SACRAMENTO, Calif. - In the closing days of the recall effort that could remove Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, his campaign has found a familiar foil that’s as big as Texas. In fact, it is Texas.
New Texas laws banning most abortions and restricting ways to vote are highlighted by Newsom and other Democrats as evidence of what a Republican governor could do in California should voters remove Newsom a year before his first term ends.
Newsom also says his GOP opponents will follow the lead of Texas, Florida and some other Republican-led states by rolling back mask and vaccine requirements. He has framed the issue "a matter of life and death" for Californians.
The last day to vote in the recall is Tuesday and Democrats are using stronger rhetoric to drive their voters to the polls. There are nearly two times as many registered Democrats as Republicans in the state, meaning a strong turnout should enhance Newsom’s chances of surviving.
More than 7 million of California’s 22 million voters already have cast ballots and Democrats so far have made a strong showing. Meantime, recent polls show the recall failing by double digits.
If those polls are wrong and a majority choose to remove Newsom, it’s almost certain a Republican would take the governorship since no Democrat with significant political standing is among the 46 replacement candidates. The leader in that field is talk radio host Larry Elder, a conservative Republican who opposes abortion and is seeking to become the state’s first Black governor.
California and Texas are the nation’s two most populous states and political opposites. California and its nearly 40 million residents are governed by Democrats who champion progressive policies on health care, worker’s rights and immigration. Texas, home to about 30 million people, is led by Republicans who have been on the forefront of conservative efforts on the same topics.
The new Texas abortion law prohibits the procedure once medical professionals can detect cardiac activity in a fetus. It took effect Sept. 1 after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to block it.
"The whole idea that a constitutional right, the right to choice, the right to reproductive freedom, rights of women, now are under assault — what a remarkable moment it is in American history," Newsom said while campaigning Wednesday.
He cast Elder as "someone that celebrates what just happened to women in Texas, and is celebrating the prospect of overturning Roe v. Wade," the court case that established nationwide abortion rights.
Vice President Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren are among national Democrats who have reinforced Newsom’s message that the California race is central to the fight over the nation’s values.
"Governors matter," Warren said at a rally with Newsom last weekend after discussing the Texas law. "We can look away while they take women’s rights ... or we can fight back."
Leaders in California and Texas have a history of using each other’s state as a political tool. In 2013, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry cut a radio ad encouraging California businesses to decamp for Texas and its lower taxes and then followed it up with a recruiting trip to the state. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown dismissed the effort as "barely a fart."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has gloated about some businesses, including Oracle and Hewlett Packard Enterprises, moving their headquarters from California to his state during the pandemic. California’s population growth has slowed in the last decade and so the state lost a congressional seat for the first time while Texas kept growing fast and gained two.
"Texas policies attract people more than any other state," Abbott tweeted recently, linking to a story about California businesses leaving the state.
Ray Sullivan, who was chief of staff to Perry, said it makes sense for political leaders in the two states to do battle.
"Texas is the biggest, boldest, best-known Republican-led state in the country. California is the biggest, loudest, high-profile liberal state in the country," he said.
Sullivan said Newsom and fellow Democrats are using scare tactics by bringing up Texas’s abortion law.
"California is not going to become socially conservative just because they remove their governor," he said, noting the state Legislature would still be overwhelmingly Democratic.
California Democrats dispute that. Even before the Texas ruling, California supporters of abortion rights were warning voters that a Republican governor could put that access at risk by using a line-item veto to slash budget funding for reproductive health and appointing conservative judges.
"If you have a leader that’s hell bent on taking away rights, doing actions that are harmful for people in getting access to care, they’ll find a way to do that," said Jodi Hicks, president of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. "California is not insulated from that happening either."
Even before the abortion law took effect, Newsom was drawing a sharp distinction between his handling of the pandemic and how leaders in Texas and Florida responded. Those states are governed respectively by Abbott and Ron DeSantis, who have sought to ban local mask mandates and taken a more hands-off approach to how businesses operate.
By contrast, in the early days of the pandemic Newsom imposed the nation’s first statewide shutdown. More recently he has mandated that children wear masks in school and that health care and state workers be vaccinated.
Jessica Lavariega Monforti, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at California Lutheran University and an expert in voting and elections, said the contrast on abortion rights is likely to be a more potent message for voters because the pandemic contrast has long been clear. That Texas’ law was allowed to take effect by the Supreme Court shocked many people, particularly after courts have put laws banning abortion or drastically restricting it on hold in 13 other states.
"Now you have to be a little bit more on your toes in the state and local arena," she said. "You can’t just rely on federal institutions like the court to step in."