandemic.

"Gov Newsom should be able to dedicate the full resources of his administration to helping Californians weather these crises," Ms Smith told The National.

"Instead, he’s been forced to focus on fending off an anti-democratic attempt by Republicans to slip into government by taking advantage of low turnout while working people are distracted by the very real and ongoing threats to their lives and livelihoods posed by Covid-19 and climate change."

California has the largest delegation in the US House of Representatives with 53 members; 42 are Democrats and are 11 Republicans, including both the Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It boasts the largest economy in the nation and if were recognised as a sovereign nation would rank fifth in the world.

Updated: April 27, 2022, 11:40 AM