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California Gov. Newsom sharpens message as Larry Elder poses threat in recall race

<i>Justin Sullivan/Getty Images</i><br/>California Gov. Gavin Newsom looks on during a press conference at The Unity Council on May 10 in Oakland
Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
California Gov. Gavin Newsom looks on during a press conference at The Unity Council on May 10 in Oakland

By Maeve Reston and Kyung Lah, CNN

As he hit the campaign trail this weekend to fight the Republican-led effort to oust him, California Gov. Gavin Newsom leaned into the microphone with a message for all the disengaged Democrats who might be inclined to ignore the September 14 recall election.

“Though we defeated Trump, we didn’t defeat Trumpism. Trumpism is still alive and well, even here in the state of California,” Newsom said, standing before tables full of phone-banking volunteers at Hecho en Mexico restaurant. “If you don’t believe me, just consider … the likely person to enter an oath of office, to enter in the governor’s office in just a matter of weeks if we don’t reject this recall.”

He then asked them to imagine the fate of their most urgent policy priorities if he is replaced by Larry Elder, the conservative talk radio host who quickly became his most formidable GOP opponent after a late entry to the race. Newsom ticked through an array of Elder’s positions that stand in direct contradiction to the views of a majority of Californians: the Republican’s opposition to a minimum wage and the assault weapons ban; his past skepticism about the climate crisis and his support for off-shore drilling; and Elder’s eye-popping observation on gender in a 2000 column in Capitalism Magazine, in which he wrote that “women know less than men about political issues, economics and current events.”

“Don’t think for a second that this recall is not about all of you,” Newsom warned the supporters assembled beneath rows of rustling red, green and white flags on the patio. “It’s about each and every one of us and the values we hold dear.”

The first vote-by-mail ballots, which will be delivered to every registered voter in the state, begin going out this week. For months, the outcome of the September 14 recall seemed like a forgone conclusion in a state that elected Newsom just two years ago with 62% of the vote — a place where the simple math overwhelmingly favors registered Democrats, who outnumber Republicans by nearly two to one. As the pandemic has raged on, there has been feverish enthusiasm within the Republican minority to recall Newsom, but often rank-and-file GOP voters could not recall the name of a single GOP candidate running to replace him during interviews with CNN across the state.

That changed when Elder entered the race in July, snapping the slumbering contest into sharp focus. Though Elder is not a household name in California, he has been well known and widely admired for decades in conservative circles — a charismatic and frequent presence on television as well as talk radio. In a field of GOP candidates who failed to spark excitement among voters, his late entry infused a jolt of electricity to the recall race.

But it has also allowed Newsom to sharpen his message — making the race less of an abstraction for his party’s voters and more of a direct ideological contrast with an adversary who he can portray as a threat to the Democratic agenda.

In an interview on Saturday, Newsom laced his remarks with criticisms of Elder and acknowledged the challenge of getting Democrats to pay attention in “an off-month, off-year election” — noting that it is the likely voters who become decisive, rather than the broader universe of registered voters who lean heavily Democratic.

“We turn out our base, we’re going to win, unquestionably,” Newsom said. “It’s not a persuasion campaign. People are locked in. But the profound consequences — particularly the leading candidate on the other side, Larry Elder — people just need to take a close look,” he said.

Elder, he added, is “out there promoting the same kind of bigotry and hate” as former President Donald Trump, who he supported at the ballot box. Elder has rejected that association with Trump — noting that he has voted for many other Republican presidential candidates — but he declined multiple interview requests from CNN. (CNN did stop Elder outside his San Jose rally, where he forcefully declined to talk about whether he believed Trump’s baseless lies about 2020 election fraud.)

“Democrats need to wake up (to) what’s at stake, and we made it easy,” Newsom told CNN. “It’s all mail-in ballot. Simple question: ‘Should he be recalled?’ ‘No.’ Send it back. Don’t even consider the second question with those 46 candidates.”

Newsom’s approval ratings suggest that he is in a far stronger position than then-Gov. Gray Davis was in 2003 when he was recalled by the voters and replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the frustration and anger that many voters are feeling about the resurgence of the pandemic, the state’s historic drought and subsequent water restrictions, and California’s raging wildfires have complicated the guesswork about just how many voters will care enough about this election to actually fill out their ballots and send them back.

The difficulty of modeling the turnout in this race — namely, who the likely voters will be — has made many Democratic strategists here skittish about polling. Voters will be asked just two questions on the ballot: (1) yes or no on whether they want to recall Newsom and (2) to choose from a list of the 46 names from all parties on who should replace him. Newsom and his allies are urging Democrats to simply ignore the second question in part to prevent them from being overwhelmed by a list of unfamiliar names that does not include any well-known Democrats. There are nine other Democrats listed on the ballot to replace Newsom, but none of them are well known.

If Newsom goes down on the first question, the person with the most votes on the second question will win — even if their percentage is a fraction of the total vote. So Democrats are trying to keep their voters focused on the first question.

To drive the simplicity of that message, Los Angeles County Democratic Party Chairman Mark Gonzalez led an unusual call-answer chant moments before inviting Newsom to speak on Saturday in East Los Angeles: “Let me hear you say ‘No!'”

“‘No on this recall! No to rolling back progress,” Gonzalez demanded, as the crowd responded with boisterous shouts of “No!” “Can I get a ‘No’ this morning? No! No! No!”

Newsom underscored the point in his interview with CNN: “We’ve just got to gin up that enthusiasm. That’s what the next 30 days is about.”

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