SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The only time Californians voted to recall a governor, they replaced him with a Hollywood megastar. This time, could it be a 29-year-old YouTube star who ends up leading the nation's most populous state?
It’s a very long shot, but Kevin Paffrath could conceivably win simply because he has some name recognition by virtue of the nearly 1.7 million followers of his video channel, where he dispenses financial advice. The other eight Democrats running are essentially unknowns.
The Democratic field is filled with anonymous political neophytes because of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s successful strategy of discouraging any prominent Democrats from running in the Sept. 14 election. His goal was to make it an all-or-nothing proposition for voters — keep Newsom, or live with the consequences of picking a replacement with a far different policy agenda.
“Social media stardom translates to name recognition, and that's really what's going to make a big difference in an election like this with 46 names on the ballot," said Kim Nalder, a professor of political science at the California State University, Sacramento.
Voters already have received mail-in ballots with two questions: Should Newsom be recalled and, if so, who should replace him? If a majority want Newsom gone, the candidate with the highest vote total becomes governor even if they fall short of a majority, which is almost a certainty with so many candidates. People who vote against recalling Newsom can still choose a replacement option in case he’s recalled.
Paffrath's climb is a steep one made more difficult by his failure to submit a statement describing his political beliefs for the voter guide that goes to all households with registered voters. For people loosely following the race, that could be the primary place to learn about replacement options.
He'd also have to overcome the message from Newsom and California Democratic Party officials that recall opponents should skip the second question altogether and focus only on keeping Newsom in office.
Paffrath thinks that's a mistake. He's been traveling the state — even showing up at some of Newsom's events — and making the case to reporters and his followers that a vote for him gives California a chance at progress on issues like homelessness should Newsom be recalled. If Democrats forfeit their right to choose a replacement, he argues it could leave the state in the hands of a Republican likely to be in a stalemate with the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature.
“We want folks in California to know there is a backup option, that if you are against the recall, do not leave the second part of the ballot blank — it’s stupid,” Paffrath told The Associated Press.
Paffrath, who is listed on the ballot as a “financial educator/analyst," posts multiple videos a day on subjects like the stock market and cryptocurrency. And about his campaign.
Many have attention-grabbing headlines such as “It’s Official: California is Shutting me Down," which featured Paffrath sharing that California's secretary of state wouldn't allow him to use his nickname “Meet Kevin" on the ballot. In another video titled “PLEASE HELP or I'm Screwed in 48 hours," he asked his followers to assist him in texting voters.
Paffrath's campaign is getting a boost. For the first time, he's being included in a debate. He'll appear Wednesday with three Republican candidates — former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley and businessman John Cox, who lost to Newsom in a 2018 landslide.
Newsom and Republican front-runner and talk show host Larry Elder have skipped all debates.
The recall campaign is Paffrath's first foray into politics. He didn’t even vote in 2018, something he now says was a mistake.
Paffrath lives in Ventura with his wife, Lauren, and two sons, ages 3 and 5. The couple met on a high school trip to Paris, but their relationship quickly hit a snag: Lauren lived in Southern California, and Paffrath in Florida. He eventually moved to California for his senior year and lived with her family, then stayed and got into real estate with the help of his wife’s father. Paffrath says he and his wife have a net worth of at least $15 million.
Father-in-law Bill Stewart said Paffrath learned the ropes of the real estate business then quickly became one of Ventura County's top agents.
“He combines intelligence with an incredible work ethic," Stewart said. “He learns things incredibly quickly, and he's always doing research to get the best results."
Paffrath now owns many properties in Ventura County. When he started his YouTube channel, he made videos critiquing other people's real estate advice and quickly started garnering attention.
He's now hoping to capitalize on that following his bid for governor. If elected, he'd focus on homelessness, something Newsom identified as his No. 1 priority before the pandemic hit but has only worsened.
Paffrath said he'd use his emergency powers to build 80 shelters that would provide substance abuse help, mental health treatment and educational support on site, as well as meals and showers. While they're under construction, he'd dispatch the National Guard to help homeless people on the streets by passing out supplies and building temporary bathrooms.
Once the shelters are up and running — he says within 60 days — no one would be allowed to sleep on the streets. He envisions ambulances picking up people on the streets at night and bringing them to shelters or helping them get medical care, but said people would not be arrested.
California has roughly 160,000 homeless people, and politicians and community groups have for years struggled to find policy solutions. Shelters have proven an insufficient support system.
But Paffrath believes his approach will build goodwill with lawmakers to move forward on other priorities, like a wide-ranging infrastructure plan that would include constructing a pipeline to the Mississippi River for a new source of water and building underground tunnels to alleviate traffic, an idea championed by billionaire Elon Musk.
He's also proposing giving interested adults $2,000 per month to attend “future schools" where they can learn skills such as computer programming or electrical engineering to find high-paying jobs.
Paffrath feels he's been unfairly blocked by the Democratic Party and its message to only vote no on the recall and not pick a replacement candidate. He said that could result in a conservative Republican governor. Paffrath believes Newsom's campaign should tout his candidacy as a viable backup.
“Maybe they'll be too arrogant to do it," he said. “But it would be very smart for them to do that."
This story has been corrected to say Paffrath and his wife have a net worth of at least $15 million, not assets totaling $15 million.