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Op-Ed: The real reason Gavin Newsom is the target of a recall

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Here we go again, the second recall attempt mounted by Republicans against a sitting Democratic governor of California in 18 years. Why so much use of the recall here? Simply put, it’s because, all things being equal, Republicans can’t win in a fair-and-square regular election in California.

Let’s recount the Republicans’ recent history of electoral impotence in the state.

In November, President Trump won only 34.3% of the statewide vote. With his 2016 result — 31.6% — these are the two lowest percentages of any Republican nominee for president in California since Alf Landon in 1936.

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In 2010, 2014 and 2018, Republicans failed to capture a single one of the eight statewide constitutional offices. In fact, a Republican hasn’t won statewide office since 2006, 15 years ago.

In 2018, no GOP candidate even made it out of the top-two primary and into the general election in three of the eight statewide contests. In the five in which there was a Republican candidate, John Cox, running against Gavin Newsom, received the highest share of the vote — a paltry 38%. No other Republican candidate received more than 36% of the vote.

It gets worse. In the last two U.S. Senate races in California, the state GOP also failed to power a Republican into the fall election. The 2016 and 2018 contests both featured Democrat-on-Democrat runoffs. Republicans haven’t won a Senate race in California since 1988.

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In 2003, Republicans mounted a recall against Gov. Gray Davis, who was less than a year into his second term. Why? They couldn’t unseat Davis in the general election the previous year, despite his record low job approval (remember the electricity crisis?). But the recall gave the GOP a mulligan, and — success! — a mechanism designed as an emergency exercise in direct democracy proved to be a winning strategy for the state’s otherwise anemic Republicans.

And it’s not just in statewide elections they have resorted to recalls. One need look no further than recent elections in California’s 29th Senate District, covering northern Orange County and part of the southeastern tip of Los Angeles County, to understand the Republican reliance on recalls. This was an open seat in 2016 because the two-term Republican senator was term-limited. The seat and its previous configurations had been held by Republicans for decades.

In the 2016 general election, Democrat Josh Newman defeated then-GOP Assembly member Ling Ling Chang, flipping the seat to the Democrats — and giving them a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

Two years later, Republicans qualified a recall against Newman, ostensibly because he supported a transportation tax increase, but, more cynically, in an overt attempt to deny Democrats their two-thirds Senate majority, which the GOP had proved incapable of doing in the previous regularly scheduled election.

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The recall election was combined with a June primary that year; primaries are lower-turnout elections. Newman was recalled and replaced by — guess who? — Ling Ling Chang, who ran as a replacement candidate. Then Newman ran to reclaim the seat last year, in the regularly scheduled general election, and he retired Chang for a second time, recapturing the seat for the Democrats.

See the pattern here?

If you don’t want to take my word for it, listen to GOP consultant Dave Gilliard, a director of one of the main recall groups against Davis in 2003 and a consultant in the current Newsom recall effort. In an eyebrow-raising instance of saying the quiet part out loud, Gilliard pointed out in a Politico interview last week that California Republicans hadn’t defeated a sitting Democratic governor in a regularly scheduled general election since 1966.

“So the chances of winning in 2022 [when Newsom is up for reelection] or any general election are very slim,” Gilliard admitted. “The recall provides a golden opportunity, I think, for a Republican to get into the governor’s office. This is the shot.”

So when you hear recall proponents yap about Newsom’s handling of the pandemic, or homelessness, or the unemployment compensation snafu, it isn’t really about any of that. It’s purely and simply a blatant partisan maneuver by desperate Republicans. They’ve demonstrated they can’t get to the governor’s office through the front door, so they’re trying to force their way in through the back door again.

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Don’t fall for it.

Garry South is a veteran Democratic strategist who managed Gray Davis’ campaigns for governor in 1998 and 2002 and was senior political advisor to Davis during his governorship.

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