What Election? California Democrats Worry Over Recall Apathy

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom has a simple way to beat back the recall election that could force him out of his job: Get Democrats to vote. 

But it may not be as easy as it sounds. Democratic registration almost doubles that of Republicans in the state, but party leaders are alarmed because Republicans appear more eager to vote, which is backed up by polling. Some Democrats might not be paying attention because they are convinced Newsom is headed toward an easy victory.

The kind of voter Newsom needs to connect with is 37-year-old barber Dwayne Speed of Sacramento, who is a registered Democrat but has been thinking about switching to independent. He felt Newsom "pushed his own personal agenda" during the pandemic. But he isn't convinced by recall supporters either and hasn't decided how he will vote.

"I want to know every single basis that they're trying to recall him on," Speed said. "Nobody's going to have a job and do it 100% perfectly."

Interviews with about 20 voters across Sacramento, Fresno and Los Angeles reveal the challenges Newsom faces just two weeks before ballots start arriving in voters' mailboxes ahead of the Sept. 14 contest. While a handful of voters had decisive plans to vote for Newsom, many were aware of the recall but hadn't yet formed an opinion, did not know when the election was scheduled, or were lukewarm on Newsom.

Among Newsom's challenges: Voters aren't used to elections in odd-numbered years, and certainly not in September. Many voters have turned away from television platforms that carry ads, and resurgent coronavirus rates could make people unwilling to answer a knock at the door from a campaign worker. But every voter will get a ballot in the mail, giving them an easy opportunity to participate.

The recall effort was launched by novice Republican activists last year before the pandemic took hold, and they successfully gathered more than the 1.5 million signatures required by state law to place it on the ballot. Their effort was initially seen as a long shot that drew little attention. But signatures spiked after Newsom was caught dining out at the high-end French Laundry restaurant in Northern California for a birthday party while urging people to stay home and avoid gatherings.

In Los Angeles, 24-year-old Nick Yi, a registered independent who is between jobs, said he hasn't been paying much attention to the recall, in part because he has been staying away from news to avoid accounts of Asian hate crimes, which he finds upsetting.

He expects to vote and tends to lean Democratic. But he doesn't have a strong impression of Newsom, calling him someone who is passionate and "Republicans don't like."

As Newsom's team looks to engage voters like Yi, they are spending significant time branding the effort as a partisan contest. The majority of his TV ads have made a case against the recall rather than one for Newsom, branding it as a "Republican power grab."

One ad shows video of people storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. In another, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts tells voters "we've seen Trump Republicans across the country attacking election results and the right to vote. Now they're coming to grab power in California."

Democrats are openly sounding the alarm. Juan Rodriguez, campaign manager of the anti-recall effort, told The Associated Press he is "very concerned" about turnout. In an interview with editorial boards for McClatchy's California newspapers, Newsom warned that the recall would have "profound consequences" heading into the 2022 midterm elections. The campaign has already sent 14 million text messages to voters, and Rodriguez said enthusiasm is increasing as Democrats learn more about the race. 

Three months ago, Myra Coble of Fresno was a Democrat who was convinced Newsom couldn't be recalled. Now she's a volunteer with the county party trying to convince other Democrats not to rest on that assumption.

"Our fear is that in this election, Republicans will turn out and Democrats will be complacent because they think it can't happen," she said.

Democratic President Joe Biden won Fresno County with 53% of the vote in the 2020 presidential election. Though Fresno and other counties in the Central Valley are home to fewer voters than population power centers like San Diego and Los Angeles, Newsom has touted his commitment to the region throughout his governorship and traveled there regularly. 

But his message doesn't always break through. Curtis Selland and Leslie Pugsley are two Fresno County Democrats who will vote to keep Newsom but aren't his biggest fans.

Pugsley, 57, applauded the job Newsom did during the early months of coronavirus when he acted quickly to shut down schools and businesses. But she thinks he comes off as a "snooty San Francisco liberal" who isn't genuine.

On the opposite end, Christina Grout, 37, is a Democrat and mother of two from Sacramento who is excited to support Newsom. 

A disability justice advocate, she pays close attention to state politics and appreciated Newsom's handling of the pandemic. If anything, she would have liked to see him be more aggressive by keeping the state's mask mandate in place longer. The state dropped its mandate for vaccinated people on June 15. But on Wednesday, state officials began recommending people wear masks indoors again.

"I feel proud to be a Californian," Grout said.

Los Angeles County, meanwhile, could present Newsom's biggest challenge. It is home to more than 3 million Democrats and is a place where statewide elections can be won or lost. But voters often shrug at politics and can be especially difficult to get to the polls, even during a routine November election. 

Outside a local library, independent Jonathan Montes, 22, said he plans to vote but is undecided about Newsom. He is troubled by climbing rents and the unchecked spread of homelessness -– people could be seen slumped in doorways nearby, or splayed beneath trees.

He's going to give Newsom a close look before making a decision, but at this point "I would like to see someone else," Montes said. Newsom "hasn't lived up to expectations."


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