YORBA LINDA, Calif. — An alarming poll emerged last week for loyalists of Gov. Gavin Newsom, showing disaster could loom in what was expected to be a sure-thing recall election.
Now, a timely Republican debate has appeared on the TV schedule pitting four GOP hopefuls against each other on Wednesday at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda.
Appearing on the debate stage will be John Cox, Kevin Faulconer, Kevin Kiley, and Doug Ose. They’re four of the top Republicans in the race but not the top Republican who, according to polls, is conservative Los Angeles radio host Larry Elder.
Also absent will be reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner, whose campaign has been accumulating debt as her polling numbers among likely voters continue to sink.
The debate will be moderated by conservative radio show host Hugh Hewitt, also president of the Richard Nixon Foundation, and panelists Christine Devine and Elex Michaelson of Fox 11, and former U.S. National Security Adviser Ambassador Robert C. O’Brien.
Recent debate tradition has shown the ratings power of incendiary, firebrand talking points, but local Republicans hope the foursome keeps it cordial.
“I always worry about Republicans beating up on each other too much,” said Fred Whitaker, the chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County. “Our focus really needs to be on the recall itself and making the case that California is too expensive, too crime-ridden.”
Republicans are increasingly looking at the race as theirs to lose, which, until recently, was unsupported by polling data. Now, Republicans may not be in the lead, but they are in striking distance, and they hope a high-profile news event could further endanger the sitting governor.
“I think schools are the big issue,” Whitaker said. “Schools are the issue with parents with respect to making sure their kids don’t lose another year. Government has to be more aligned with where parents are and, frankly, the science.”
While many parents worry about what the delta variant may mean for their children, not many parents want to see a total shutdown of schools. Whether health conditions necessitate school closures remains a wild card, but health officials have been reluctant to identify school shutdowns as a necessary measure.
Republicans have reason to be optimistic, even without a news event high profile enough to damage Newsom in the final stretch.
A recent University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Governmental Studies poll shows that likely voters are nearly evenly split on the recall. While Democrats maintain a massive registration advantage, almost half the people who plan to vote want Newsom gone. That poll complicates an election result Democrats believed favored their candidate.
But Democrats still have advantages to exploit.
In Orange County, the local party has been mobilizing its voting base in favor of Newsom. Local organizers’ job is made easier by mail-in ballot rules. Every registered voter in the state will receive a ballot, just as they did in the presidential election that saw unprecedented participation.
The bad news for Democrats is that special elections and recall votes are notoriously low turnout, with the upset base most likely to show up in force. Most recently, California State Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, was jettisoned from his seat in a recall election before he reclaimed it in November.
Democrats want to avoid a similar blip, even if their chance to take the seat back may be high.
But Democrats still have significant advantages. The Donald Trump brand, according to IGS polling, remains anathema in California.
“The best thing that could happen to Newsom is he engages Trump and he gets him to California to campaign against him,” said Mark Keppler, executive director of the Maddy Institute.
If Republicans manage to win, Keppler doesn’t see what they can accomplish while Democrats still own both houses.
“It will be a lot of political theater but in terms of actually getting anything done, I just don’t see it,” he said.
Republicans' best chance at gaining control has, in the estimation of many political observers, always been through a recall insurgence. Elder, who leads with 18%, has developed his name recognition through his show and appearances on Fox News.
Others have struggled to gain traction.
Cox, who already ran for governor and lost in a landslide, and Faulconer, a former mayor of San Diego, are both at 10% among likely voters. Kevin Kiley is at 5% and Jenner is at 3%.
“It’s the blame game,” Keppler said. “Whoever the public thinks is responsible is going to pay the price.”