Democrats Can Celebrate Newsom’s Victory, but They Still Face Daunting Threats in Upcoming Elections

The California governor has adroitly handled COVID-19, but the virus is a wily enemy—and inflation and crime loom large.

California Democrats avoided the apocalypse. Gavin Newsom crushed the recall that once seemed to have a plausible shot at unseating him and replacing him with, in all likelihood, the conservative radio talk show host Larry Elder, who favors banning all abortions as well as sex ed, loves Donald Trump, and can be seen on Fox News hawking pain relief concoctions. After early polls suggested a close recall election and a slumbering Democratic electorate, Newsom and the party managed to galvanize Democrats. The recall vote was no longer a referendum on Newsom. It became a referendum on Elder and Trump, and, under those circumstances, Newsom was bound to win. Other forces helped the first-term Democrat keep his job: The Delta variant made Newsom’s mask requirements seem more palatable. Some 69 percent of recall voters told exit pollsters that they approved of the governor’s student mask mandates. Oh, and Texas essentially repealed Roe v. Wade, which was bound to animate this pro-choice state. Joe Biden and Democrats barnstorming California raised the stakes—and their message that Elder was a Trump stand-in held sway.

But it would be shortsighted of Democrats to get too cocky about Newsom keeping hold of the office he won by an almost 30 percent margin in 2018. It was a victory, but not one in which Democrats should find too much succor.

Primarily, the recall was damning of California’s insane recall system, as David Edward Burke has written in these pages, which allows a number equivalent to 12 percent of votes in the previous election to secure a recall vote. Fortunately for the 53-year-old former San Francisco mayor, California is overwhelmingly Democratic, much more so than in 2003 when voters recalled Governor Gray Davis and installed Arnold Schwarzenegger. Republicans made up 35 percent of the electorate in 2003. Now, they are down to 24 percent, and no Republican holds statewide office. (You know the Democrat is going to prevail when 80 percent of exit voters identified climate change as a serious problem.) Biden won the state by almost 23 points in 2020, a bigger margin than in other solidly blue states like Connecticut and Oregon.

Almost any governor of any party in any state with such a low bar could face what Newsom did. If Idaho had California’s screwy recall system, and the Republican governor crushed an attempt to oust him led by Rachel Maddow, it would not be seen as an excellent omen for Republicans nationally. It would be seen as an idiot system wreaking havoc on Boise. Likewise, Newsom’s escape from humiliation doesn’t mean Democrats don’t have serious problems this year and next.

On the upside for Democrats, the politics of the Delta variant worked for Newsom. California is a high-vaccination state, and those who have gotten the jab stood behind the governor and supported his leadership on the issue. (Remember that California was the first state to go into lockdown in the winter of 2020.) Newsom’s internal polling and public polling showed that mask mandates were popular and that following Republican governors in other states who have threatened local school districts and municipalities who wanted to impose their own mandates wasn’t popular. Biden has made the same calculation by getting tough on the likes of Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The betting by these Democrats is that mask mandates are good policy and good politics. It’s good policy while the Delta variant is causing chaos, and it’s good politics because it rallies the vaccinated Democratic base and takes advantage of the rising number of Americans getting vaccines. (In general, those who have had vaccinations are more likely to favor mandates.)

It’s possible that raising the Trump-DeSantis-Abbott war on mask mandates will scare Democratic voters in this year’s gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, and animate enough Democrats next year to maintain the Democratic 50-50 hold on the Senate and the party’s perilously thin margin in the House.

In Virginia, the Democratic nominee, former Governor Terry McAuliffe, has attacked his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, for his anti-mask-mandate stance. In New Jersey, incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy has taken a similar tack, criticizing his Republican competitor, Jack Ciattarelli, for opposing mask mandates. If Democrats are for mask mandates, or at least resist getting in the way of them when local school boards or jurisdictions want to impose them, then it makes sense to own the issue.

But the conditions that daunted Newsom and helped make the recall plausible, at least for a while, are ones that plague Democrats everywhere. Consider inflation. Almost 60 percent of recall exit poll respondents in California said the cost of living was unmanageable. Some of that is owing to the Golden State’s impossibly high real estate prices. But it’s a national problem: The Consumer Price Index rose 5.3 percent last month, almost identical to the previous month. Inflation is a real worry and an indisputable fact for voters because wages aren’t growing as quickly. Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell and others have argued that this is essentially a temporary phenomenon, the product of supply-chain disruptions and short-term labor shortages, and not a looming menace. Hopefully, he’s right. (I tend to think he is.) But the anxiety of high prices after a largely inflation-free generation is a big deal. And fairly or not, presidents and their parties get the blame. Biden isn’t going to face the kind of presidency-crushing double-digit inflation that Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford dealt with. But it doesn’t have to reach Venezuela levels to imperil Democrats’ tenuous control of Congress.

Other issues that plague California, like rising crime, affect the country, too. The crime rate has risen sharply over the past couple of years, and the Biden administration was slow to respond. It wasn’t until the end of June that it got around to unfurling an anti-crime plan. As a former state attorney general—of California, no less—addressing crime would have been a natural part of Vice President Kamala Harris’s portfolio. Instead, she assumed responsibility for the surge in asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border and passing a voting rights bill—neither of which seems soluble anytime soon. Why the president was slow on the crime issue will remain an interesting question; it’s bizarre given his decades-long concern with the issue. For instance, Biden authored the 1994 crime bill and then walked back his support for some parts of the legislation in the wake of criticism that it fueled mass incarceration. The power of the crime issue is readily apparent in New York City, where former NYPD police captain Eric Adams won an impressive citywide race putting crime front and center while a host of Democratic also-rans stressed issues like education and equity.

It’s possible that Democrats can thread the needle and somehow avoid the usual midterm losses that would certainly cost them the House and likely the Senate. Maybe COVID-19 will be in retreat by then and Biden will have magically made a convert out of Senator Joe Manchin and signed a wildly popular $3.5 trillion spending plan. But assuming he can’t pull off this dazzling feat, then Newsom’s California survival will have meant little.

Kudos to Newsom. He killed it. But there’s an instructive example from California’s history that’s worth considering. In 1966, protests gathered around the country, not just over Vietnam, but also over inflation, in what was called “the housewife revolt.” At first, it didn’t seem to have much political import for the Democratic president, Lyndon B. Johnson. After all, LBJ had won the presidency two years earlier in a historic landslide. Conservatism was in full retreat. In 1965, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act and Medicare and passed a mammoth immigration overhaul. By the fall of 1966, however, Democrats realized that they were on the run. In California, the actor Ronald Reagan upset the Democrat incumbent governor, Edmund “Pat” Brown, father of future Governor Jerry Brown, with a bigger landslide than Newsom’s recall victory. Brown only won three counties around his native San Francisco. Democrats lost 47 House seats that fall and three Senate seats. The inflation that year—a modest 3.2 percent—started an inflationary cycle that didn’t end until 1982. So, Democrats can deservedly cheer Newsom’s victory, but COVID-19, crime, and inflation are still their looming problems.

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Matthew Cooper

Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.