The California Recall’s Warning for Democracy
Governor Gavin Newsom of California defeated yesterday’s recall election by a large enough margin to squash earlier Republican threats to challenge the results no matter the outcome. But the proliferation of those allegations of voter fraud before the election, including ungrounded claims from former President Donald Trump that the contest was “rigged,” points toward an ominous future in which more GOP candidates challenge the results of any election that they do not win.
Although Trump, Larry Elder (the leading GOP candidate to replace Newsom), and other Republicans had repeatedly raised unspecified allegations of fraud in recent days, those same claims were muted after the “no” position on the recall quickly established a commanding 2-to-1 advantage as the first results arrived last night. Elder, in his remarks to supporters, did not repeat any of his fraud claims and used the word defeat to describe the outcome. California Republican Party Chair Jessica Millan Patterson, in her statement, said Newsom had achieved only a “hollow victory”—but by using the word victory, she acknowledged that he had won.
Those concessions, however grudging, marked a sharp turn for Republicans. Elder previously insisted that he was ready to file lawsuits against unspecified “shenanigans” and linked from his campaign homepage to a website that, before any ballots were counted, called for a special legislative session to investigate “the twisted results of this 2021 Recall Election.” (That language had come down from the StopCAFraud.com website this morning.)
Even as Democrats celebrated Newsom’s resounding win—which turned on his support for the kind of aggressive COVID-19 vaccine mandates that President Joe Biden has now embraced—they saw the preemptive Republican claims of fraud as a measure of the threats that are mounting to voter access and election integrity, particularly in GOP-controlled states.
“Long-term, this is becoming the new GOP party line,” Jena Griswold, the Democratic secretary of state in Colorado told me yesterday. “For races that conservatives are unlikely to win, like the California recall race, activists, pundits, candidates, and officials are preempting those losses with the idea that something is wrong with the election.” The result, Griswold said, “is it sows doubt in the entire election system to make it easier for extreme legislators to come in and suppress the vote.”
That message was only underscored because Newsom’s victory came on the same day that Senate Democrats introduced what might be their last chance to counter the laws proliferating in Republican-controlled states making it more difficult to vote and increasing partisan influence over the counting of ballots. After a Republican filibuster blocked a version of the bill in June, Senate Democrats renegotiated it this summer both to address objections raised by Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and also to add more provisions to protect the independence of election administrators.
Given Manchin’s initial objections, voting- and civil-rights advocates praised the new bill as surprisingly robust, offering automatic and same-day voter registration and guaranteed early and mail balloting to voters in every state, as well as provisions to restrict partisan gerrymanders. “It remains transformational: It will address the voter-suppression laws being enacted all over the country in a profound way,” says Fred Wertheimer, a longtime government-reform lobbyist and the founder of the advocacy group Democracy 21. Yet although every Senate Democrat is expected to vote for the bill, it remains doomed in the Senate unless Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona drop their opposition to the procedural reform of exempting voting-rights legislation from another certain Republican filibuster.
The preemptive charges of fraud in California previewed the partisan battles ahead over voting rules, but the actual voting results offered Democrats an encouraging message. Not only the magnitude, but the manner, of Newsom’s win provided Democrats potentially important signals for the gubernatorial elections coming this November in Virginia and New Jersey, as well as the broader slate of House, Senate, and governor’s races coming in 2022.
Earlier this summer, some polls showed a much closer race, and Newsom faced an especially severe version of the problem that usually afflicts the president’s party in midterm elections: Voters from the minority party showed much more interest in voting. But Newsom took command of the race by stressing his support for mask and vaccine mandates to combat the Delta coronavirus variant, and linking his Republican rivals not only to Trump but also to Republican Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, who have implacably opposed such requirements and whose states remain hot spots for the virus.
Sean Clegg, a senior strategist for Newsom, says the governor’s success at energizing Democrats by leaning into his support for taking tough steps against COVID-19—and linking his Republican rivals, led by Elder, to the GOP-controlled states where the virus has surged—demonstrated an effective formula to counter the usual midterm turnout drop. “We really did wake up this blue giant, and that’s what we have to do in 2022,” Clegg told me.
Both exit polls and the raw election returns captured the success of that strategy. In a state that leans so heavily Democratic, the recall’s sole chance to succeed would have been if Democratic voters had slumbered through it. But the results showed that Newsom was buoyed by robust turnout in big Democratic strongholds such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, and surprisingly strong performances in the state’s more competitive places, including Orange, San Diego, San Bernardino, and Riverside Counties.
The exit polls conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media organizations showed that a clear majority of voters backed Newsom’s approach to combatting the pandemic. More than three-fifths of voters said his policies for fighting the virus were about right or even not strict enough, and he won roughly 85 percent of them. Almost exactly the same share of voters said getting the vaccine was a public-health responsibility (as opposed to a personal choice) and Newsom likewise won nearly 85 percent of them. More than seven in 10 voters backed his mask mandate for public schools. The recall ran up huge margins among those who said his policies were too strict and that getting the vaccine was a personal choice, as well as those who opposed the mask mandate, but in each case they constituted only about one-third or less of voters (just one-fourth in the case of masks).
Those results suggest that both in California and nationally, Republicans who have centered their messaging on defending the “rights” and “choices” of the unvaccinated are playing to the short side of public opinion—and potentially alienating many among the roughly three-fourths of American adults who have gotten the shot. (A flurry of national polls released this week have found narrow majorities backing vaccine mandates for large employers, teachers, and health-care workers, and a bigger majority supporting mask mandates in schools—both of which almost all Republicans are opposing.) Although the exit poll did not ask voters about their vaccination status, two of the best-respected late California polls each showed Newsom winning about two-thirds of those who have received the shot (as did Newsom’s internal polling).
If the recall’s near-term impact may be to stiffen the willingness of Democratic leaders to support tougher steps to combat the virus, the long-term effect may be to illuminate how deeply Trump’s Big Lie about election fraud is taking root inside the GOP. The preelection accusations from Trump and Elder in California came amid continuing demands from GOP state officials for “audits” of the 2020 results, a lengthening list of Republican candidates for governor or secretary of state who have embraced Trump’s discredited claims of fraud, and efforts by GOP elected officials to downplay the violence of the January 6 insurrection. “The threat is getting worse; the big lie is getting bigger,” said Griswold, in an assessment shared by many nonpartisan students of voting and democracy. Compounding the danger, she said, is a growing number of physical threats, including death threats, targeting election officials.
Polls since last November’s election have consistently found that a big majority of Republican voters accept Trump’s claims of fraud in 2020 (even though his “evidence” was uniformly rejected by courts across the country): In a CNN/SRSS national survey released this week, about three-fifths of GOP voters agreed that a “big part of being a Republican” was “believing that Donald Trump won the 2020 election.” In a June Monmouth University national survey, fully 47 percent of Republicans described the January 6 attack on the Capitol as a “legitimate protest”—far more than the 33 percent who labeled it an “insurrection.”
In California, a handful of Republicans warned that preemptive charges of fraud would be counterproductive, by discouraging GOP voters from casting a ballot. “Claiming before Election Day the California recall is rigged is equal to telling Republicans to throw their ballot away rather than mail it in,” the former state GOP chair Ron Nehring complained in a tweet on Monday.
Nehring, the spokesperson for Senator Ted Cruz of Texas during his 2016 presidential bid, is now an adviser to former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, one of the Republicans who ran to replace Newsom. Nehring told me that alleging fraud “without evidence” represented both “bad policy” and “bad politics” for the Republican Party.
Politically, Nehring said, pinning the defeat on fraud deterred the party from examining the actual sources of its trouble in California: the inability to build a broader coalition. Parties can learn from defeats but “only if you accept the failure,” he said.
Nehring also sees long-term damage to the United States’ standing in the world when Republicans “echo Kremlin talking points about our own elections.” Doing so, he said, “opens the door to this moral equivalency and that’s what they want: to bring America’s stature in the world down to Russia’s shit level.”
Yet few other notable Republicans in California or elsewhere condemned the fraud charges from Elder and Trump. The silence echoed the response from most GOP leaders during Trump’s sustained campaign to subvert the 2020 election. John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a former Republican National Committee aide, says the refusal of prominent Republicans to denounce such groundless accusations encourages more of them from Trump and others. “It is like the political version of ‘broken windows,’” Pitney told me, referring to the criminology theory that failing to police minor crimes encourages more serious violations.
With Republicans failing to produce any tangible evidence of fraud, any lawsuits from Elder or others always had little chance to succeed, notes Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School who specializes in election law.
If Republicans reverse course to legally challenge the results, she told me, “I think it’s going to be like the postpresidential election period in the sense that there are lawsuits that are filed, they are political arguments wrapped up as legal documents, and they are dismissed up and down, by state court judges and federal court judges.”
But to many students of small-d democracy, the proliferation of fraud claims against such an implausible target as the California recall represent another point on an arc that may be bending toward a full-scale crisis by 2024. Sarah Walker, the executive director of Secure Democracy, a nonpartisan group that works with states to improve election administration, says that if so many Republicans were willing to claim that Democrats could win only by fraud “in one of the deepest-blue states in the country,” such allegations may now be almost inevitable in swing states such as Georgia and Arizona, where the margins in 2022 and 2024 likely will be much closer.
Ian Bassin, the executive director of Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan group that analyzes threats to American elections, sees Trump’s involvement in the recall, in particular, as another step in a long-term campaign to increase pressure on Republican election officials to subvert the next election if necessary.
“We now know that Trump tried to stage a coup and that one of the tools he used was drumming up spurious claims of fraud to convince members of his own party to doubt the true results, because he saw that as a predicate” for pressuring GOP secretaries of state or state legislatures to “use legal mechanisms to hand him an election he clearly did not win,” Bassin told me.
To Bassin, Trump’s California claims, like his continuing calls for other states to emulate the chaotic “audit” of 2020 results authorized by Arizonan Republicans, show that he is determined to increase pressure on GOP officials to side with him next time by convincing more Republican voters that virtually any outcome in which the GOP loses can’t be trusted. “What I think we are seeing now is Trump saying, I can begin working immediately on convincing a much broader set of the population that these institutions can’t be trusted, that there is rampant fraud, so I can create a dynamic in 2024 where I can succeed where I failed last time,” Bassin told me.
All year, civil-rights and election-reform advocates have complained that both the White House and Senate Democrats have appeared insufficiently alarmed or engaged as a procession of red states have imposed new restrictions on voting and, in multiple cases, created mechanisms for Republicans to exert greater influence over the counting of ballots. (For instance, through the new Texas law granting greater freedom to partisan “poll watchers,” or the provision in Georgia’s election bill through which a GOP-controlled panel has begun the process of potentially taking over election administration in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta.)
The new Senate voting bill introduced yesterday would respond to those threats more vigorously than many expected when Manchin objected to the original proposal in June (though experts such as Wertheimer say “there is more work to be done” to incorporate into the bill greater safeguards against manipulation of vote counting.)
Yet any and all provisions of the bill will be moot unless Manchin and Sinema agree to some exemption from the filibuster that will allow it to pass the Senate. Advocates aren’t pretending they have a clear understanding of whether either will do so, even as the dodged bullet in California offers another warning that races closer than this recall may face escalating threats of election subversion.
Ronald Brownstein is a senior editor at The Atlantic.