SACRAMENTO – California Gov. Gavin Newsom has made his leadership during the pandemic a centerpiece of his campaign to keep his job, warning in life-and-death terms that his Republican rivals in the recall election are anti-vaccine crusaders who would expose people to a new wave of COVID risks.
The recall election that culminates Sept. 14 was largely was driven by frustration with Newsom's sweeping coronavirus orders that closed schools and businesses and, in turn, cost millions of jobs. He is arguing his decisions saved thousands of lives and replacing him with a Republican could result in soaring case rates and deaths.
In a television ad this week, the first-term Democrat's campaign plastered his Republican rivals with the label “anti-vax.” Another ad calls the outcome of the recall vote “a matter of life and death.”
Newsom, however, is taking liberties with broad-brush strokes that distort his opponents' positions.
The top GOP candidates –- Larry Elder, Kevin Faulconer, Kevin Kiley and John Cox –- say they’ve been vaccinated against the virus. All also have said people should get the shot if they wish but that government shouldn’t force them. None has said the vaccines are dangerous, a stance typically associated with the term “anti-vax.”
“I think people in high-risk categories, people who are older, ought to be vaccinated. But I certainly don’t believe that the government should mandate that,” Elder, the leading GOP candidate, told reporters this week.
“I’m not anti-vax,” the 69-year-old talk radio host added. “I’ve been vaccinated because of my age, because of a blood condition I have, and my doctor strongly advised me to become vaccinated.”
To him, Newsom is promoting “a lie” about his GOP rivals to alarm voters and distract attention from the state’s surging crime rate, widespread homelessness, struggling small businesses and housing crisis.
Elder and the other GOP candidates have at times shared misinformation about coronavirus and the vaccines, or offered a wink to the anti-vaccine movement.
In the first televised debate, Cox said people who contract the virus don't need the vaccine, a stance that goes against recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a recent interview with CNN, Elder said “young people" are unlikely to contract the disease and don't need to be vaccinated.
Newsom and many health experts are encouraging anyone age 12 and older to get the vaccine. While children are less likely to be hospitalized than adults, the delta variant has caused a surge in youth hospitalizations.
In the early days of the pandemic, Newsom imposed the nation's first statewide shutdown order. He says his bold actions saved lives. California has recorded the most virus deaths by far — nearly 66,000. However, the death rate is 33rd per capita.
This week, Newsom sought to capitalize on recent improvement during the latest COVID spike, saying California “has among the lowest case rates — the fourth lowest in America today.” It's not clear what measurement he was using — figures from Johns Hopkins show California ranks 31st in new cases per capita in the last two weeks.
Meantime, California's vaccination rate has reached a record high, with 80% of the eligible population having received at least one shot.
All four GOP candidates have said they would roll back existing state mandates on vaccinations, but that may not have a significant effect. California’s only strict vaccine mandate is for health care and long-term care workers. They must be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30 or face penalties. However, should Newsom lose the recall, a replacement won't be in office by then.
Newsom also ordered state workers and teachers to be vaccinated, but they can avoid the shot by submitting to weekly testing. The governor also mandated teachers and students wear masks but left it to local districts to enforce.
In the recall election, voters are being asked two questions: Should Newsom be recalled and who should replace him? If a majority want Newsom out, then the person among the 46 replacement candidates with the most votes becomes the next governor.
Republicans are trying to tap into a vein of public resentment over Newsom's aggressive actions to blunt the virus. They say he has overreached and the result has been devastating, especially for schoolchildren kept out of classrooms and businesses forced to close.
When it comes to vaccines, there are some distinctions in the four GOP candidates' approaches. While Faulconer and Cox recommend everyone get inoculated, Elder and Kiley say individuals should make up their own minds.
Elder, a lawyer, has a libertarian mindset and rails against government creep in people’s lives. If elected, he has said that any mask or vaccine mandates in place at that time “will be suspended right away.”
Among the orders Elder would strike down: Any rules that would require unvaccinated state workers to wear masks or be subject to weekly testing to hold their jobs. “I think that’s an assault on freedom,” Elder said.
But he had no intention of intruding into the free market. “If a private business wants to require people to wear masks and require people to have shots, that’s a whole different thing,” he said.
Kiley, a state assemblyman, says he would eliminate the state of emergency Newsom imposed in March 2020, which would prohibit him from enacting sweeping statewide anti-virus mandates.
“California is a national outlier as to mandates, and Newsom seems to have done them so he can do ads about his opponents like me reversing them,” he said in a statement.
Asked if he would ban local governments or private businesses from enacting vaccine mandates, Kiley’s spokesman Tim Rosales said: “He believes that ending the Governor’s state of emergency will put COVID protections in the hands of citizens.”
Faulconer, a former two-term San Diego mayor, has been the staunchest advocate for vaccines among the Republican candidates. He’s said the “No. 1 way that we can get over COVID-19 is to have everyone get the vaccine.”
But he says education, not mandates, are the right approach. His spokesman John Burke said Faulconer considers a vax-or-test requirement a “reasonable approach” for workers. Faulconer also says he wouldn’t ban local governments or private businesses from adopting their own mandates on vaccinations.
Cox, who lost the governor’s race to Newsom in 2018, has delivered an evolving position on vaccines. After first suggesting people who had the virus didn't need the vaccine, Cox in later debates encouraged all people to get vaccinated. Like his rivals, he does not support any state level mandates.