There's A Chance That California Will Soon Have A Republican Governor : The NPR Politics Podcast Voting ends Tuesday in California's recall election, where voters are deciding whether or not to remove Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom from office. If he loses, Republican Larry Elder is the most likely candidate to replace him.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro, and KQED senior editor Scott Shafer.

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There's A Chance That California Will Soon Have A Republican Governor

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ERICA: Hi. This is Erica (ph), and I'm at the geographic highpoint of Sacramento County, Calif. Shout out to Tam and Scott from your former neck of the woods. I think there's a view from here, but that Caldor Fire is burning nearby, and our air quality is pretty poor. So all I see are a couple homes a few hundred yards away. This podcast was recorded at...

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

11:37 a.m. East Coast time on the 8 of September.

ERICA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. One thing that won't have changed is how grateful we Californians are to all the firefighters and other personnel keeping us safe today and in the future. So here's the show.

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KEITH: That is a very, very California time stamp these days. Hey, there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KEITH: There is less than a week left until a recall election that will decide the fate of California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat. Vice President Harris, a Californian, is in the state today, and President Biden is expected to campaign with Newsom early next week. And with us to sort it all out is my friend Scott Shafer, senior political editor at member station KQED in San Francisco and co-host of the "Political Breakdown" podcast. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: Hey. Good to be with you.

KEITH: So excited to have you with us on the pod. You and I, as Californians, have lived this recall story before. But please explain to the other 88% of Americans what exactly is going on and how a process like this gets started.

SHAFER: Yeah, sure. Well, compared with other states, California has a relatively low bar to qualify a recall. In fact, as crazy as it sounds, there were actually five recall attempts against Gavin Newsom before this one qualified. They were out on the streets and, you know, no one ever heard anything about them because they weren't well-funded, and, you know, they just didn't collect enough signatures. What you need to get it on the ballot is about 12% of the people who voted in the last general election. And so this time around - this recall, the proponents needed about 1.5 million valid signatures, and they got that.

And then once the signatures are validated, the lieutenant governor picks a date for the election - that's September 14 - although I think it's important to say that the legislature, which, of course, is dominated by Democrats, voted to give all voters a chance to vote by mail. So 22 million ballots were mailed out a few weeks ago. And so we're beginning to watch those ballots come back in. And it gives us some tea leaves to read, you know, as we begin to sort out what the turnout's going to be like.

KEITH: Yeah. With vote by mail, it's sort of this remarkable thing where election day doesn't really mean as much. The election is happening right now while we are talking to you.

SHAFER: Exactly. It's election month.

MONTANARO: That's a good point.

KEITH: Domenico, one thing that stands out here is here is a Democratic governor in Gavin Newsom who is facing a recall who could potentially get pushed from office in a state that is overwhelmingly Democratic, like a very Democratic state.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, I think that this tells the story of off-year elections. You know, I mean, the out party is usually the one that's most fired up, especially during this pandemic. We've seen how partisan things have gotten and how, you know, upset, frankly, a lot of people on the right are with Democratic governance. And California is a major target for a lot of that. Even in other states, they talk about California liberals, right?

But this is a state - and it's going to matter whether or not Newsom is able to fire up Democrats because this is a state where there are 22 million registered voters and Democrats outnumber Republicans by almost 5 million. So if Newsom can get Democrats fired up, whether that's about vaccinations and about how Republicans would govern the state or it's about abortion and like a law that we just saw pass in Texas, it was just something that Democrats are hoping to try to fire up the Democratic base with, not just in this election, but in the Virginia election that we're going to see later this year for governor and in the 2022 midterms. This is really the first big national test.

KEITH: So I want to ask, though, in terms of the politics in the state, what triggered this recall?

SHAFER: Yeah. Well, it's interesting because if you look at the top of the recall petition that these folks circulated, it really didn't have anything to - it didn't mention COVID at all. It was about the death penalty. It was about crime. It was about homelessness and housing costs and immigration. But it morphed into anger about the about the pandemic for one big reason. And that is that on November 6, Gavin Newsom decided it would be a good idea to go have dinner with some lobbyists and some friends for a birthday party, a very posh restaurant. You may have even heard of it nationally. It's called French Laundry.

KEITH: I think we've heard of it because of this (laughter).

SHAFER: Yeah, because of this, it's like, yeah, I think they've now hired a PR person because they're getting so many calls about the menu. You - I couldn't afford the tip for that meal that he had, but in some ways, it's even - it's been even more costly. Probably the worst meal he's ever had in retrospect, at least politically. And so that accelerated. People saw that. There was a video. Somebody shot a video of him in the restaurant. And it went viral. And it was, like, hypocrisy. People were angry. They were being told to stay home and wear masks, not go out and all those things. And here's the governor, you know, being a total hypocrite.

KEITH: So on the ballot, there are two questions. One, should Gavin Newsom get the boot? Question two is, who would replace him? So, Scott, who are some of the top folks that listeners should know about?

SHAFER: Yeah, well, first of all, we should say that if the first question - should Gavin Newsom be recalled or not? - doesn't get 50% plus one, the second question is moot because the recall fails, and no one's going to replace him. But, you know, there are some interesting characters. Now, you know, Tam, you and I covered the last recall of Gray Davis in 2003, and there was one candidate who really was the star literally and figuratively and that was Arnold Schwarzenegger. And we really don't have anybody like that this time around, you know, somebody who can attract Democrats and independents.

But the leading candidate in every single poll is a talk show host, Larry Elder. And he has been on a nationally syndicated show for years and years and years. And his candidacy has sort of been Christmas in September for Newsom because he's said a lot of outrageous things and continues to, to this day. He has talked about slavery and reparations and saying that, well, you know, slavery was legal. And, you know, if we're going to do reparations, some of those landowners and their relatives should get reparations. He's talked about women in the workplace and saying they don't really - they should just kind of not complain and on and on and on. But he's the leading candidate.

KEITH: And just to be clear, Elder is a Republican. Domenico, I want to ask you about something that has maybe been not spoken out loud too much in this recall race, but seems to be - the subtext is becoming the text at this point, which is the stakes. And one of the big things that a governor of a state can do is name a senator if a U.S. senator were to have to leave office or not finish their term. And California Senator Dianne Feinstein is 88 years old. If she were to choose to step down before her term ends in 2023 or otherwise can't complete her term, the next governor or the current governor, depending on how the recall goes, would be in a position to name her replacement. And Larry Elder himself talked about this on conservative talk show host Mark Levin's show.

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LARRY ELDER: They're afraid I'm going to replace her with a Republican, which I most certainly would do. And that would be an earthquake in Washington, D.C.

KEITH: Right, because it's a 50-50 Senate.

MONTANARO: Yeah, Democrats need every senator they can get to be able to hold the Senate. I mean, every single one is, you know, going to be at razor's edge and going to be a difficult fight. You know, and we've already seen one senator be replaced. You know, in the past year, and that was Senator Kamala Harris, who of course, is vice president. And Newsom was able to pick her replacement in Alex Padilla.

So it does have real potential national consequences aside from the fact that it's just this inherent value of California in the sense that its GDP - I don't know if people realize this - California, if it was a country, would have the seventh largest GDP in the world, the same size GDP - $2.72 trillion, same size GDP as India. So there's a lot going on in California. People coming and going all the time. And a lot of money at stake and national politics as well, including the control of the Senate.

KEITH: All right. Well, we are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, more about the state of the race and how this recall is different than the last big one.

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KEITH: And we're back. And I want to talk about the state of the race right now. Scott, you got into that a little bit. Ballots are coming in already. What are the polls showing about how much trouble Gavin Newsom might be in?

SHAFER: Well, early on, a few weeks or months ago, it really looked as if Democrats weren't paying attention. They weren't engaged. And so, as you know, elections are all about who votes, who turns out, who are the likely voters. And the most likely voters skewed Republican a few weeks ago. But there was a poll out from the Public Policy Institute of California just last week - very reputable, sort of the gold standard in polling in California. And it showed that, you know, Democrats were quite paying attention and that they were going to vote in larger numbers than Democrats had feared. And so - and that is being borne out by who is returning their ballots.

And, you know, I don't know about, you know, other people, but a lot of folks I know are talking about this. They're worrying about this. They're excited about this, depending on what their point of view is. So I do think that the issue of turnout has been mitigated, partly because these ads are on TV all the time from Newsom and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren urging Democrats to get out and vote and stop what they call this Republican power grab.

KEITH: Well, and there is this age-old way to motivate voters, which is to say, oh, my God, we could lose...

MONTANARO: Fear.

KEITH: ...If you don't turn out, I could lose.

SHAFER: Exactly. And that's what he's doing.

KEITH: So we've talked about this a little bit, but there was a recall in 2003. Then governor Gray Davis lost. Arnold Schwarzenegger won. The issues were very different. Domenico, to me, at least, this feels like just a vastly different recall, and I'm wondering what your thoughts are.

MONTANARO: Well, there's a couple of things. One, I mean, this race certainly seems to be a lot more nationalized. I mean, I know you covered that race and talked about how it was a lot more about local issues than - and usually these kinds of things are about local governance. The other thing is the candidates involved. You know, I mean, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is the leading Republican in that race, an actor, Hollywood movie star. It got international attention for it because of who he was. Also, politically, just a lot more politically moderate, more like the kinds of Republicans you used to see who were governors in California.

And people should remember California used to be a very Republican state up until about the 1990s, where you had governors and even in presidential elections. So this shift to being democratic is fairly new in the scheme of things. And, you know, seeing the polarization really take effect where you have a Republican like Larry Elder now be the leading candidate, that would never have happened I don't think even, you know, 20 years ago.

KEITH: So people are voting already because of vote by mail. And then actual election day is next Tuesday. There's already talk on the Republican side that, you know, claims of voter fraud and all of those things that we heard in the last presidential election. I'm wondering, how quickly an election result might come, Scott, and, you know, whether there's a vacuum for conspiracies to spread in the meantime.

SHAFER: Yeah. Well, we're going to have a lot of data early on election night, Tuesday night. The counties will report most of the ballots that they've received up through Monday. So that's, you know - as of right now, it's over six million ballots, and I'm sure it'll go quite a bit higher than that. So we'll have a lot of data. But, you know, Republicans tend to vote later. They tend to vote in person. Many may vote on Tuesday. And so while it might look good for Newsom earlier in the night, you know, we're going to, just like every election, you got to wait till all the votes are counted.

So, you know, if it is - if it does seem to be closing of, if the margin is close or closing, you know, it could be a couple of days before we know. I think one thing that will likely be clear is who the replacement would be because Larry Elder is far and away by, you know, three times the No. 2 candidate in terms of the amount of support he has. So could be a little bit of time before we know. But it's also possible that we'll know on Tuesday night.

KEITH: All right. Well, we will be watching closely. Thank you, Scott Shafer, from KQED for joining us today.

SHAFER: So fun to be with you. Thanks.

KEITH: And I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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