After months of build-up, California voters got their first prime-time glimpse at the major candidates vying to become governor in the upcoming recall election.
Some of them, anyway.
In the first — and conceivably only — debate before ballots begin hitting mailboxes later this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom, the focal point of the Sept. 14 election, sat out Wednesday night’s event.
So did his top-polling potential replacement, conservative radio host Larry Elder, who spent the evening at a Bakersfield fundraiser instead. His spokesperson warned that a “circular firing squad” among Republicans would only help Newsom.
The candidate with the most name recognition wasn’t even on the same continent: Caitlyn Jenner is taking a break from the California campaign trail to shoot the reality TV show “Big Brother VIP” in Australia.
Of the 46 candidates running to replace Newsom, only four — all Republican politicians — were on the stage: Assemblymember Kevin Kiley of Rocklin, unsuccessful 2018 candidate John Cox of San Diego County, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and former Sacramento-area U.S. Rep. Doug Ose.
While they generally refrained from attacking each other, they all took turns criticizing the governor on issues including homelessness, the scandal at the state unemployment department and his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The four took to the debate stage at a distinctly Republican setting: the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in north Orange County. It’s a venue that served as a reminder of how far the California Republican Party — once a producer of presidents, U.S. senators and legislative power brokers — has fallen in recent decades.
But the stately debate hall also offered a reminder of the power the four Republicans on the stage hope to reclaim. A recent spate of polls suggests that while Newsom is still supported by a majority of registered voters, recall backers appear far more likely to vote. That enthusiasm gap could transform what many pundits predicted would be an easy win for Newsom into something relatively rare in California politics: A competitive statewide race for governor.
Or at least that’s the hope of those seeking to oust Newsom and the candidates. Here are four takeaways from the 90-minute debate, hosted by FOX 11 in Los Angeles.
Consensus on COVID
Few issues united the four Republicans on stage like their disdain for public health mandates.
“I happen to have great faith in the ability of people to make decisions of their own,” said Ose, who spoke with the technical knowledge of a longtime lawmaker and, at times, a table-pounding indignation. “Instead of giving people mandates, we need to give them options.”
Kiley denounced the “hoopla” of the lotteries the governor rolled out to entice vaccine-wary Californians to get inoculated and warned of the “steps we’re taking towards mandates and passports.”
Late last month, Newsom announced that state employees and health care workerswould be required to get vaccinated or be subject to regular COVID testing.
This week, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would require proof of vaccination for restaurant diners, gym goers and visitors to other indoor public-facing businesses. That’s a first in the nation, though Los Angeles is considering its own requirement.
Despite being infected with COVID early on in the pandemic, Cox said he opposed the governor’s recent action to coax health care workers to get vaccinated. He also asserted that people who have already contracted the disease don’t need the vaccine, contrary to guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Faulconer, who has long distinguished himself across California GOP-dom as a relative moderate, stressed that he and his entire family had been vaccinated and he encouraged everyone who hasn’t been to get the jab, too. But encouragement is as far as the state should go.
“I do not favor mandates, I favor education,” he said. “You’re not going to mandate your way out of the coronavirus.”
Evidently, that wasn’t quite far enough for co-moderator Hugh Hewitt, a conservative commentator, who asked Faulconer whether he would outright ban schools from requiring students to wear masks.
“I will look into doing it, 100%,” said Faulconer without unequivocally saying that he would.