For months, as Democratic voters in California seemed complacent in the face of the Republican effort to recall Governor Gavin Newsom, much of the national political and punditry class in the media claimed California would send dire warnings to the Democratic Party.
But now that Newsom trounced in a spectacular victory, with 64% of Californians voting no to the recall, the same political media — always pandering to a bullying GOP — is saying not to read much into the outcome in California.
In their latest iteration, Newsom "got lucky" because his chief opponent was Larry Elder, right-wing extremist and 25-year former radio host who pundits said had a lot of "baggage." This presupposes that some other mythical GOP candidate could have pulled it out. But no other candidate could emerge that didn't support Donald Trump, which is the real poison here.
What actually killed Elder wasn't his "baggage" in the form of things he said on the radio over the years. It was his embracing Trumpism in the here and now. He attacked vaccine and mask mandates, vowing to end them as soon as he took office. That turned out to be a driving force that got many California Democrats and independents concerned about the pandemic to pay attention.
And he promulgated the Big Lie — which he actually previously didn't support, having said earlier this year that "Biden won the election fair and square," only to reverse in August after Trumpists expressed anger. Then he went further and actually promoted a "big lie" about the 2020 election, saying it was tainted with "fraud" before it was even over, following up on Trump's same claim about the recall.
As extreme as all that sounds, it's now pretty standard for GOP elected officials and candidates all across the country. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida and Governor Greg Abbott of Texas promote both dangerous themes, as do the vast majority of GOP governors.
Former Nevada attorney general Adam Laxalt, challenging Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Mastro, is endorsed by Trump, supports the Big Lie, is against vaccine mandates and is even hinting he's ready to go to court to contest the 2022 election should he lose. Republican Glenn Youngkin, running for governor in Virginia this November and having hugged Trump to get the support of his base, has attended right-wing "election integrity" rallies built on the Big Lie and talks about making "reforms" to battle election "fraud."
I could go on and on, as scores of GOP House, Senate, gubernatorial and state legislative candidates are doing the exact same thing.
And they have no choice because Trump has taken the entire party hostage. That's why it's completely false to say Newsom "got lucky" with Elder. If he got lucky, then every Democrat in a competitive race is going to get lucky.
And what does that claim even mean? It's not like Elder was picked out of thin air and put into place as the main contender to Newsom just by chance. There were over 40 candidates vying to topple Newsom in the recall. Elder rose to the top because that is what the GOP base is now, built on hardcore Trumpism.
And it's even worse — for the GOP — than it seems. In polls before the race, Elder was leading the others with 26% of the vote and would have been elected governor if voters had voted yes on the first question to recall Newsom. But in the election tallies, of those who voted for a candidate after the first question on the recall, Elder pulled in 47% of the vote. That means the GOP consolidated and rallied around him, even as there were more moderate GOP candidates in the race.
The base of the GOP, in California and everywhere, wants Trumpist candidates, because Trump has transformed the party into a ghoulish nightmare of hate and lies, bringing in more and more conspiracists and pushing out people who've rejected Trumpism.
The Washington Post, in a piece that broke from much of the media's narrative, rightly noted that the recall made Newsom stronger, able to repel challengers and look to the future. What he did in California is key for Democrats everywhere: Focus on the dangers of GOP candidates and their embrace of Trump. In races in House battleground districts and in competitive Senate races in 2022, that kind of campaign can make a big difference.
The conventional wisdom that the party in power loses seats in the mid-terms can and must be turned on its head because we are in an extraordinary time in which democracy is in the balance. "Trumpism is not defeated in this country," Newsom said in his victory speech in offering both a warning and a blueprint to Democrats. They need to take that to heart.