President Joe Biden has been beset by public health, military and climate crises in the past month. Not much time has been left for a potential political disaster brewing for his party in California.
With a week to spare, the White House is diving into the California gubernatorial recall election, coming to Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s aid with visits from Vice President Kamala Harris and then Biden himself to try to alleviate lingering concerns about Democratic turnout in the unusual September vote.
A look at how the recall effort started and reached the ballot.
Harris will campaign in the state with Newsom on Wednesday after a previously planned visit was nixed due to the chaos surrounding the Afghanistan withdrawal. And Biden himself is expected to visit the state early next week, ahead of Tuesday’s election.
For Biden it’s a chance to flex his political muscle in a state where both he and Harris remain popular. The outcome also will provide a test of Biden’s clout after a difficult August and in advance of the 2022 midterms, when control of Congress and more than half of the nation’s governorships are up for grabs.
Harris and Biden are hoping to help bolster Newsom’s chance to survive an unpredictable recall effort in a state that remains key to advancing Biden’s agenda at the state and national level.
“It’s simply too big a state to lose an election in,” said Joel Benenson, a former pollster for President Barack Obama’s campaigns. “You’ve got more to risk by not showing up than by showing up.”
Benenson noted that beyond the political implications for the Democratic Party of losing a gubernatorial seat, the outcome of the recall could have an effect on the makeup of the Senate, if Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat opens up — leaving her replacement to be appointed by the governor.
While reliable polling has been scarce in the race, a recent survey from the Public Policy Institute of California, conducted in late August, showed more likely voters would vote no than yes on removing Newsom, 58% to 39%.
Among all likely voters, whether they would keep Newsom or not, about half say they do not have a preference on a replacement candidate or do not know their preference.
Barring the polls, the main concern for Newsom remains getting Democratic base voters engaged and aware that they need to turn out for an unusually timed election, according to Kyle Kondick, a nonpartisan political analyst at the University of Virginia.
“The main problem for Newsom is making sure that Democratic turnout is robust enough to save him,” Kondick said.
“One way to do that is to bring in high-profile surrogates who will get a lot of news coverage, and will help spread the word about the fact that the recall is happening. And from a Democratic perspective, it’s hard to find two people better than Vice President Kamala Harris, who’s from California herself, and, of course, the president.”
Biden has already campaigned for Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, who faces election in November. In Ohio’s 11th Congressional District Democratic primary for a special House election this November, winner Shontel Brown painted opponent Nina Turner as anti-Biden to pull out a surprise victory.
White House officials say to expect both Biden and Harris to keep a robust campaign schedule when the midterm elections heat up next year.
But the outcome of the California gubernatorial recall will offer an early test of whether Biden maintains his political potency after a tough August, during which his national poll numbers took a hit after the rocky U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and rising COVID-19 rates drew headlines.
How much will California spend on the recall election?
It’s hard to overstate Biden’s popularity in California — he won the state with nearly 64% of the vote in 2020. And according to the PPIC poll, 58% of Californians approve of Biden’s job as president. Harris, meanwhile, remains one of the highest-profile Democrats in California, where she still maintains a home.
But Biden and Harris have faced criticism from some within the progressive Democratic base, a subset of the party that also remains somewhat disenchanted with Newsom. And even if Newsom wins, a tight race could signal trouble ahead for Biden in next year’s midterms.
Every voter in California has already received a ballot, and they’ll have to answer two questions: First, whether they believe the governor should be recalled, and then, who should replace him. Voters will choose from a list of 46 replacement candidates — many of them unknown, but others with some recognition, including conservative talk show host Larry Elder, who has emerged as the GOP frontrunner. With so many candidates dividing those ballots, if the recall effort succeeds, it’s possible a candidate could win with 25% or less of the vote.
Republicans have gone after Newsom for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state’s economy, with business owners and parents expressing frustration over long-lasting restrictions on businesses, mask mandates and school closures. In contrast, Newsom has sought to nationalize the recall campaign, tying the effort to restrictive voting laws passed by Republican legislatures and warning during a campaign event last weekend that “we did not defeat Trumpism” in 2020.
Aside from an endorsement for Newsom in mid-August, the White House largely stayed on the sidelines of the race during the initial months. Early on, when concerns about Newsom’s fate were a bit more urgent, Bill Carrick, a California Democratic strategist and longtime Feinstein aide, said “there was a little bit of a whisper campaign” about what some in California Democratic circles perceived as a lack of engagement from the White House.
“There’s a little bit of a game that goes on about, you know, you’re not helping enough — because everyone wants to get help,” he said.
About three weeks ago, Newsom himself sounded the alarm that Democrats “up and down the state haven’t taken this seriously,” pointing to an “enthusiasm gap” between Republicans and Democrats.
At the time, Newsom said he had requested visits from Harris and Biden, and more engagement from national Democrats — and he got it. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, have appeared in anti-recall ads, while Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota campaigned with Newsom over the Labor Day weekend.
With Harris’ and Biden’s arrivals over the next few days, Newsom will have the biggest names in the Democratic Party behind him, plus millions of dollars invested in turnout efforts from the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Governors’ Association.
Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who’s done extensive work in California, also noted that the visits will offer Harris and Biden the opportunity to shift the focus after a disastrous August back to his infrastructure agenda and a potential victory in a deep-blue state.
“For the president, the ability to be able to go and be part of and help generate a victory for the governor isn’t a bad decision,” Mellman said. “He probably welcomes the opportunity to get away for a moment from hurricanes and flooding and everything else that he has faced this last 30 days or so.”