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Why recall effort against California Gov. Newsom is not history repeating

LOS ANGELES — The recall effort against California Gov. Gavin Newsom is already showing signs of turning into another circus like the one that ultimately brought down Gray Davis in 2003.

On Tuesday, Axios reported that Caitlyn Jenner, the former reality star, Olympian and stepparent to the even more famous Kardashian clan, is considering entering the gubernatorial race if a recall petition qualifies for the ballot. NBC has not verified whether Jenner intends to run and she has not publicly announced a decision.

Jenner’s potential candidacy marks the first of what many strategists believe will be a long line of celebrity and novelty candidates that could closely mirror what California voters experienced in 2003 when adult film star Mary Carey, child actor Gary Coleman and “Hustler” publisher Larry Flynt added their names to the a list of more than 100 would-be governors. Action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger ultimately won that election.

Nearly 20 years later, the comparisons stop there.

None of the three Republican contenders who have announced intentions to run for governor have statewide name recognition similar to Schwarzenegger’s. Kevin Faulconer, considered the likely frontrunner as of now, is the former mayor of San Diego and not well known outside of Southern California. Businessman John Cox lost to Newsom in 2018 by double digits and Doug Ose, a former congressman, also briefly ran for governor in 2018 before dropping out of the race, The Associated Press reported.

“The biggest thing Newsom has to do is keep a Democrat from running,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist and former Schwarzenegger spokesman. “So far so good, but it’s also easy right now. We’re in for several months of waiting.”

Recall organizers say they collected more than 2 million signatures, well above the 1.5 million needed to meet the state’s threshold. Counties have until the end of April to verify signatures and report their tallies to state election officials. California’s Finance Department will take about 30 days to produce a cost estimate for the election before a legislative panel reviews the findings. Only then will an election date be set.

If a recall qualifies for the ballot, voters will be asked two questions: The first would be whether they want to recall Newsom and the second would be who should replace him. There is no limit to how many people can run, and whoever gets the most votes wins.

Since Davis was recalled in 2003, the political landscape of California has shifted increasingly to the left. Registered Republican voters accounted for 35 percent of the California electorate in February 2003, according to the California Secretary of State’s office, while this year they account for 24 percent.

By contrast, 44 percent were registered as Democrats in 2003, and this year it’s 46 percent. In 2003, 15 percent declined to state what party they were in, while this year, 24 percent of voters registered under “no party preference.”

“Politically we’re a completely different state than we were in 2003,” Katie Merrill, a Democratic strategist, said on Wednesday during a Facebook Live panel hosted by the Sacramento Press Club. “If you look at the statewide races, the Republican Party has effectively become a third party in California.”

Added Democratic strategist Ace Smith during the panel: “It’s a different time. We’re in a state where frankly there used to be Republicans who used to be somewhat moderate. The Republican party of Trump has lost [its] way.”

Former President Donald Trump, whose name has been repeatedly invoked as a kind of political bogeyman, marks another notable difference between the recall effort against Newsom and the campaign against Davis.

Since the effort to oust Newsom first surfaced, California Democrats have collectively rallied around the notion that the recall campaign is a power grab by Trump loyalists bitter about losing the White House to President Joe Biden.

Last month, Dan Newman, a campaign advisor for Newsom, called the recall campaign “pure partisan politics” while Newsom said white supremacists and right-wing militia groups, including the Proud Boys, are among the recall backers.

“We’re just concerned about violence moving into the future as we move farther and farther away from the January insurrection and we put down our guard. We must remain vigilant about these groups and how serious they are,” Newsom said on MSNBC in March. “All you need is about a quarter of the people who supported Trump to just sign a petition and it appears they’ve done that.”

In 2003, Davis had no such specter to deflect attention away from his office. He was already embroiled in various crises when he won a second term in 2002. Davis had been heavily criticized for reacting too slowly to an energy crisis that knocked out power for more than a million residents across the state between 2000 and 2001. He later apologized for his handling of the situation but the debacle took a toll on his reputation.

Davis won reelection in 2002 with 47 percent of the vote. By 2003, just 27 percent of California voters approved of his job performance, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time. The option to recall Davis received 55 percent of the vote.

By contrast, 40 percent of California voters said they would elect to recall Newsom and 79 percent of those respondents self-identified as Republicans, according to a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research organization. Newsom’s approval rating is also higher than Davis’ was going into a recall. As of last month, Newsom’s approval rating among likely voters is at 53 percent with 42 percent of respondents saying they disapprove of his job performance.

“If no other Democrat gets into the race and it stays like this — the economy is recovering, the coronavirus doesn’t spike again, and all that looks good — then he’s not going to be nearly as unpopular as Davis was,” Stutzman said.

Unlike Davis, whose administration was mired by a $38 billion budget deficit, Newsom boasted of a $15 billion one-time surplus at the beginning of the year, according to his 2021-22 budget proposal. During the pandemic, wealthy Californians made $185 billion in capital gains income, or money earned from the sale of assets, which resulted in $18.5 billion in tax revenue for the state, The Associated Press reported. Because of the surplus, Newsom’s plan would spend $25 billion more than last year.

But record homelessness and joblessness have continued to plague California throughout the pandemic, and now experts are warning that this summer could bring another catastrophic round of fires up and down the state. As residents battle crises on multiple fronts, recall backers say it’s too soon to celebrate victory.

“What a disconnect,” said recall fundraiser Anne Dunsmore. “You got people living on the streets, being flooded out of their tents, and we’re going to brag about a surplus? Go spend it.”

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