by Susan Crabtree
In the wake of a big statewide campaign win of any kind, political pundits rev into overdrive with broad pronouncements about the takeaways and what the result reveals about the mood of the nation. Often, the results are more prosaic — simply the political status quo for that particular state or district in that specific slice of time.
Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s smackdown of the recall was no different this week. Few longtime state politicos were surprised by his ability to win big in solidly blue California.
But that hasn’t stopped the sweeping predictions for next year’s midterms and control of Congress. President Biden deemed the recall’s landslide defeat a “resounding win” for Democrats and his administration’s vaccine and COVID-related mandates. California voters rejected the “Republican brand that is centered around insurrection and denying the pandemic,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told reporters Wednesday.
The true takeaway is far more basic. Republicans never stood a chance without a big-name mainstream celebrity running in a state where Donald Trump lost to Joe Biden by nearly 30 percentage points last fall and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin.
Hindsight is 20-20, but now we know that Democrats’ summer anxiety about the outcome was misplaced. The news that a number of August polls showing a tossup were deeply flawed confirms it.
The only firm message the California recall provides is that Democrats are slightly less supportive of Newsom now than they were of Biden when he ran against Trump last year. The latest voting tally shows 63.8% of voters rejecting the recall with 36.2% supporting it, a 27.6 percentage-point margin, little changed from Newsom’s 2018 win.
Biden and other Democrats declaring a major victory after spending $80 million to win on such friendly territory and without a credible Republican challenger — and after benefiting from the president and the vice president visiting the state — is “like me bragging about winning a [campaign] in Alabama,” said Matt Gorman, a GOP political consultant who previously served as the communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The Democratic Governors Association felt pressured enough to spend $5.5 million bolstering Newsom – that’s hardly cause of celebration, Gorman told RealClearPolitics. “That’s 5.5 million they’re not going to be able to use in an actually competitive race next year” or in the far more competitive Virginia governor’s race in November, he said.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin are facing off for control of the governor’s mansion in Richmond. It’s a race that is being closely watched as another possible signal of voter sentiment heading into the 2022 elections.
Unlike Youngkin, who is running as a centrist, conservative flame-thrower Larry Elder, the Republican alternative to Newsom if the recall had succeeded, was wildly out of sync with such a heavily Democratic electorate. The radio talk show host’s pledge to roll back all statewide vaccination and mask mandates on his first day in office didn’t help. But it’s difficult to separate out his pandemic policies from California voters’ rejections of other right-wing Elder views, such as opposition to abortion or a minimum wage of any kind, and paid maternity leave, to name just a few.
Still, Nick Rathod, a Democrat who served in the Obama White House, says the GOP should be wary of running far-right candidates and framing upcoming elections as a referendum on Democratic pandemic polices. Georgia Republicans’ dreams of running football great Herschel Walker, another African American arch-conservative aligned with Trump, against first-term Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, would be a mistake, he argued.
“They can’t run these cartoon versions of Donald Trump … who represent the extremes of the Republican Party, because it’s not really where voters are,” Rathod told RCP. On the other hand, the more moderate Youngkin is making the Virginia gubernatorial contest far more competitive than the California recall, he said. “Virginia will be more of a bellwether than California,” Rathod predicted.
What the recall means for the midterms and control of Congress is more complex and could actually favor Republicans, independent political analysts argue.
“I can’t overstate the need to put off-year races in context,” Dave Wasserman, the House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, tweeted Wednesday. “If Newsom survives by 25% (?) and McAuliffe were to win by 5%, they’d be spun as big Dem wins. But that same ~5 pt swing right from 2020 Biden/Trump margin would easily win Rs the House & Senate in 2022.”
For the past two election cycles, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said the path to a Democratic House majority runs through California, and that will be no different next year. But the recall doesn’t show any big shift in the Democrats’ favor. Even though Trump lost the state by nearly 30 points in 2020, that year Republicans managed to retake four of seven House seats across the state that they lost in the 2018 blue wave.
“Yes” on the recall is on track to prevail in a handful of competitive House districts in California, including in Orange County, Wasserman points out.
More mail-in ballots will trickle in until early next week, but as of Wednesday, support and opposition for the recall was nearly evenly divided in Orange County seats controlled by Republican Reps. Michelle Steel and Young Kim (Kim’s district also incorporates parts of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties). Both Steel and Kim won by razor-thin margins in highly competitive districts that the recall demonstrates will likely remain so next year.
In some districts, the recall showed slipping Democratic support. California’s 49th Congressional District, which spans the coastline of south Orange and north San Diego counties, is represented by Democratic Rep. Mike Levin. Voters in his district opposed the recall by five percentage points as of Wednesday, but Levin won reelection last year by seven points, down from 13 in 2018. The district is home to Camp Pendleton, one of the largest military installations in the country, so Biden’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan could have played a role.
The biggest swaths of support for the recall came from the state’s Central Valley, a less populated agricultural area inland from the coast. In 2020, Republican Rep. David Valadao narrowly wrested back the seat he lost to a Democrat in 2018 in a district made up of portions of Kings as well as parts of Fresno, Kern and Tulare counties. All of those counties favored Newsom’s ouster, three by a margin of 16-to-26 points in the latest voting tally.
But even current voting trends for all of California’s districts are not a sure sign of what may come next fall after the redistricting process. Democrats are losing one congressional seat in the state after the census showed a population decrease for the first time in its 171-year history.
“All of these lines are going to change because of redistricting, so that’s important to note as well,” Gorman said.
That is especially true for Republican Rep. Mike Garcia’s highly competitive swing district located north of Los Angeles. Garcia, a former Navy fighter pilot and defense industry executive, defied polls and narrowly defeated Democratic rival Christy Smith twice last year, first in a special election prompted by former Rep. Katie Hill’s resignation, then in a regular contest a few months later.
Santa Clarita, the biggest city in Garcia’s district, and its immediate suburbs rejected the recall by at least 10 points, but those numbers are flipped in the larger but more rural areas Garcia also represents, where voters wanted to see Newsom replaced by at least the same 10-point margin.
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Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.
Photo “Terry McAuliffe” by Terry McAuliffe CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo “Glenn Youngkin” by Glenn Youngkin CC BY-SA 3.0. Background Photo “Virginia State Capitol” by Will Weaver CC BY-SA 3.0.