The campaign to remove Newsom from office in solidly Democratic California looked very much like a longshot after it became clear in late April that it would make the ballot thanks to the state’s low signature requirements, but Democrats grew worried over the summer that the effort posed a real danger to the governor. While California had grown significantly bluer since Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was ejected and replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in a 2003 recall, Newsom’s allies feared that apathy and complacency could keep their voters at home. Democrats also fretted that a resurgent pandemic and the state’s deadly fire season could erode support for Newsom at the worst possible moment.
While polling as late as June showed the recall failing by double digits, a series of surveys starting in mid-July had the “no” side only narrowly ahead, and especially an independent poll from SurveyUSA in August that actually had “yes” prevailing by a 51-40 margin, only amped up Team Blue’s anxiety. Some Republicans, meanwhile, hoped that Elder, who was a nationally syndicated radio host and frequent Fox guest, would energize their own base and help them pull off an upset.
Elder had emerged as the undisputed frontrunner over intra-party rivals like former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who for years had been regarded as one of the GOP’s only rising stars in the state; 2018 gubernatorial nominee John Cox, who briefly attracted national attention when he campaigned with a 1,000 pound black bear; Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, who self-published a book urging voters to recall Newsom; and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner, who actually abandoned the campaign trail to film a season of “Celebrity Big Brother” in Australia. But if Elder did help Republicans turn out their voters, though, it came at a huge cost to the GOP.
The well-funded Newsom, who outspent opponents almost two-to-one, worked hard to frame the recall as a choice between a Democratic governor who was taking the pandemic seriously and an extremist opponent of vaccine and mask mandates. Elder himself also was only too happy to campaign as a far-right Donald Trump supporter in a state that Joe Biden had carried 63-34. Among many other things, the radio host declared there were “shenanigans” in the 2020 election; said he would appoint a Republican should Democrat Dianne Feinstein’s Senate seat become vacant; and stood by his 2002 writings asking, “Are there legitimate business reasons for a venture capitalist to ask a female entrepreneur whether and when she intends to have children? Hell, yes.”
Polls in the final weeks overwhelmingly showed Newsom well ahead, though it remains unclear if his summertime swoon was the result of off-base polling or a temporarily disengaged electorate. Prominent Republicans, though, saw where the race was heading and loudly spread lies about the legitimacy of Newsom’s upcoming victory even before the election. Trump insisted the day ahead of the vote that the contest was “probably rigged,” while Elder promoted a website claiming that he’d “detected fraud” that had “result[ed] in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor”—five days before polls closed.