Four of the Republican candidates vying to replace California Gov. Gavin Newsom in the September 14 recall election met on the debate stage Wednesday night, railing against Covid-19 mask mandates and accusing the Democrat of failing the state’s business owners and school children by forcing closures during the worst of the pandemic.
Businessman John Cox, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley and former Rep. Doug Ose all took part at the forum at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, largely avoiding taking shots at one another but faulting Newsom’s leadership for everything from the state’s homelessness crisis, to rising crime, to the labor shortage.
It was their repeated calls for greater personal responsibility and less “government overreach” to halt the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic that created some of the most striking exchanges of the night — in part because the hands-off approach they proposed to the pandemic would diverge so sharply from the course that Newsom has taken. The Republican-led recall gained steam last year because many GOP voters were angry about what they perceived as Newsom’s overreach — and the candidates sought to channel that anger Wednesday night by criticizing what they described as an erratic set of Covid regulations and mandates that they claim crushed businesses.
Faulconer, who was elected in San Diego in part because he was able to appeal to both Democrats and Republicans, said he would look into whether the governor has the powers to bar mask mandates in individual school districts and localities.
“I do not favor mandates; I favor educate,” Faulconer said. “You’re not going to mandate your way out of the coronavirus.”
Kiley said parents “know what is best for their kids and they should be making decisions themselves” when asked what he would do to prevent mask mandates for children in schools — and he suggested California would have fared better last year with fewer restrictions.
“To make the case that California got it right, you also have to make the case that all 49 other states got it wrong, and that’s a case that simply cannot be made on the basis of the data.” He added that the level of harm done to children in California through the closures is still not known.
“States that took a different approach, that followed the science that took a balanced approach, and that trusted their citizens, did a lot better,” Kiley said.
Cox downplayed the severity of the virus and called Newsom’s Covid management “an absolute disaster” that “resulted in far more danger and far more problems.”
Ose said he believes the government “is engaged in a significant overreach of its authority,” including the recent guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people should wear masks indoors in hot spot areas, even when they are vaccinated.
“I happen to have great faith in the ability of people to make decisions of their own,” Ose said. “The government overreach has to stop. … Instead of giving people mandates, we need to give them options,” he said. He suggested that Americans should have the option to move their children to a different school or simply choose to shop at a different store if they don’t agree with mask requirements in place in those locations.
Forty-six contenders — of all parties — have qualified for the ballot and none has commanded the star power that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, did when he was elected in the 2003 recall. But the GOP candidate who has recently captured the most attention among Republican voters and donors after his late entrance to the race, conservative talk show radio host Larry Elder, did not participate in the Fox 11 debate because of a preexisting commitment to a fundraiser in Bakersfield. Newsom and GOP candidate Caitlyn Jenner also declined to take part, the network said.
Newsom has found himself in an unexpectedly challenging position in this final stretch of the GOP-led effort to recall him — just as ballots are about to be mailed out to every California voter mid-August. Covid cases are surging again; the state’s wildfire season began early with ferocity; and California is facing a harrowing drought that has created alarming water shortages and led the governor to declare a drought emergency in 50 of the state’s 58 counties last month, covering 42% of the state’s population.
Voters will be asked two questions on the ballot: First, yes or no on whether they want to recall Newsom and second, select from a list of candidates to replace him.
Though Newsom has maintained a strong approval rating — with a July survey by the Public Policy Institute of California showing that 56% of likely voters approved of his leadership on jobs and the economy; and 59% approved of his handling of environmental issues — polls have consistently shown that the overwhelming energy in this special election lies on the GOP side.
That has left Newsom allies with a difficult task in these final weeks: generate enough Democratic enthusiasm — or gin up fear of the alternative — to move their voters to fill out their ballots supporting the governor and send them back. Democratic voters outnumber Republicans nearly two to one in California.
But in interviews on Wednesday, more than half-a-dozen California political strategists noted that it is virtually impossible to predict what the universe of likely voters will be for a special election on a random date in September in the middle of a pandemic when every voter has a ballot on their kitchen table. (To slow the spread of Covid, Newsom signed a law in February extending the state’s rule that every registered voter would receive a mail-in ballot for any election this year).
There are no high-profile Democrats challenging Newsom and the governor’s labor supporters are heavily involved in the effort to invigorate reliable Democratic voters, urging them to take the recall threat seriously. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is starring in an anti-recall television spot, tying the effort to recall Newsom with attempts by supporters of former President Donald Trump to reverse the 2020 election results and attack the right to vote, warning that “now they are coming to grab power in California.”
California Democratic strategist Michael Trujillo worries that the resurgence of Covid cases due to the Delta variant has made the final grassroots push unexpectedly difficult.
“The biggest challenge is finding the volunteers to knock on doors and the voters to open them,” Trujillo said. “When you go from thinking we had suffocated the pandemic to realizing we hadn’t, it means that running an effective field campaign in California is slowly being taken off the table for Democrats. Our volunteers are Covid-sensitive, our voters are Covid-sensitive.”
He noted that the most effective way to engage the voters Democrats need most in communities of color is with repeated door-knocks to educate them about the ballot. “If the number of volunteers that are willing to do that is diminished and the number of voters willing to open their doors is diminished — you have a real problem communicating why this election is so important,” he said.
Republicans seize on crime and homelessness in California
The GOP contenders largely focused on their ideological differences with Newsom and sought to blame him for some of the deep systemic problems that have faced California for decades, including the way housing costs have squeezed middle class families — leading some to leave the state.
Seizing on one of the hot-button topics that is at the top of the Republican agenda nationally, Faulconer accused Newsom of “enabling” the “defund the police” movement and faulted him for supporting Proposition 47 in 2014, which reclassified some theft and drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.
“I’ve seen the disasters of these policies on the streets throughout this great state of ours, it’s time to have a governor who is going to put victims first,” Faulconer said. “Every California family deserves to be safe, to feel safe and to have a safe neighborhood. That is not the reality under Gavin Newsom’s California.”
In the midst of a series of meetings on racial injustice in policing last year, Newsom spoke about “reimagining” policing, but made it clear that he did not support eliminating police departments.
The candidates also had a robust debate over how to handle the deepening crisis of homelessness in California. Cox lamented the number of tents along the streets in San Diego and pledged to take a more forceful approach, which would likely require changes to the law: “If we have to, we’re gonna force people to get into treatment.”
Faulconer said the housing crisis that has thrust so many people out on to the streets is also taking an economic toll: “People are leaving California, they are voting with their feet. … And the reality is that we have a governor who doesn’t seem to think that it’s a problem.”
Newsom team seeks to tie GOP candidates to Trump
The governor’s team has portrayed the recall effort as a zealous mission led by Trump acolytes — and Wednesday night’s debate was no exception. Newsom strategist Dan Newman described the face-off as “another proof point that California faces a very clear choice between (Newsom) and installing a Trump-supporting Republican as governor.”
Newman said Elder’s late entrance to the race within a field of little-known and little-noticed candidates has clarified the choice for voters. “He unapologetically opposes Roe v. Wade, supports Trump, says the minimum wage should be $0.00, and that we should be drilling for oil off the California coast. That’s what’s at stake,” Newman said. “Our challenge is to make sure that California voters understand that binary choice.”
For his part, Newsom has made a point of appearing to focus on his day job — traveling the state to highlight his administration’s response to wildfires, for example, and promising that California will have the “strongest state vaccine verification system in the US” after announcing that the state will require state employees and health care workers provide proof of vaccination or submit to regular testing.
“He’s dealing with a number of crises side by side,” said Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California. “The way these crises are handled over the next month and a half will weigh on how people think about whether it’s important for them to weigh in on the recall and do they want to keep this current governor.”
Finding a way to draw Democrats into that discussion and getting them committed to participate remains the biggest hurdle for the Newsom campaign, Baldassare said. “Thus far, they haven’t found a way to really engage their core constituents — and at this point the election is really going to be determined by that.”
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