The next test for Republican candidates who hope to oust Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in a September recall election comes this weekend with a fight over a coveted endorsement by the California Republican Party.
The competition for the party’s prized imprimatur already has set off infighting and finger-pointing within the state GOP, and there is no clear favorite among four candidates who qualified to compete for the nod. The voting Saturday follows a kickoff debate Wednesday that appeared to do little to reorder the Republican contest.
Parrying over the endorsement comes as Newsom's once-steady hold on his job appears to be slipping. Recent polling points to a tightening race as coronavirus cases climb, mandatory masking orders return in many parts of the state and gas prices keep rising.
The urgency can be witnessed in a fundraising pitch from Newsom’s campaign, which is working to energize Democrats who either are tuned out from politics or shrugging at the unusual late-summer election.
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“This recall is close – close enough to start thinking about what it (would) be like if we had a Republican governor in California,” the Newsom campaign appeal said, seeking small-dollar donations. “Sorry to put the thought in your head, but it’s true.”
The televised debate at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Orange County on Wednesday gave four candidates a chance to introduce themselves to voters statewide who might know little, if anything about them.
But the 90-minute showdown was absent of scintillating drama or major gaffes by businessman John Cox, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley or former congressman Doug Ose. They mostly avoided turning on each other, instead railing against Newsom and the state's progressive drift.
The debate was “not a game changer,” Menlo College political scientist Melissa Michelson said.
Any gains in exposure for the candidates would have been incremental.
“Now we know one of them is a rice farmer (Ose), one of them is in the state Assembly (Kiley), one of them is a former San Diego mayor (Faulconer),” Michelson said. “I didn’t come away thinking, ‘That guy blew it out of the water.’ ”
In the end, the match-up might end up providing material for Newsom to create critical ads aimed at left-leaning voters in the heavily Democratic state, which could feature Cox appearing to endorse eliminating the state’s minimum wage law, or when Faulconer didn't give a clear answer on whether he would prohibit schools from requiring masks.
There will be 46 replacement candidates on the Sept. 14 ballot, including 24 Republicans.
Another notable point on the debate: The two best-known candidates, conservative talk radio host Larry Elder, who has been leading in polls, and former Olympian and reality TV personality Caitlyn Jenner, didn’t participate.
Without Elder on stage, “that probably limits its impact,” Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney said.
The party endorsement will be in play at a virtual meeting of delegates Saturday, though only four candidates qualified to compete, Elder, Faulconer, Kiley and Ose.
For the winning candidate, the endorsement would come with campaign cash and other party resources for the final weeks of the race. But a candidate must hit a 60% threshold of votes to capture the party’s stamp, a high bar that makes it possible the prize goes to no one.
Some party members worry the looming endorsement scrum could drive down turnout among supporters of candidates who get snubbed, or distract from the overall goal of ousting Newsom. The conservative Cox has accused party insiders of trying to steer the endorsement to Faulconer, a centrist, and declined to participate.
Party chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson earlier advocated for an endorsement but now says she wants delegates to make the call.
In other developments Thursday, a Sacramento judge finalized a ruling that will allow Newsom to label the recall a Republican-driven effort in the state’s official voter guide. Democrats have sought to link the recall effort to far-right extremists and supporters of former President Donald Trump.
In her ruling, Superior Court Judge Laurie M. Earl rejected a lawsuit filed by recall organizers who objected to the use of such terms in the informational guide, which is distributed to voters.
Cox, meanwhile, proposed a sweeping tax cut that he said would return $30 billion annually to families and small businesses. It’s anchored to a 25% reduction in income taxes.
The race is unfolding in a rapidly vanishing window of time. Mail-in ballots start going out to the state's 22 million voters in less than two weeks.
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.
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.
For Newsom, the resurgent virus has “punctured a lot of the optimism that was prevalent” when cases started to retreat earlier this year, Pitney noted. In addition, wildfires burning around the state and the potential for power blackouts represent “risks on his side,” he said.