LONG BEACH, Calif. - After a campaign that laid bare divisions in America’s most populous state, Californians on Tuesday were to decide whether to keep Gov. Gavin Newsom in his job or to move the state in a more conservative direction.
Newsom was leading in polls but took nothing for granted, aggressively campaigning and bringing in national Democratic figures to urge voters to reject the recall.
He got a final push late Monday from President Joe Biden, who warned that the contest could shape the country’s direction on the pandemic, reproductive rights and the battle to slow climate change. The results also are likely to influence the 2022 midterm elections, when control of Congress will be in play again. The party that controls the White House historically loses seats in midterms.
Biden, who defeated Republican President Donald Trump less than a year ago, said the issues that defined the 2020 race have been resurrected in California, with potentially disastrous results if Newsom is removed in the election that ends Tuesday.
Speaking to hundreds of cheering supporters during a twilight rally in the coastal city of Long Beach, south of Los Angeles, Biden referred to the leading Republican candidate, conservative talk show host Larry Elder, as a "clone" of Trump.
"Can you imagine him being governor of this state?" Biden asked, as the crowd responded with shouts of "No, no!"
"You can’t let that happen. There is too much at stake," the president said.
"The eyes of the nation are on California," he warned. The recall vote is "going to reverberate around the nation and ... around the world."
Elder, seeking to become California’s first Black governor, staged his capstone rally in nearby Orange County, where he urged supporters to reach out to friends and neighbors to vote. The GOP will need a heroic Election Day turnout to catch Democrats, who have been turning in mail ballots in larger numbers. Nearly 8.6 million of California’s 22 million voters already have cast mail-in ballots.
"Make sure you have your friends vote, vote, vote, and try and get 10 more friends to vote and hit every call, make every call, knock on every door, we’re going to win this thing if we turn out the vote," Elder said from a hotel ballroom in Costa Mesa.
U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, called the election an opportunity to change course in a state where Democrats hold a nearly 2-to-1 advantage among registered voters.
McCarthy cited homelessness, rising crime and the wildfire-driven closure of national parks, which he said was due to "forest mismanagement."
"And you want to reward that?" McCarthy said Tuesday on Fox News Channel’s "Fox and Friends. "This is an opportunity to change the course."
Newsom is the fourth governor in U.S. history and the second in California to face a recall. In 2003, Californians removed Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. The "Terminator" actor won re-election in 2006, the last time a GOP candidate won statewide office in California.
This recall was fueled largely by anger over Newsom’s actions during the pandemic, which included imposing the nation’s first statewide shutdown order. Critics said he was heavy handed, shuttering businesses and keeping children out of classrooms for longer than necessary. Newsom said his actions saved lives.
California voters have just two questions on Tuesday’s ballot: Should Newsom stay in office? And if not, who should replace him? There are 46 replacement candidates to choose from. If voters keep Newsom, the results on the second question are irrelevant.
Beyond Elder, other prominent Republicans in the race include former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner and businessman John Cox. The best-known Democrat is Kevin Paffrath, a financial adviser with a large YouTube following.
How California votes could determine how aggressively Democrats campaign on COVID-19 restrictions that many Republicans have decried as unnecessary and overly burdensome.
Biden was last among a prominent list of Democrats to make appearances in the contest either in person or in ads, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former President Barack Obama.
Newsom’s ouster would be a stunning rebuke in California, where the Democratic Party controls every statewide office and dominates the Legislature and the congressional delegation. Less than three years ago, he was elected in a landslide.
Biden’s visit in the waning hours of the race was intended as a final effort to motivate the state’s more than 10 million Democratic voters. Newsom’s advisers expressed increasing confidence that the governor would survive the effort to drive him out more than a year before the end of his first term. The campaign had 25,000 volunteers on the streets over the weekend and has sent 31 million text messages to voters.
"There’s no scenario where we lose tomorrow," Newsom strategist Sean Clegg said.
While Newsom has sought to nationalize the race, Republicans have criticized him relentlessly for high taxes, an unchecked homeless crisis, climbing crime rates and housing prices that are out of reach for many in the working class.
"There’s no front that I can think of where this man has done a good job — not on schools, not on homelessness, not in the way he shut down this state," Elder said Monday.
In recent days, Elder suggested the results of the recall election could be skewed by unspecified "shenanigans," echoing Trump’s baseless claims of voting fraud in his 2020 race with Biden.
There has been no confirmed evidence of widespread fraud. Elder’s campaign website has linked to a "Stop CA Fraud" site where people can sign a petition demanding a special legislative session to investigate the "twisted results," well before any results were announced.
Asked to provide evidence of any suspicious voting activity, Elder spokeswoman Ying Ma said the campaign wants "every proper vote to be counted" and "whatever shenanigans there are will not stand in the way of him becoming the next governor."
Tune in to FOX 11 Los Angeles for the latest Southern California news.
Ronayne reported from Sacramento. Associated Press Writer Alexandra Jaffe contributed from Long Beach.