SACRAMENTO, California -- California has voted not to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, according to a projection from ABC News based on exit polls and an analysis of votes.
The Democratic governor emphatically defeated an attempt to oust him from office, overcoming Republican criticism of Covid-19 restrictions that shuttered schools and businesses. The “no” vote on the question of whether to recall Newsom led by a 2-to-1 margin.
Newsom bolted to a quick victory Tuesday night boosted by healthy turnout in the overwhelmingly Democratic state. He cast it as a win for science, women’s rights and other liberal issues.
"...I'm humbled and grateful to the millions and millions of Californians that exercise their fundamental right to vote, and express themselves so overwhelmingly by rejecting the division by rejecting the cynicism. By rejecting, so much of the negativity that's defined our politics in this country over the course of so many years," Newsom said late Tuesday night in his victory speech after becoming the second governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election.
His win ensures the nation’s most populous state will remain in Democratic control as a laboratory for progressive policies. The outcome was being watched nationally with the 2022 midterm elections on the horizon, when control of Congress again will be at stake.
Newsom framed the race as an epic struggle to protect California’s progressive values on climate change, immigration and abortion and women’s rights from far-right extremists and followers of former President Donald Trump.
“‘No’ is not the only thing that was expressed tonight,” Newsom said. “I want to focus on what we said ‘yes’ to as a state: We said yes to science, we said yes to vaccines, we said yes to ending this pandemic.”
California voters were asked two questions: Should Newsom be recalled, and, if so, who should replace him? Only a handful of the 46 names on the replacement ballot had any level of public recognition, but most failed to gain traction with voters.
Republicans had a crowded field and, before nationally syndicated conservative radio host Larry Elder's entrance into the race, the field was without a clear leader.
Elder held a commanding lead on the second question and appeared all but certain to end the race with the votes needed to have replaced Newsom had the recall been a success.
He had entered the race just three months before Election Day and quickly rose to the top of the pack. But that allowed Newsom to turn the campaign into a choice between the two men, rather than a referendum on his performance.
Newsom seized on Elder’s opposition to the minimum wage and abortion rights as evidence he was outside the mainstream of California. The governor branded him as “more extreme than Trump,” while Biden called him “the closest thing to a Trump clone I’ve ever seen.”
Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer was once thought to be the front-runner and was seen as the moderate in the race. Businessman John Cox, who was the GOP's gubernatorial nominee in 2018, campaigned across the state with a live bear and an 8-foot ball of trash. Reality star and Olympic gold medalist Caitlyn Jenner entered the recall field, although she spent some time out of the country in Australia, reportedly filming a celebrity edition of a reality show.
Newsom recruited some of the biggest Democratic heavy-hitters to stump for him, including Vice President Kamala Harris and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. President Joe Biden hit the trail with Newsom to close out his campaign in Long Beach, California, on Monday night.
“This is not hyperbole. The eyes of the nation are on California because the decision you're about to make isn’t just going to have a huge impact on California, it's going to reverberate around the nation, and quite frankly not a joke around the world," Biden said Monday.
But a recall election is an imperfect barometer — particularly of national trends. Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1 in California, so the results may not translate to governors in toss-up states or reflect how voters will judge members of Congress next year.
Democrats attempted to nationalize the race to increase enthusiasm, warning of lawmaking similar to that of Republican-led states.
Harris, a native of the Bay Area, rallied with Newsom last week and warned of the national consequences the recall could have if it was successful, referencing the recent change in abortion laws in Texas, among other things.
"What's happening in Texas, what's happening in Georgia, what's happening around our country with these policies that are about attacking women's rights, reproductive rights, voting rights, workers rights, they think if they can win in California they can do this anywhere, but we're gonna show them they can't," Harris said.
The pandemic being a top issue across the state, Newsom had spent the campaign warning voters about potential policy changes surrounding the coronavirus if the recall passed. His team released an ad painting the election as "life or death." He has singled out Elder's promises that he would immediately end mask mandates and testing for state employees.
Spivak told ABC News that the threat of a leading candidate among the recall field, which was lacking before Elder joined the race two months ago, was helpful to Newsom in solidifying his message.
"He was really helped by Larry Elder eventually being the front-runner, because it gave him a comparison. Before he was trying to make it Newsom versus Trump, but Trump isn't on the ballot," Spivak said. "Larry Elder is, so Larry Elder can be Trump, play the role of Trump. And Larry Elder was obviously very happy to play the role … it was beneficial to both of them."
National Republican leaders largely kept the contest at arm’s length. Trump barely commented on the race until the final days, when he suggested with no evidence that the results would be rigged because of mail-in balloting. One of the recall’s original organizers said his comments would do more harm than good.
In the closing days, Elder’s campaign echoed Trump’s messaging, saying he expected “shenanigans” and linking to a website insinuating Newsom had already won the election due to fraud. The site included language from a petition circulated to help Trump’s effort to overturn last year’s presidential election, but that wording was removed by Tuesday afternoon.
Elder had previously said that he believed Biden won the 2020 election "fairly and squarely."
Newsom has been viewed as a potential White House contender since at least 2004, when he defied federal law to issue marriage licenses to LGBT couples as mayor of San Francisco. His victory maintained those prospects, though he will still have to navigate around the ambitions of Harris, who came up through San Francisco politics alongside Newsom.