California Governor Gavin Newsom has become the second governor in US history to defeat a Republican-sanctioned recall aimed at kicking him out of office early.
Tuesday's win for Mr Newsom ensured the nation’s most populous state will remain in Democratic control. A Republican almost certainly would have replaced him had the recall succeeded.
Incomplete returns early on Wednesday showed Mr Newsom headed towards a landslide victory with about 65 per cent of the vote, The Associated Press reported.
The recall, which turned on Mr Newsom’s approach to the pandemic, mirrored the nation’s heated political divide over business closures and mask and vaccine mandates, and both parties will dissect its outcome heading into the 2022 midterm elections.
Democrats cheered the outcome as evidence that their approach to the Covid-19 pandemic has worked, and Mr Newsom hailed it as a victory for science.
“‘No’ is not the only thing that was expressed tonight,” Mr Newsom said on Tuesday night. “I want to focus on what we said ‘yes’ to as a state: we said yes to science, we said yes to vaccines, we said yes to ending this pandemic.”
In the months building up to the recall vote, Mr Newsom and Democrats framed the recall as a power grab by supporters of former president Donald Trump, emboldened by the Stop the Steal rally.
“Democracy is not a football; you don’t throw it around. It’s more like — I don’t know — an antique vase,” Mr Newsom said after his win. “You can drop it, smash it into a million different pieces — and that’s what we’re capable of doing if we don’t stand up to meet the moment and push back.”
Voters were asked two questions: should the governor be recalled, and if so, who should replace him? Only a handful of the 46 names on the replacement ballot had any level of public recognition, but most failed to gain traction with voters.
President Joe Biden sought validation of the Democratic Party’s approach of tighter restrictions and vaccine requirements, urging Californians to show the nation that “leadership matters, science matters".
The race also was a test of whether opposition to Mr Trump and his right-wing politics remains a motivating force for Democrats and independents.
In the run-up to election day, Republican candidate Larry Elder, a conservative radio talk show host, had posted a link on his website encouraging users to “fight California election fraud” though there was no proof of election fraud, election officials said.
“It’s just an extension of the big lie and Stop the Steal,” Mr Newsom had told reporters. “The election hasn’t even happened, and now they’re all claiming election fraud. I think it’s important to highlight that.”
Mr Elder had conceded the election on Tuesday night, asking his supporters to be “gracious in defeat”, though earlier this week, he did not commit to accepting the results of the election.
Mr Elder had spent Sunday campaigning with Harvey Weinstein accuser Rose McGowan, while Mr Newsom was joined by Mr Biden.
The recall, which required a petition signed by 12 per cent of the state’s electorate, had set taxpayers back about $276 million and left many angry.
“It’s endlessly frustrating when we have so many challenges to confront in this state, like Covid, climate urgency and economic recovery, that voters, not to mention our leadership, were forced to focus time, money and attention on a recall election when Newsom is doing a pretty good job given the population and economic size of the state,” Jennifer Reitman, publisher of an independent media outlet, told The National.
“What I find especially troubling and frankly telling is that Elder has already adopted the Trump playbook of calling elections rigged. So, my fear is that we see similar stop the steal efforts, like endless recounts or even January 6-style violence.”
While other voters weren't completely supportive of Covid-19 restrictions and Mr Newsom’s handling of the shutdown, they were 100 per cent against the recall.
“Despite the fact that we are screwed in many respects as small business owners in the Golden State, it does not make sense to recall Newsom nor can he be solely blamed for the many ills affecting this state,” Jesus Oliva told The National.
Mr Oliva, a father of three, owns a small trucking school and is a resident of Northridge, a Los Angeles County bedroom community. He, his wife and two voting-aged children voted “No” on the recall.
“The truth is we need a lot of help!”
While polls earlier this year indicated a close race, a Berkeley IGS poll released on Friday showed the “No” vote leading the “Yes” vote 60 per cent versus 38 per cent among voters.
“For the first time, California now has more than 22 million registered voters,” said Alex Padilla, who was secretary of state until recently.
“There are more voters registered in California than the number of people in the state of Florida!”
Mr Padilla, now a senator, filled the seat when Kamala Harris was elected vice president.
Of those 22 million voters, more than 46 per cent registered as Democrats; 24 per cent as Republican and 24 per cent indicating no party preference. American independents, green party members, libertarians and peace and freedom party voters complete the remaining 5 per cent.
With the polls closed, Democrats were still wary of taking a premature victory lap, scarred by the events of January 6 and the continuation of the “Big Lie”.
Mr Trump fanned false flames by releasing a statement that said, “Does anybody really believe the California recall election isn’t rigged?”
Karen Daniel, a producer, told The National that she wasn’t leaving anything to chance and fears a reboot of January 6.
“I waited a couple of days until I saw my postman in person to hand him my ballot,” said Ms Daniel.
The people who made themselves available for comment said the overall California vibe was tense with most people keeping their political opinions to themselves.
“The mood among all my friends is nervousness but some confidence, but we've been burnt before,” John Weiner, a Los Angeles screenwriter, told The National.
“I have around six neighbours on the religious and libertarian side. I've mentioned the importance of voting 'No' around them twice and have been hit with silence. I hope they just don't vote, but even my Bernie bro friends are voting 'No'.”