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Newsom Recall: Could 1-and-Done Strategy Backfire?



Photo of voting booths
The California recall election for Gov. Gavin Newsom is September 14. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)
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As we’ve been telling you for weeks, the California recall ballot has two questions. To paraphrase:

  1. Should voters fire Gov. Gavin Newsom two-thirds of the way through his first term?
  2. If Newsom is recalled, who should take his place?

Ben Christopher


But if you listen to the California Democratic Party and the governor himself, you might think only the first question matters — and that you should leave the second one blank.

California voters are understandably confused. Some recall opponents have even drawn the incorrect conclusion that voting for a replacement will invalidate their “no” vote. Ask the Newsom camp and you get this text message:

  • Newsom spokesperson Nathan Click: “Voting NO is the only way to ensure California doesn’t get a Trump-supporting and anti-vax enabling Governor like (Larry) Elder.”

Which isn’t much of an explanation.

To understand the strategy behind this message, remember the last and only time the California electorate gave its governor the premature boot.

Learning From Davis’ and Bustamante’s Mistake

When Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was facing a recall in 2003, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante jumped into the race at the last minute to serve as a backup Democrat, without the support of either the party or Davis. Still, the presence of a viable-seeming left-of-center alternative convinced many Democratic-leaning voters that they could vote to ditch Davis without ending up with a Republican governor.

That’s the lesson many Democratic political consultants took after Davis got the axe, Bustamante lost and the GOP’s Arnold Schwarzenegger won.

But not everyone thinks it’s the right lesson.

Democrats on the replacement ballot agree. YouTube real estate investment guru Kevin Paffrath, who backs the recall, has called the strategy “selfish.” Weed business consultant Jacqueline McGowan, who opposes it, says the party needs “an insurance policy” — namely, her.

The Democratic strategy is risky. If enough Newsom supporters listen to him, recall supporters will make up the majority of replacement votes, all but guaranteeing a conservative winner if the recall succeeds.

As for Bustamante? He said this time he left the second option blank.

About the Author

Ben Christopher covers California politics and elections for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.