Four Republicans hoping to claim Gov. Gavin Newsom's job in a September recall election skirmished in their first debate Wednesday, labeling the incumbent Democrat a failure whose pandemic policies sent the state into a tailspin while hewing closely to familiar conservative themes.
There were a few sharp exchanges as candidates sought to distinguish themselves from their rivals, but much of the evening event amounted to a litany of complaints about Newsom and the Democratic-controlled Legislature and the progressive drift of the nation's most populous state.
“This used to be the state where anyone could get ahead. Now it’s the state that many can’t wait to leave behind, and our soaring housing costs are central to that,” said Kevin Kiley, a state assemblyman who at 36 years old could become the state's first millennial governor.
The stakes were elevated with mail-in ballots for the Sept. 14 contest going to voters in about two weeks. Polls suggest the race is growing tight, with Newsom’s once-comfortable edge slipping as coronavirus cases climb and mask restrictions return across much of the state.
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The election is being watched nationally as a barometer of the public mood heading toward the 2022 elections, when a closely divided Congress again will be in play. A Republican upset in the heavily Democratic state would be a stunning rebuke, and Newsom has warned that his ouster would have national implications in politics and policy-making.
Many of the exchanges during the 90-minute debate centered on signature conservative issues in the state that appeared aimed at energizing Republican and right-leaning voters, rather than winning over converts from the political center. They included building more water storage, restraining government growth and cutting taxes.
Former congressman Doug Ose promised to swiftly weed out Newsom appointees across state government. Former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer was critical of state efforts to expand health care for people who entered the country illegally. Businessman John Cox, who lost to Newsom in the 2018 governor's race, appeared to endorse eliminating the state's minimum wage law.
“The real, true minimum wage ... should be zero. It should be set between the employer and the employee,” Cox said at one point.
But the debate also offered little drama or memorable lines that might resonate beyond a single night.
A notable point about the debate at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Orange County was who didn’t show up: the two best-known candidates. Caitlyn Jenner has been in Australia filming a reality TV program, while conservative talk radio host Larry Elder, who has been the leading replacement candidate in polls, attended a Bakersfield fundraiser.
Library officials said Newsom did not respond to an invitation.
Polls have shown many voters aren't paying attention or remain indecisive about the unusual late-summer election, which could remove the governor with about 15 months left in his first term.
One of the tautest exchanges took place when Ose challenged Faulconer's record on dealing with homelessness, a cornerstone of the former mayor's campaign. Ose, a former congressman, said falling numbers of homeless residents cited by Faulconer were the result of rejiggered calculations, labeling Faulconer a “plastic man.” Faulconer disputed that and defended his record.
Faulconer also stood out by emphatically encouraging everyone watching to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, something none of the other contenders on stage repeated. Cox, for his part, said people who have already had coronavirus should not be vaccinated, which goes against what the CDC recommends.
Faulconer, who made his plea when asked about masks in school, said vaccinations are the best way to end the pandemic. He said he opposes mask mandates in schools, but wouldn’t give a clear answer on whether he’d prohibit schools from requiring masks.
Kiley said he believes in “personal choice” on vaccinations.
Democrats have sought to link the recall effort to far-right extremists and supporters of former President Donald Trump. Earlier Wednesday, a judge tentatively ruled in Newsom’s favor in a lawsuit that sought to block him from labeling the recall a Republican effort in the state’s official voter guide.
Faulconer backed Trump in 2020 after spurning him four years earlier. When asked if he would welcome Trump's endorsement, the former mayor called the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol in Washington “abhorrent,” but said he was eager to win support from Republicans, Democrats and independents, without directly mentioning Trump or ruling out accepting his endorsement.
Newsom's campaign manager, Juan Rodriguez, said in a tweet that “California needs to move forward, not back toward Donald Trump."
The debate comes at a time when Republicans already have witnessed signs of infighting that could drive down turnout and distract from the goal of toppling Newsom. Cox has accused GOP insiders of trying to steer an endorsement to Faulconer.
The recall grew out of widespread frustration during the pandemic over whipsaw stay-at-home orders, crushing job losses from business closures and long-running school closures that together disrupted life for millions.
In the election, voters will be asked two questions: First, should Newsom be removed, yes or no? The second question will be a list of replacement candidates from which to choose. If a majority votes for Newsom’s removal, the candidate who gets the most votes on the second question becomes governor.
With 46 replacement candidates on the ballot, it’s possible a winner could emerge with as little as 20% of the vote should Newsom be recalled — a fraction of what a candidate would need in a typical statewide election.
That unusual election math also has allowed Republicans to largely target their campaigns at Republicans and right-leaning independents, which could provide a sufficient coalition to win.
The debate closed with light-hearted questions intended to prompt candidates to reveal something personal about their lives. Faulconer said he cycles for charity, Kiley plugged a restaurant in his district and Ose said his hidden talent was getting things done.
Cox, who branded himself as an outsider throughout the night, took an unconventional approach. Asked what embarrassing information his kids would share about him, he said: “My wife doesn’t like my nose hair.”