California’s Recall: Key Takeaways for Democratic Gubernatorial Candidates in 2021 and 2022

By Patrick Dolan, Senior Director, State Advocacy and Appropriations

Less than an hour after polls closed on Tuesday, the race was called and the attempt to remove California Governor Gavin Newsom from office failed by a wide margin with 64% of voters voting “no” to recall Newsom.

Despite California’s deep blue electorate with nearly a 2:1 registration advantage for Democrats, and Governor Newsom’s significant fundraising advantage with a combined $83.4 million raised compared to $45.3 million raised by his Republican challengers and pro-recall committees, there are three key takeaways from California’s recall for Democratic Governors and gubernatorial candidates in 2021 and 2022, where 36 gubernatorial seats are up for election.

  1. California’s recall presented the first major election of the Biden presidency and Democrats will highlight that Newsom’s survival demonstrated that Democrats can and should go on the offensive to tie their opponents to Donald Trump and embrace vaccination mandates which Republicans oppose but a majority of voters support. While Democrats will be inclined to champion their various accomplishments at the state and federal level, some Democrats have argued that Newsom’s campaign effectively turned the recall into a referendum and his messaging discipline should serve as a roadmap for Democratic Governors and candidates: focus on a simple, easily understood message to brand Republican challengers as pro-Trump, anti-vaccine extremists who will immediately reverse vaccination requirements and endanger public health if elected.
  2. Democrats will argue that former President Trump is still extremely unpopular in many parts of the country. Therefore, Democratic Governors and gubernatorial candidates should continue to tie their Republican opponents to Donald Trump and force Republican challengers to either embrace Donald Trump and alienate independents and swing suburban voters or distance themselves from the former president which would enrage the base and potentially suppress Republican turnout. We’re seeing this dynamic play out in Virginia where Terry McAuliffe has branded his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, as a Trump supporter who opposes vaccination requirements.
  3. Finally, leading up to the recall, the leading Republican candidate, Larry Elder, alleged voter fraud, while Donald Trump declared the recall “rigged” a week before votes were counted. Democrats know that voters have seen this playbook before, so Democrats are expected to pre-empt Republican claims of voter fraud and preview the predictable “rigged election” arguments from Republicans well in advance of election day.