VISTA, Calif. — It’s a bright, cloudless morning in this heavily Latino, working-class exurb of San Diego. A “We’re Hiring” sign hangs in the window of a run-down McDonald’s on the corner of a major thoroughfare, Civic Center Drive. One side of the restaurant exterior serves as a homeless encampment, strewn with debris, while just down the street, construction has ramped up again in a trendy revitalized area with new storefronts and restaurants mixed in with the old.
Conservative talk show host Larry Elder, who shot to the top of the GOP pack of candidates vying to replace California Gov. Gavin Newsom since entering the recall race in July, is furiously trying to make his closing arguments to voters at the first of three stops Friday in Southern California.
Polls over the last week show Newsom opening up a comfortable lead in the final stretch, and media reports are already declaring him the victor. Elder’s unabashedly conservative views are out of step with voters in this solidly blue state and thus he became the perfect Newsom foil, the early obituaries contend.
But Elder, the quick-witted and often combative black Republican, is still out there throwing punches. He’s well aware that some of the same polls giving Newsom a 13- to 21-point lead also show weakness — that voter turnout is lagging among Latinos, who make up a nearly a third of California’s voters and have helped propel Democratic victories across the state for decades.
The COVID pandemic and Newsom’s strict lockdown policies hit Latinos and their small businesses especially hard. An Emerson College survey in mid-July showed these voters as the only racial group favoring the recall – doing so by a whopping 13 percentage points — with more recent surveys indicating they are evenly split and failing to turn in their ballots in large numbers.
While sitting at a table outside Marisco del Pacifico, a popular local eatery, owner Esteban Sanchez told Elder he’s struggling to find enough waiters and other employees to keep the restaurant afloat even after surviving the worst of the pandemic closures.
“It’s one of the busiest restaurants in this town, but he can’t find workers,” chimed in Frank Lopez, a former Vista City Council member.
Elder quickly offered sympathy from his own family’s experience. His father was a janitor and a cook who eventually opened a café in the Pico-Union area of Los Angeles. “A lot of restaurants have told me they have to cut hours, cut days because they’re short of staff – and if you serve somebody a bad meal it will hurt your business, so rather than do that, they’re cutting down [on their hours],” he said in his usually blunt, rapid-fire clip. “Of course, the profits go down when hours go down. … It’s outrageous.”
Newsom “shut down the state to the point that a third of all small businesses are now gone forever, and many of them were owned by Latinos and blacks and Asian Americans,” he said. “He should not have done that, and he left his own winery open.”
It’s the polar opposite message Newsom has been driving home in the final weeks of the recall as the sitting governor has leaned into the strict pandemic policies that helped fueled the drive to oust him. As Elder and other Republicans have promised to overturn Newsom’s restrictions, the first-term governor is casting the recall decision as a matter of life and death — literally. Last week in Oakland, Newsom warned that California would turn into Florida or Texas without his leadership, two states whose unemployment numbers have fared much better during the pandemic but where new COVID cases are now far higher.
On Monday, President Biden, fresh from implementing new vaccine requirements for federal workers and private businesses with more than 100 employees, will campaign with Newsom in Long Beach. The Biden appearance follows Vice President Kamala Harris’ time stumping with Newsom in San Leandro on Wednesday.
Republicans have questioned why Newsom would want Harris and Biden, with their plummeting poll numbers nationally, out with him on the campaign trail. But both remain popular in California. A Public Policy Institute of California poll, conducted in late August, during the administration’s chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal, showed that 58% of Californians approve of the way Biden is handling his job, compared to 53% who feel the same way about Newsom.
Perhaps the most effective Democratic endorsement of all — an ad featuring former President Obama — warns that the recall vote “could be the difference between protecting our kids or putting them at risk; helping Californians recover or taking us backwards.”
The efforts to nationalize the election seem to be paying off. Democratic voters have already cast nearly twice as many votes as Republicans, and pro-recall organizers are sounding the alarm for supporters to return their ballots.
Proponents are urging Republicans not to let their distrust in the all-mail voting system cause them to wait until the last minute to turn in their ballots, as they did in the 2020 presidential contest. Many Democratic-controlled counties have offered fewer in-person polling places than in previous elections, so long lines are expected on the last day of voting, Sept. 14.
Yet, over the last week, there has been a tangible GOP air of defeat, and the Republican blame game has already begun. Centrist GOP strategists point the finger at the party for failing to rally behind San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a pro-choice moderate, and allowing Elder to run away with the vast majority of their voters’ support.
Faulconer’s spokesman, John Burke, publicly lashed out at Elder on Friday. “What changed between July and now?” he tweeted, referring to a new poll showing the “no on recall” side leading by 21 points. “One thing: @LarryElder. He’s been a gift to @GavinNewsom. California Republicans can do better.”
In July, after Elder entered the race and started surging, the California GOP backed away from delivering an endorsement for one Republican candidate, which was widely expected to favor Faulconer. But others maintained that the party had no choice but avoid an endorsement because Faulconer would have suffered an embarrassing and debilitating loss.
“These consultants think that if they can get the party insiders behind him, that will mean a path to victory,” Carl DeMaio, a popular San Diego radio host and recall organizer, stated back in July. “Having a bunch of insiders from the Sacramento swamp try to force-feed this grassroots movement a bad candidate is the path to destroying the recall.”
DeMaio, who frequently refers to Faulconer as “Mr. Vanilla” on his radio show, argues that Elder breathed new life into the pro-recall movement when he threw his hat in the ring in early July.
Faulconer never caught fire and is now hovering in the single-digits, along with 36-year-old Assemblyman Kevin Kiley and businessman and perennial candidate John Cox. In fact, the second-highest vote-getter in most polls is not Faulconer but the lone Democratic candidate in the race, political novice Kevin Paffrath, a 29-year-old real estate broker who hosts a YouTube channel about personal finance.
Democratic strategists dismiss the idea that any Republican had a serious chance of replacing Newsom, although they believe that Elder has made a bigger win easier for the governor to achieve.
In a state where registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1, veteran Democratic consultants claim the math was never going to add up to a Republican win without a larger-than-life figure like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the race. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, won the last California recall in 2003, ousting then Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
It’s an argument Garry South, a longtime Democratic strategist who ran Davis’ political campaigns, has been making for months. Now that Democrats are paying attention, he predicts a crushing, double-digit recall defeat. “This is not about enthusiasm, it’s about numbers – and math doesn’t give a sh– about enthusiasm,” he told RCP Thursday. “This thing is over.”
The reason the Faulconer team is so upset, South said, is that their candidate has come out of the recall as damaged goods with even worse long-shot odds in the 2022 gubernatorial contest. “If you’re Kevin Faulconer, and you end up with 5% of the vote, how do you reboot and tell people that you’re the best candidate for the Republicans to run against Newsom in 2022?” he asked.
Recall organizers are far from capitulating, and argue Newsom’s reputation has suffered most of all. Anne Dunsmore, the campaign manager and finance director of Rescue California, one of the main recall organizers, is working to keep the focus on Newsom in the final days. Dunsmore rattles off a litany of leadership failures during Newsom’s two-year tenure, including one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, spiking crime, massive unemployment fraud, lying about the state’s fire prevention efforts, disruptive school closures, failing to dramatically reduce homelessness and his infamous flouting of his own COVID lockdown rules during the French Laundry dinner last November.
No matter how much Newsom wins or loses by, Dunsmore said, she considers the recall an overwhelming success.
“If you would have told me a year ago that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris would be out here campaigning for this guy, and recall opponents would end up spending $80 million to defeat our effort, I would have laughed,” she said. “Democrats, no matter, how you look at it, have to say [Newsom] is damaged goods.”