Gavin Newsom: Hey, He’s Not as Bad as Ron DeSantis! That’s not exactly the most inspiring campaign slogan. And strategists for the California governor ultimately decided against cutting ads drawing an explicit contrast between their man and Florida’s chief executive. Yet as Newsom fights to survive a recall vote on September 14, he’s leaning heavily on the underlying claim that things will be far worse if he’s replaced by any of the 46 alternatives, especially the leading challenger, right-wing Republican talk show host Larry Elder. “We’re making the argument, ‘Do you want to go over the COVID cliff like Florida and Texas?’” a top Newsom operative says. “That’s really what’s at stake in the recall.”
That Newsom finds himself using a lesser-of-two-evils pitch is still plenty dispiriting. But it’s been a strange first term for the governor. After seven years as mayor of San Francisco and eight more as lieutenant governor under Jerry Brown, Newsom cruised to victory in 2018 by the largest margin in state history. He appeared to be on the path to national Democratic stardom, but his first year in Sacramento became a rolling crisis: the bankruptcy of the state’s largest utility, blackouts, and massive wildfires, with Newsom drawing criticism for his response to each. Newsom pushed to build new housing, yet California’s homelessness epidemic has severely worsened.
The early months of the pandemic provided a chance for him to rebound. Newsom, in contrast to New York’s then governor, Andrew Cuomo, worked collaboratively with his state’s big-city mayors, moved to shut down early, and kept COVID death numbers relatively low; more recently, Newsom has moved aggressively to mandate vaccines in schools. Yet frustration grew as restrictions were lifted only to be reimposed. Then Newsom went out to dinner.
In November 2020, as a second wave of COVID cases was building, Newsom pleaded with Californians to stay home. The governor, however, promptly violated his own restrictions in the most flagrantly dumb political way, attending a birthday party for one of the state’s most powerful lobbyists at the French Laundry, in the Napa Valley, where the nine-course “chef’s tasting menu” goes for $310 per person. “This is a wreck—a total disaster,” a Newsom adviser told me at the time. “We’re struggling to get through it.” A petition drive to gather signatures for a recall election got a boost when a judge extended the signature deadline because of the pandemic, and suddenly Newsom found himself battling to hold on to his job.
His team made a savvy, if obvious, tactical choice: play to Democrats’ two-to-one voter-registration advantage by casting the recall in starkly partisan terms. It successfully discouraged any other plausible Democrat from mounting a challenge to Newsom. His campaign points out that if Newsom is defeated, and 88-year-old Dianne Feinstein can’t finish her U.S. Senate term, a Republican would get to name her replacement—handing a majority back to Mitch McConnell.
Newsom’s effort has also been helped by the wild cast of opponents on the ballot, including Olympian turned reality star Caitlyn Jenner, a former car dealer, and a New Age shaman. None, crucially, have the name recognition or the money of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who became governor through a 2003 recall election. Yet Elder, a conservative media figure for nearly three decades, has lately climbed into the lead of possible successors, and polls of likely voters have shown a dead heat on whether to toss out Newsom.
“Those polls have been a gift to Team Newsom,” says Mike Trujillo, a California Democratic strategist who is not working on the recall, “because it creates a mechanism for them to raise money and raise awareness. The greatest risk is that Democrats think this is a lazy September election, Newsom has it in the bag, and voters don’t turn out. Complacency is the problem right now.”
The early ballot numbers are encouraging for Newsom. “So far it’s been a little ahead of the pace for November 2020, which would mean extremely high turnout, which benefits the governor,” says Katie Merrill, a California Democratic strategist not involved in the recall. “When you hear Democrats voicing complaints about Newsom, they’re not usually policy complaints. They’re more about personality quirks, and all the polls show that Democrats don’t think Newsom should be recalled. But what do we know about polls?” Merrill laughs. “They can be wrong.”
Indeed. There’s substantial anger at Newsom, even among Democrats, over what he’s done, and hasn’t, on everything from education to fires to homelessness to COVID, and so a fair amount of anxiety runs through the governor’s camp. “We’re going to win, but it is precarious,” the Newsom adviser says. “Any 10-point swing and we’re in serious trouble. So we’re super targeted on the voters we need to shore up, which is basically Latinos and young white progressives.” Regardless of the language in which it is delivered, though, Newsom’s message is the same. “He’s making public health the line of scrimmage in the election and playing offense: ‘Are you really going to elect an anti-vax Republican who supports President Trump?’” the top Newsom operative says. “We want it to be a forced choice, not just a referendum on Gavin.”
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