The latest political ad in California attempting to discourage voters from recalling Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom doesn't just suggest people will suffer if the governor is ousted, it outright says so.
"What's at stake in the September 14 recall?" the ad opens. "It's a matter of life and death."
Looks like Newsom's side has realized that voter apathy might bounce him out. Early confidence that Newsom's numbers were high enough to weather this political storm has faded as polls show undecided voters increasingly turning against him, which makes turnout a bigger factor.
California is overwhelmingly run by Democrats and far more voters are registered as Democrats than Republicans. But polling shows a nearly even chance of Newsom getting recalled not because he's losing the support of his own voters, but because they're telling pollsters they're not as likely to vote.
Thus the warning: Vote against the recall or people will die. The advertisement leans heavily into the friction between Democrats and Republicans in terms of COVID responses and support for related lockdowns and mandates. It suggests Newsom's directives have helped to protect the state, also noting that he has ordered vaccination mandates for health workers and teachers. Then the ad argues that Republican recall frontrunner Larry Elder (they don't say his name, but they use his image and one of his tweets) would get rid of mask and vaccine mandates "on Day One."
The ad seems to be trying to frighten apathetic Democrats into voting to protect Newsom, because of his importance in fighting the pandemic. But the oppressive mandates that weren't tied to the scientific understanding of COVID's spread, and his own flouting of those guidelines, means his credibility has taken a hit. If Newsom hadn't made a mockery of his own lockdown demands by having a fancy dinner at French Laundry with lobbyists, would Republicans have gotten enough signatures for the recall?
Beyond the comically extreme fearmongering, a secondary line of attack outside of these campaign ads has involved questioning the legitimacy of California's recall system. Steven Greenhut noted this dynamic last week, arguing that Newsom protectors are attempting to claim the whole thing is unconstitutional because the end result may be a winning candidate who received fewer votes than Newsom. There's currently even a federal lawsuit against the recall.
Though this is mostly misleading hogwash, there are differences between how we view the recall and the actual legal construction of it. It may look like a bunch of people are running against the governor as though they're opponents in a typical election. In a certain practical and political sense, this is true; Elder is campaigning against Newsom.
But in the legal construction of the recall, Newsom is campaigning to keep from being fired. The first question in the recall election is whether to boot him from office. The second question is which of the 46 candidates should replace him. The winner will be whichever candidate gets the most votes. The misleading attack on the recall posits that Newsom could lose the first question, but whoever wins the second question could succeed him, even if he or she got fewer votes than those who chose to keep Newsom. Therefore those who voted to keep Newsom are being unconstitutionally deprived of their choice for who should replace him in the event that he is ousted. But that's not true.
I noted earlier this month that anti-recall advertisements featuring Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) made a point of telling voters to vote against the recall, but appeared to deliberately omit that even opponents of the recall could choose Newsom's successor should he lose. I thought at the time this seemed likely to backfire if Democratic voters ended up losing their chance to pick an alternate.
Now that actually seems like the plan. I received a vote reminder card in the mail over the weekend that encouraged me to vote yes or no for the recall but also told me—in big, bold letters—that I did not have to choose a replacement candidate. It seems as though the hope here is that recall opponents don't select a replacement. If they don't, then it seems very likely that, yes, Newsom will have gotten more votes than his replacement because so many people didn't cast a second vote.
What a cynical and anti-democratic approach that courts will hopefully see through if legal challenges progress. It's amazing how Democrats point out voter suppression by Republicans as an argument against this recall while at the same time deliberately trying to trick Democratic voters into not choosing an alternative. Publicly, California Democrats are demurring when asked if they agree with the scholars who argue that the recall is unconstitutional. But it's impossible not to notice how recall opponents' approach involves deliberately not telling voters they can oppose the recall and still select a successor.
The actual loser of this tactic may not be Elder, the frontrunner among Republicans, but Kevin Paffrath, 29, a real estate broker with a popular YouTube channel running as a Democrat. One recent poll had Paffrath ahead of Elder by four points. Paffrath presents himself as a centrist, with infrastructure and education spending plans that would appeal to those on the left, but he also wants more housing, more toll roads, no state income tax for the first $250,000 of income, and fully legalized gambling, among other things.
It seems like many of these potentially lost replacement votes may not ultimately be going to Elder but to candidates like Paffrath. He, not Elder, is likely to be the one most harmed by Democrats' tactics.