California’s governor Gavin Newsom has emphatically defeated a recall election aimed at kicking him out of office early, a contest the Democrat framed as part of a national battle for his party’s values in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and continued threats from “Trumpism”.
He scored a quick victory boosted by healthy turnout in the overwhelmingly Democratic state.
Mr Newsom cast it as a win for science, women’s rights and other liberal issues, and it ensures the nation’s most populous state will remain in Democratic control as a test bed for progressive policies.
“‘No’ is not the only thing that was expressed tonight,” he said. “I want to focus on what we said ‘yes’ to as a state: we said yes to science, we said yes to vaccines, we said yes to ending this pandemic.”
With an estimated two-thirds of ballots counted, Mr Newsom was ahead by a 30-point margin, built on votes cast by mail and in advance of Tuesday’s in-person balloting, with a strong showing by Democrats.
It is likely to shrink in the days ahead as votes cast at polling stations are counted, but Mr Newsom’s lead cannot be overhauled.
Republican talk radio host Larry Elder would almost certainly have replaced him if the recall had succeeded, which would have brought a polar opposite political worldview to Sacramento.
The recall turned on Mr Newsom’s approach to the pandemic, including mask and vaccine mandates, and Democrats cheered the outcome as evidence voters approve of their approach.
The race was also a test of whether opposition to former president Donald Trump and his right-wing politics remains a motivating force for Democrats and independents, as the party looks ahead to mid-term elections next year.
Republicans had hoped for proof that frustrations over months of pandemic precautions would drive voters away from Democrats. The Republicans won back four House of Representatives seats last year, which party leaders had hoped indicated revived signs of life in a state controlled by Democrats for more than a decade.
But a recall election is an imperfect barometer — particularly of national trends. Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly two to one in California, so the results may not translate to governors in marginal states or reflect how voters will judge members of Congress next year.
Mr Trump, who had largely stayed out of the contest, made unsubstantiated claims that the election was rigged in the closing days, allegations echoed by Mr Elder’s campaign. The Republican candidate did not mention fraud as he addressed his supporters after the results were in.
“Let’s be gracious in defeat. We may have lost the battle, but we are going to win the war,” he said, later adding that the recall forced Democrats to focus on issues such as homelessness and California’s high cost of living.
“Democracy is not a football, you don’t throw it around. It’s more like — I don’t know — an antique vase,” Mr Newsom said after his win. “You can drop it, smash it into a million different pieces — and that’s what we’re capable of doing if we don’t stand up to meet the moment and push back.”
He is the second governor in US history to defeat a recall, cementing him as a prominent figure in national Democratic politics and preserving his prospects for a future run. Republican Wisconsin governor Scott Walker survived a recall in 2012.
Mr Elder entered the race two months ago and quickly rose to the top of the pack, but that allowed Mr Newsom to turn the campaign into a choice between the two men, rather than a referendum on his performance.
He seized on Mr Elder’s opposition to the minimum wage and abortion rights as evidence he was outside the mainstream in California. The governor branded his rival “more extreme than Trump”, while President Joe Biden, who campaigned for Mr Newsom, called him “the closest thing to a Trump clone I’ve ever seen”.