EXPLAINER: How California could recall its governor

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

FILE - In this Jan. 8, 2021, file photo, California Gov. Gavin Newsom gestures during a news conference in Sacramento, Calif. California on Thursday, July 1, 2021 scheduled a Sept. 14 recall election that could drive Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom from office, the result of a political uprising largely driven by angst over state coronavirus orders that shuttered schools and businesses and upended life for millions of Californians. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, Pool, File)

LOS ANGELES – California will hold a recall election Sept. 14 that could remove first-term Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom from office. The date was set by Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, a Democrat and Newsom ally, after election officials certified that enough valid petition signatures had been turned in to qualify the election for the ballot. Republicans are hoping for an upset in a heavily Democratic state where the GOP hasn't won a statewide election since 2006. The election will be watched nationally as a barometer of the public mood heading toward the 2022 elections, when a closely divided Congress again will be in play. Here’s how it works:


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California is one of 20 states that have provisions to remove a sitting governor in a recall, 19 of them through elections. The state law establishing the rules goes back to 1911 and was intended to place more power directly in the hands of voters by allowing them to recall elected officials and repeal or pass laws by placing them on the ballot. Recall attempts are common in the state, but they rarely get on the ballot and even fewer succeed. However, in 2003, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.


The answer is simple and complicated.

The simple part: Californians grew angry over a difficult year. Whipsaw pandemic lockdowns, crushing job losses from business closures, shuttered schools and the disruption of daily life soured just about everybody. Many of life’s routines were cut off at some point if not altogether during the pandemic, whether trips to the beach or lunches at a favorite burger joint.

The complicated part: In a state with nearly 40 million people, there are many grievances, from California’s wallet-sapping taxes to a raging homelessness crisis. As governor, Newsom became a target for that resentment.

He is also being hit by fallout from a multibillion-dollar fraud scandal at the state unemployment agency while weathering a public shaming for dining out with friends and lobbyists at an exclusive restaurant last fall, while telling residents to stay home for safety.


The election will be held Sept. 14. It was widely expected to take place in the fall, but Democrats who dominate the Legislature tinkered with the law and opened the way for a late-summer election they believe will benefit Newsom.


Voters would be asked two questions: First, should Newsom be removed, yes or no? The second question would be a list of replacement candidates from which to choose. If a majority of voters approve Newsom’s recall, the candidate who gets the most votes becomes governor. Dozens of candidates have said they intend to run, and it’s very likely a winner will get less than 50% of the votes if Newsom is recalled.


The long list of Republican candidates includes Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego; businessman John Cox, who was defeated by Newsom in 2018; former Congressman Doug Ose; and Caitlyn Jenner, a reality TV personality and former Olympian. Conservative talk show host Larry Elder has said he is seriously considering entering the race. Another name that has been discussed in GOP circles is Richard Grenell, who was acting director of national intelligence in the Trump administration.

Faulconer has proposed ending the state income tax for individuals making up to $50,000 and households up to $100,000 as part of a plan to make the state more affordable for the middle class. Cox sought to gain attention by campaigning with a 1,000-pound Kodiak bear, which he said represented the need for “beastly” changes in the state. Jenner's campaign has largely been limited to tweets and TV interviews.

The governor spent much of 2020 on the defensive. But he has benefitted from a record state budget surplus that allowed him to tour the state to announce vast new spending programs, including $12 billion to fight homelessness; checks up to $1,100 for millions of low and middle-income earners who struggled during lockdowns; and $2.7 billion to pay for all of the state’s 4-year-olds to go to kindergarten for free.


For months, Newsom steered around questions about a possible recall election, saying he wanted to focus on the coronavirus, vaccinations and reopening schools. But in March, he launched an aggressive campaign strategy, fundraising, running ads attacking the recall and doing national TV and cable interviews. He has acknowledged that people were anxious and weary after a difficult year dealing with the virus and restrictions.

Newsom, who was elected in a 2018 landslide, sees the recall as an attack on California’s progressive policies. Democrats say the effort to remove him is being driven by extremists and supporters of former President Donald Trump. The recall is backed by state and national Republicans, but organizers argue they have a broad-based coalition, including many independents and Democrats.


In the depths of the pandemic, Newsom's popularity was tumbling and he appeared imperiled, with widespread unrest over long-running school and business closures. Many business owners were infuriated by what they saw as Newsom’s heavy-handed restrictions that had some open and close several times.

But a fading coronavirus crisis, a reopened economy and the astounding windfall of tax dollars helped him recover his standing. Recent polls have shown him beating back the recall, although those same surveys reveal signs of an unsettled public. Independent voters, for example, tend to view his job performance skeptically, and most say the state is going in the wrong direction.

California also is one of the most heavily Democratic states in the country: Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by nearly 2-to-1, and the party controls every statewide office while dominating the Legislature and congressional delegation.

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