2020 sucked for all of us. But it was really bad for California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
In nearly a quarter-century of politics, the former San Francisco mayor and lieutenant governor has never lost an election, an enviable record that allows one to dream about the White House. But Republicans and conservative activists see their best opportunity yet to deliver a spectacular takedown of Newsom — in what could become the biggest political upset of the year.
Many will debate what lit the fuse in this deep-blue state. Newsom’s unmasked dinner with lobbyists at the tony French Laundry. High taxes. The longest Covid-19 school shutdowns in the nation. Strict closures on businesses and churches.
Whatever the origin, Republicans from around the country — hungering for a cause and a high-profile target in the wake of the 2020 presidential defeat — have eagerly piled on board. The Republican National Committee’s $250,000 seed money has been bulked up with support from conservative stars like Newt Gingrich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Rep. Devin Nunes and former acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell. They’re joined by more moderate Republicans like former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and wealthy businessman John Cox, who have already launched their campaigns.
While Newsom wants to make the recall all about Trump, any serious competitors for his job will want to make it about Newsom — and Newsom alone.
Anne Dunsmore, the campaign manager for recall committee RescueCalifornia.org, countered the governor by emphasizing that one-third of the recall signatories to date are independent or Democratic voters, “and 50 percent are women.” She said Newsom’s firepower will be no match for the more than 20,000 volunteers “tired of being ignored” who have worked on the recall drive and will continue to lead the campaign fight in the months ahead.
“It’s not just the French Laundry,” Dunsmore said. “It’s the gas taxes, the rolling blackouts, the wildfires,” and now widespread anger and frustration at his Covid-19 management.
Under Newsom, “everybody’s gotten a major lesson in ‘Government Screws You 101,'” she added.
Newsom acknowledged Tuesday that recall proponents likely have enough signatures, marking the unofficial start of a months-long brawl over California’s top job. A battle-scarred survivor of the San Francisco political arena, the governor is leaving nothing to chance.
He will have the advantage of marshaling unique weapons: the bully pulpit of the world’s fifth largest economy, which allows Newsom to traverse California with a packed calendar of public events, speaking directly to voters, as he has already done over the past month. He will also rely on an army of elected Democrats, as well as luminaries from business, tech and entertainment fields, to sing his praises.
And he’s going back to the team that got him to Sacramento, several of whom ran Vice President Kamala Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign.
Three partners from the newly rebranded SF-and LA-based political shop, Bearstar Strategies, will take a lead role: Averell “Ace” Smith will be the campaign’s lead strategist; Clegg, who has long shaped media and messaging, will oversee that key role for the candidate; and Juan Rodriguez will be campaign manager after serving in that capacity on Harris’ presidential bid.
Newsom will also rely on veteran Democratic pollster David Binder, who served on both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns as well as Senate and House races in more than a dozen states. The governor will turn to Democratic experts in raising money from small contributors: Tim Degaris, who was a senior adviser to Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, and senior strategist Sydney Hibbs, who raised more than $10 million via digital ads in the 2020 cycle.
The governor is relying on two familiar faces to run his communications side: Nathan Click, his former gubernatorial communications director, and senior strategist Dan Newman.
The Newsom team went on the offensive this week for the first time, launching its first ad trying to tie the recall movement to Trump, Proud Boys and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Then, the governor himself alleged on MSNBC that one recall principal “wants to put microchips in immigrant aliens,” based on a previous Facebook post made by lead proponent Orrin Heatlie.
Newsom scheduled other national talk show appearances on CNN and “The View,” repeatedly attacking the recall movement as an effort by Trump-aligned Republicans. The governor’s team will repeatedly try to invoke Trump at every turn this year, hoping to capitalize on the former president who is deeply unpopular in California and received a mere 34 percent of the vote in November.
Newsom is “taking it seriously,” said Garry South, who was political adviser to former Gov. Gray Davis when the Democrat was recalled in 2003 and replaced by box office star Arnold Schwarzenegger. “The point has been made to him that Davis did not take the 2003 recall seriously until it was in the later stages, because he didn’t want to deal with it.”
Sacramento insiders say that a pair of major recent additions to Newsom’s inner circle — known as the “Horseshoe” for the shape of the governor’s first floor offices — have made key differences. The addition of Jim DeBoo, a veteran legislative aide and lobbyist, as executive secretary has been credited with helping Newsom move priority stimulus and education measures through the Capitol this year.
And Dee Dee Myers, the former White House press secretary for President Bill Clinton, has taken the reins on communication and contacts with the state’s business community as Newsom’s top business and economic adviser. She said Newsom’s mood heading into the challenge is “optimistic. He really is focused on doing the job right,” she said.
“His focus is getting California back, getting the economy going again, getting business back on their feet, getting kids in school and getting vaccines in arms,” Myers said. “That’s going to be his job — and everything else is background noise.”
Republicans will attempt to make this election all about Newsom’s record and California’s struggles under his leadership. They can point to the state’s blackouts last summer, as well as smoke-filled skies and wildfires that again blanketed large swaths of the state. California has struggled with unemployment during pandemic-related business closures ordered by Newsom, while churchgoers were unable to worship inside in most counties until the Supreme Court stepped in.
And more than a year into the pandemic, the state ranks dead last on classroom reopening, according to school tracker Burbio. While Democratic-dominated West Coast states have been among the nation’s slowest to bring students back, governors in Oregon and Washington this month issued executive orders mandating that schools reopen. Newsom declined to go that route, preferring instead to dangle $2 billion in incentives as part of a compromise with teachers unions — a move that has still left many students at home.
But the governor’s internal measures are largely in line with public polls that show Newsom’s approval rating, while down from highs last year, are still above water, according to two strategists familiar with his polling. As more Californians get vaccinated and life begins to edge back to normal, it is likely that the electorate’s mood will improve by the time an election is held later this year.
“I think the economy here will be in good shape, and I think the virus will be contained, if not crushed,” said Bob Shrum, a longtime political strategist who served on multiple Democratic presidential campaigns. “And people will say, ‘Well, maybe Newsom did a pretty good job, after all.'”
If the recall qualifies, California’s entrenched — and wealthy — Democratic interests will likely spend heavily to defeat it. Newsom raised more than $50 million in his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, and in a political off-year, there will be fewer contests elsewhere to divide donors’ attention.
The result is that California “will be subjected to a barrage of swing-state-like ads linking this effort to Trump and the Republicans,” said Doug Herman, who is based in California and who was a lead mail strategist for Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns.
Given spending in high-profile races across the country last year and unrestricted fundraising for an incumbent governor subjected to a recall, he said, “You think Gavin doesn’t go over one hundred [million dollars]?”
Sean Walsh, who served as deputy chief of staff to Gov. Pete Wilson and directed the Office of Planning and Research for Schwarzenegger, predicts a bonanza of spending by labor unions and other Democratic interests on Newsom’s behalf could ultimately tilt the Capitol landscape even further to the left, he said.
With Newsom relying on “public employee unions to bail him out” in a recall election, Walsh said, “that will just further solidify those ties and probably make Newsom, from a public policy perspective, go even more leftward.”
Walsh added that one advantage for Newsom is that California’s business community is unlikely to spend heavily against him.
“Even as angry as they are at Gavin Newsom,” he said, “it’s not in their nature to want to get involved … They’re just very risk averse.”
The state’s electorate and its representatives are more Democratic than when Davis was recalled in 2003. And as of now, there is no wealthy, charismatic superstar waiting to take Newsom’s place.
“History actually doesn’t always repeat itself, and these are very different circumstances,” Shrum said. “I just don’t see how this succeeds.”
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