Democrat found himself in peculiar position after Republican-led recall gained steam amid the worst of the state’s pandemic
Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, speaks during a campaign rally in Long Beach. Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters
The Guardian-Maanvi Singh in Oakland
California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, has prevailed in a rare recall election that left him battling for his political life, with voters resoundingly rejecting the choice to replace him on Tuesday.
The Associated Press projected the results about 45 minutes after polls closed on Tuesday night. Newsom’s most popular challenger was Larry Elder, a rightwing radio host who drew comparisons to Donald Trump, and who attempted to sow baseless doubts about the election process.
The governor did not hold a watch party or election night celebration. Instead, he struck a somber tone speaking to reporters on Tuesday night, saying: “Tonight I’m humbled, grateful, but resolved.”
Speaking in Sacramento, Newsom said that in voting no on the Republican-led recall, Californians said “Yes to science, we said yes to vaccines.”
“I’m humbled and grateful to the millions and millions of Californians that exercise their fundamental right to vote,” Newsom said, “and express themselves so overwhelmingly by rejecting the division, by rejecting the cynicism.”
As a Democratic governor of a deep-blue state, the governor found himself in the peculiar position of having to defend his seat after the recall effort gained steam amid the worst of the pandemic, fueled by frustrations over school and business closures.
Although the race was called by the AP on Tuesday night, the vote count is not yet final, and election officials have 30 days to count all the ballots.
Gubernatorial recall petitions are very common in California, but only one other such recall has made it on to the ballot in state history. Newsom initially dismissed the recall election as a costly distraction – indeed, it cost the state about $276m. But Democrats kicked into high gear in the late summer as polls indicated that apathetic and angry voters could cost him his position at the helm of the most populous US state.
In the lead-up to the election, Newsom – who struggled to live down missteps and connect with young progressive voters – reframed the recall as a referendum on Trumpism – focusing on Elder.
The day before the 14 September deadline to vote, Joe Biden campaigned alongside Newsom, telling voters “the eyes of the nation are on California”.
Calling Elder “the clone of Donald Trump,” Biden asked: “Can you imagine him being governor of this state? You can’t let that happen. There is too much at stake.”
Elder spent election night in Costa Mesa, California, where guests at his party viewed Fox News on big screens, and danced along to live music from Phil Crosby (Bing’s grandson) and his six-man band.
Among early voters, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by two to one – though gap was expected to shrink on election day with a greater proportion of Republicans expected to cast their ballots day-of. Polls that had initially placed Elder within striking distance of Newsom began to widen ahead of election day. As his chances of victory slimmed, Elder began following in Trump’s footsteps by spreading conspiracy theories to falsely suggest that the election was rigged against him.
The results will have national reverberations.
The race has also given Elder, an already popular fixture in rightwing media, a more prominent national stage. “I have now become a political force here in California,” he said in a recent radio interview, on KMJ Now radio. “I’m not going to leave the stage.” His election misinformation, which has been amplified by Trump and his allies, has carried on a sense of mistrust of US elections among conservative and rightwing voters.
Newsom’s other Republican challengers included the former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulkner, the businessman John Cox – who also lost to Newsom in 2018 – and the reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner.
The governor, who was elected by historic margins nearly three years ago, worked throughout the recall campaign to live down his pandemic-era missteps. Parents were frustrated when public schools remained closed in California for far longer than they did in other states. Under Newsom, the state’s unemployment department struggled with major backlogs, and paid out an estimated $31bn in fraudulent claims. The governor also faced harsh criticisms over the state’s initially slow vaccine rollout and its ineffectual sign-up site. An ill-timed, lobbyist-laden dinner at the Michelin-starred French Laundry restaurant amid the state’s Covid-19 surge last November gave his opponents further ammunition against him.
Having survived the recall, Newsom will serve one more year before he is up for re-election.