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Opinion | Why Deep Blue California Could Elect a Bright Red Governor

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The populist politics that may eject Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, a Democrat, from office before his term is out are more than a century old. Progressive reformers took power in California in 1911 promising, in the words of then newly elected Gov. Hiram Johnson, to restore “the people’s rule” and destroy “the former political master of this state,” the Southern Pacific Railroad.

As part of their program, the progressives convinced voters to enact the initiative and referendum, promising that those electoral tools would prevent private interests from ever again subverting the people’s will. They also enshrined in the state Constitution “an admonitory and precautionary measure which will ever be present before weak officials,”: the recall.

Though they worked to strengthen democracy, the well-meaning reformers created a weapon that, one hundred years later, could be wielded by an aggrieved minority to thwart the will of the people whom turn-of-the-century progressives aimed to protect. The relative ease of California’s recall process is just one of many long-term factors that, combined with Mr. Newsom’s inconsistent leadership, has created the possibility that California, one of the bluest states in the nation, may soon find itself with an extremely conservative Republican governor. A recent poll gives Mr. Newsom only a 3 percent edge among likely voters in the recall election, scheduled for Sept. 14. If he gets anything less than 50 percent, then the top vote-getter among his opponents — at this point, the Trump-backing, mask- mandate-opposing radio host Larry Elder, with only about 20 percent support among likely voters polled — would replace him.

America’s constitutional landscape, at both state and federal scale, contain provisions that can be bent to fulfill anti-majoritarian agendas. Like the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, the Senate itself and the Electoral College, California’s recall process allows a determined minority to overrule the will of the voters.

The state constitutional amendment promoted by Governor Johnson that established the recall set a relatively low bar for its use. Recall proponents need attain the signatures of only 12 percent of voters in the most recent election for governor. (Many other states set the minimum at 25 percent.) Still, despite dozens of attempts, recall organizers almost always failed to get enough signatures within the 160 days prescribed by law. The one exception occurred in 2003, when voter anger over rolling electrical blackouts led to the successful recall of another Democrat, Gov. Gray Davis and his replacement by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Hollywood celebrity and a Republican. The recall proponents of 2021 would have failed as well, but a judge agreed to give them an additional 120 days because the pandemic made it difficult to obtain signatures in person.

The extension gave recall proponents enough time to target right-wing voters and encourage them to send in their petitions. Partisan polarization, as pronounced in California as in the rest of the nation, is another long-term reason for Mr. Newsom’s current state of political peril. California is a deep blue state: Joe Biden won 64 percent of the presidential vote in 2020, Mr. Newsom won 62 percent of the vote for governor in 2018, and the Republican Party claims only 24 percent of registered voters. But some areas of the state, particularly the Sierra Nevada foothills and the sparsely populated counties in the state’s Far North, are home to right-wing activists who abhor Mr. Newsom’s liberal policies on immigration, marriage equality, gun control and income taxes.

Living in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, these conservative residents feel angry, alienated and powerless. Some even want to secede and form a new state with like-minded rural conservatives in southern Oregon. Residents of California’ northernmost counties, whose hand-painted signs proclaim that drivers on Interstate 5 north of Redding are entering the “State of Jefferson,” signed the recall petition in astonishing numbers. In Lassen County, more than 18 percent of registered voters signed, as opposed to less than 2 percent in San Francisco County. These conservative voters are more likely to believe that the 2020 election was stolen from the Republicans and that mask and vaccine mandates are examples of tyranny. Some of them believe that any Democratic executive is by definition illegitimate.

Mr. Newsom was the first governor in the nation to issue a mask mandate, and his early pandemic response won him high approval ratings from most Californians. But the state’s shifting guidance on masks, as well as on business and school reopenings, caused some of those early supporters to change their minds.

The governor made his biggest personal mistake last November, when he and his wife joined other guests without masks to celebrate the birthday of a lobbyist friend. Not only did the governor violate his own face-covering policy, he did so at one of Northern California’s most expensive restaurants, the French Laundry, in Napa Valley. The pictures of the event crystallized an image of him as an elitist and a hypocrite, and helped the recall campaign surge to more than 442,000 signatures in just one month from a little more than 55,000.

Though Republicans see Mr. Newsom as the worst kind of tax-and-spend, gay-friendly, immigrant-loving liberal, many left-leaning Californians find him to be ineffectual at solving the structural problems of the state. Income inequality, they note, is increasing, despite some redistributive efforts by the governor and the state Legislature, and the number of homeless residents has reached historic levels. Fires destroy the homes of thousands of Californians every year, and make the air unbreathable for tens of millions more.

Yet Mr. Newsom has accomplished a great deal, especially given the size of the various crises — involving the climate, the economy and public health — that he faces. He has pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to try to prevent future wildfires, and forced the private utility PG&E, which has admitted blame for starting some of the worst blazes, to spend billions to compensate victims and to forgo dividend payments to shareholders for three years. He’s also signed the largest funding package for affordable housing and aid to the homeless in state history.

Hiram Johnson and the progressives wanted to empower the voters to recall corrupt public officials, not punish those who struggled because they faced enormous public health and environmental emergencies.

If liberal Californians cannot muster enough enthusiasm to send in their ballots against the recall, they might wake up on Sept. 15 to find themselves with a new governor-elect who has just a sliver of voter support. Such a result would almost certainly prompt a movement to change or even abolish the recall. To achieve Hiram Johnson’s stated goal of “the return of popular government in California,” its voters might need to consider getting rid of one of his signature reforms.

Kathyrn Olmsted is a professor of history and the interim chair of gender, sexuality and women’s studies at the University of California, Davis. She is the author, most recently, of “Right Out of California: The Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism.”

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