ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — When summer polls suggested the recall election might be closer than previously thought, many Democrats were worried.
“I was scared,” said Ada Briceno, chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County.
Those fears evaporated once results landed Tuesday night, showing that Gov. Gavin Newsom had defeated an attempt on his job, neatly swatting away a campaign that has harangued him all year.
Newsom’s approval ratings, down from historic highs, remained strong. Still, Democrats still worried voters wouldn’t turn out to support the sitting governor.
Polls began to show that likely voters were roughly split on whether Newsom should remain. But Democrats have held a massive registration advantage — roughly 2 to 1 — over Republicans, and new COVID-19 protocols required that each registered voter receive a ballot.
Democrats slowly built their sense of urgency, as late-game appearances by President Joe Biden and advertisements from party heavyweights like Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren provided daily reminders of the stakes.
“People weren’t really paying attention,” Briceno said. “They were worried about losing their loved ones and going back to work and vaccinations.”
Newsom used his speech to boost some of his COVID-19 policies and again label the effort against him as a result of Donald Trump’s politics.
“Democracy is not a football,” Newsom said. “You don’t throw it around. It’s more like, I don’t know, an antique vase. You can drop it and smash it into a million different pieces.”
Leading Republican Larry Elder took the stage in front of his supporters shortly after 10 p.m. to concede, telling attendees, "Let’s be gracious in defeat."
What followed was a repeat of many of the issues he ran on, such as education, reading rates among California children and even Israel. Some of his positions, including his strong stance against mask mandates in schools and government buildings, were what Democrats used to tie him to far-right politics.
The recall had presented Republicans with a rare opportunity to strike with an energized base and millions of liberal voters who were thought to be checked out.
“The Republicans had an opportunity because of the pandemic and because of some of the personal failings of Gavin Newsom, and they failed to capitalize,” said Louis DeSipio, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine. “And I think they face a harder road in 2022 than they otherwise would.”
DeSipio added that it would be a mistake to take lessons from the results and apply them to national sentiments about abortion policy or the 2024 presidential election.
With the election over, both parties quickly swivel to the fast-approaching midterm elections.
Anne Hyde Dunsmore, a Republican fundraiser and strategist and one of the organizers behind Rescue California, explained that the recall has alerted more voters to what Newsom hasn’t done well. That, she believes, primes Republicans for the future.
“If the Republican party can get it together and get a candidate more toward the center, I think they have a chance,” Dunsmore said. “People care about the problems. They don’t care about partisan lines anymore.”
Republicans believe that the “No Party Preference” category of registered voters will only continue to grow, which they believe favors them.
While Republicans failed in their bid, they managed to largely avoid infighting, finishing their attempt without harming each other. But Democrats now believe Elder’s elevation to the Republican party focal point will enable them to connect future efforts with Trump, who remains deeply unpopular in California.
The final results of the election won’t be certified until October, but the Associated Press has called it for Newsom.
“It isn’t over tonight. It doesn’t mean I think we can make up that gap, but I think it’s going to be a lot closer,” Dunsmore said, adding she thinks Newsom could fight a stiff test next year. “He needs to acknowledge the problems the state is facing.”