Newsom’s Anti-Trump Recall Strategy Offers Republicans a Warning for 2022

California Democrats were able to nationalize the vote — thanks to an avalanche of money, party discipline and, above all, an easily demonized opponent.


By Jonathan Martin

SAN LEANDRO, Calif. — California basks in its clairvoyance. “The future happens here first,” says Gov. Gavin Newsom, calling his state “America’s coming attraction.”

By emphatically turning back the effort to recall him from office, however, Mr. Newsom made clear that California’s cherished role presaging the politics of tomorrow was not as significant as another, larger factor in Tuesday’s results: the tribal politics of today.

The first-term Democratic governor will remain in office because, in a deeply liberal state, he effectively nationalized the recall effort as a Republican plot, making a flame-throwing radio host the Trump-like face of the opposition to polarize the electorate along red and blue lines.

Mr. Newsom found success not because of what makes California different but because of how it’s like everywhere else: He dominated in California’s heavily populated Democratic cities, the key to victory in a state where his party outnumbers Republicans by five million voters.

“Gavin may have been on a high wire, but he was wearing a big, blue safety harness,” said Mike Murphy, a California-based Republican strategist.

The recall does offer at least one lesson to Democrats in Washington ahead of next year’s midterm elections: The party’s pre-existing blue- and purple-state strategy of portraying Republicans as Trump-loving extremists can still prove effective with the former president out of office, at least when the strategy is executed with unrelenting discipline, an avalanche of money and an opponent who plays to type.

“You either keep Gavin Newsom as your governor or you’ll get Donald Trump,” President Biden said at an election-eve rally in Long Beach, making explicit what Mr. Newsom and his allies had been suggesting for weeks about the Republican front-runner, the longtime radio host Larry Elder.

By the time Mr. Biden arrived in California, Mr. Newsom was well positioned. Yet in the days leading up to the recall, he was warning Democrats of the right-wing threat they would face in elections across the country next November.

“Engage, wake up, this thing is coming,” he said in an interview, calling Mr. Elder “a national spokesperson for an extreme agenda.”

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