What started as a lark, then became an impossible dream—a conservative resurgence, starting in California—ended, like many past efforts, in electoral defeat. With his overwhelming victory in the recall election, California governor Gavin Newsom and his backers have consolidated their hold on the state for the foreseeable future.
One can quibble about the political wisdom of the recall gambit, particularly given that Newsom was up for reelection next year. But the main reason for the stunning defeat lay with the state’s highly bifurcated political economy, which might sustain a progressive mega-majority in the Golden State, but also alienates some voters—and limits the national appeal of the progressive governance model that Newsom embodies.
The sinking of the state’s once-buoyant middle class undermines the base for a two-party politics in California. The kinds of taxpayers who called the state home during the 1980s and 1990s are leaving, and few families are moving in. Many of the leading companies that employed middle-class workers—McKesson, Hewlett Packard, the oil and aerospace industries—are fleeing at a quickening pace.
California today works primarily for two key Newsom constituencies: unionized public employees and pop culture, tech, and financial leaders. Money from these groups gave Newsom a massive advantage in advertising and organizing. Newsom’s coffers exceeded those of the nearly bankrupt recall campaign and all the prospective candidates combined by almost three to one. The combination of tech IPOs and federal money has also financed massive relief funds for a third Newsom constituency—California’s highest percentage-in-the-nation poor population—allowing the governor to act like a modern-day Boss Tweed.
This electoral triangle remains too entrenched to dislodge, at least for now. Massive spending secured the votes of disengaged voters, even as the San Francisco Chronicle warned about “an alarming enthusiasm gap” among Democrats. The effort to reach enough of these voters clearly worked.
The media played its assigned role. The overwhelmingly progressive press never much liked Newsom, but the threat of a potential Republican governor in the person of Larry Elder, the leader among the challengers, drove them to partisan distraction. Paul Krugman framed the recall as an assault on California’s “progressive success story.” The New York Times’s Ezra Klein referred to Newsom as a leader of “substance,” just months after he’d observed that the state has deteriorated so badly that it makes “liberals squirm.”
With the recall threat gone, Sacramento insiders expect more progressive moves—such as attempts to tax wealth, including unrealized gains, from the upper-middle class. More pressure will be brought to bear to restrict the use of contract workers, particularly with the recent court overturning of Proposition 22. The state will accelerate its program of ever-more stringent restrictions on water and energy use.
In this environment, California’s blue-collar workers face a grim future unless they’re employed by the state. Progressive success drives out the very businesses—manufacturing, suburban homebuilding, the once-robust oil-and-gas sector—that historically employed middle-income workers. Indeed, the lack of stable jobs and a dependence on low-paid service workers contribute to the state’s highest-in-the-nation unemployment rate. One out of every three households, notes the United Way, find achieving even basic security “elusive.”
Newsom’s victory is more of a reality check for the Republican Party than an endorsement of progressive policies. Voter dissatisfaction, particularly among minorities and the young, has not waned. Polls show that many Californians don’t see Newsom as effective at battling such problems as deepening income inequality, homelessness, rising crime, fires, and the pandemic. Some longtime progressives broke with the governor. But the state Republican Party could not capitalize—a sign that it remains largely marginal, particularly in the highly populated coastal areas, where dislike of Donald Trump has tarnished its brand.
To shift emphasis from Newsom’s failures, the local and national media, the state’s political establishment, and academics denounced the recall push as an operation carried out by Trumpian extremists. By the end of the election, the ongoing wildfires were being cast not as an indictment of Newsom’s failed forest-management policies but of Republican inaction on climate change. Unrelated events—such as Texas Republicans passage of a restrictive abortion bill—may have helped Newsom, too.
The story may not be quite over, though. In 2020, voters defeated a tax increase backed by Mark Zuckerberg and other tech leaders and shot down an affirmative action measure supported by virtually every element of the state establishment. The reservoir of resentment and potential future turmoil remains deep. Even before Covid, 53 percent of Californians were considering leaving; almost two-thirds thought the state’s best days were behind it. The New York Times may see California as a multicultural exemplar, but a 2019 University of California, Berkeley poll showed that 58 percent of African-Americans, 44 percent of Asian-Americans, and 43 percent of Latinos were considering leaving the state. A recent poll from Sacramento’s Chamber of Commerce showed that roughly one-fourth of the workforce was contemplating a move out within three years.
Californians sense that the status quo does not work in their favor. In this sense, Elder’s taking of roughly 40 percent of the vote in the now-discarded replacement primary may prove a first step to restoring two-party politics in the state. Elder’s sometimes-extreme libertarianism eventually got him in trouble, but a self-made African-American with a keen taste for political debate made for an appealing contrast with John Cox, the GOP’s weak 2018 gubernatorial candidate. Elder connected with Latinos and some younger people, and he made a brilliant contrast with the haughty Newsom and his wealthy supporters. Maybe Elder is not the ideal candidate, but he opened a class-based political approach that could bear fruit with the right spokesman.
When Elder spoke out for agency and aspiration as opposed to victimhood, he borrowed a Republican theme that worked well in 2020, particularly among Asians and Latinos. As late as July, before the media, advertising, and voter-turnout tsunamis formed, both those demographic groups favored the recall. Even the reliably progressive Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano admitted that, among Hispanics, Newsom was about “as loved as a stale Mexican coke.”
If they want to become relevant in the state again, though, Republicans need a constructive agenda. The next opportunity could take place under more difficult circumstances for progressives. The expensive and unreliable electrical grid will continue to cause problems. The state is in such trouble that it has been forced to propose building five “temporary” gas plants to keep the lights on. Meantime, green-driven reluctance to stop water releases to the ocean risks taking jobs from workers in the now politically marginalized interior. Some 6,600 Central Valley farmers have already been told not to expect deliveries this year. Pension debt will mount; schools will surely not improve with the state’s new ethnic studies curriculum. As the expansion of the welfare state competes with the demands of the public sector, the financial crush could lead to a tax hike—forcing California Democrats to choose between their wealthiest backers and the union–social welfare juggernaut.
In the near term, Newsom’s recall victory could be seen as a boon to President Biden. Yet short of a massive federal bailout, the bill will come due for governance failures in this remarkably gifted state. And if the Biden agenda doesn’t survive next year’s midterms, neither can the wan hopes of extending California’s agenda nationally. Governor Newsom has survived the recall, but that doesn’t mean that the Golden State is destined to become the role model for the country—it might not even represent the inevitable future for most Californians.
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