California Dreaming.

John Ellis
6 min readMar 21, 2021

What follows is a short piece about the gubernatorial recall campaign in California. It’s taken from the Weekend News Items newsletter. To sign up for News Items, click here.

Is it possible that California will have a Republican governor this fall? Yes, it is. It’s not probable, but it’s possible.

This is where things stand at the moment:

Supporters of Gov. Gavin Newsom tacitly acknowledged this week that the Democratic governor will likely face a special election seeking his removal from office, as Newsom’s critics said they have collected more than 2 million signatures on petitions to force a vote this year.

If the recall campaign’s results hold steady from last month, when state officials reported that almost 84% of the initial signatures were valid, there would be more than enough signed petitions to trigger an election. Registrars of voters in California’s 58 counties have until late April to finish reviewing the petitions.

You might say: So what? It’s an overwhelmingly Democratic state. If Newsom gets tossed, he’ll be replaced by another Democrat. Any thought of a Republican becoming California’s next governor is fanciful.

Take a closer look.

This from a good piece on the recall effort by Ben Christopher of Cal Matters:

(R)ecall elections can be unpredictable.

A run-of-the-mill election for state office in California follows a predictable two-step. First, every candidate crowds onto a single ballot and voters cast their ballots for whomever they like — regardless of party. Next, the top two winners from the first round go head-to-head in a second and final contest.

That “top-two” set-up ensures that the candidate who wins will have received more than 50% of the vote. The will of the majority rules, guaranteed.

Recall elections offer no such guarantee. Voters are first asked whether they would like to give the incumbent the boot. Then, in a second question, they are asked who ought to be the replacement. Under California law, incumbents can’t run to replace themselves. (So Governor Newsom is not on the “replacement” ballot)

If more than 50% of voters opt for a “yes” on the recall question, whoever comes first on the replacement list is immediately hired as the state’s next chief executive.


It’s not clear right now if any Democrats would run to replace Newsom. “Anything and everything is on the table,” California Democratic Party leader Rusty Hicks said in January.

One theory is that Newsom would be better positioned to beat back the recall if the options to replace him are too conservative for most California voters. “If they want to hold onto the governorship… it would be in Democrats’ best interests not to put up an alternate candidate,” said Democratic political consultant Marva Diaz, an editor of the nonpartisan California Targetbook. That would allow Democrats to focus on telling voters to vote “no” on the recall, and allow them to steer clear of a confusing message like, “Vote no on the recall, but if you vote yes, vote for…”

The other theory? “It would be political malpractice not to have a Democrat on the ballot on the second question” as insurance if Newsom’s numbers worsen, said Mike Madrid, a GOP political consultant not involved in the recall.

Dave Gilliard, a Republican consultant working on the recall campaign, anticipates a large field of candidates from across the political spectrum: “Once it’s apparent that the recall is going to be on the ballot, I think there will be major candidates from all parties, even independents. Voters will have lots of choices. I don’t think either party can control who will run and not run.”

One choice voters will have on the “replacement” ballot is a candidate representing the left wing of the Democratic Party in California. That seems inevitable. The last high-profile left-wing candidate who ran for a major statewide office in California was state Senator Kevin de Leon. As expected, Mr. de Leon lost to fellow Democrat (and incumbent) Sen. Diane Feinstein in the 2018 general election. As was not expected, he garnered 46% of the vote while doing so. In a “replacement” election, 46% of the vote would win.

The 2018 math does not apply to 2021, for numerous reasons, beginning with the fact that it’s not a two-person race and ending with the fact that voting for de Leon in 2018 was “risk-free” for Democrats, since the seat would remain in Democratic hands, regardless of the outcome. In the middle of that, somewhere, were Republicans voting for de Leon for tactical reasons and conservatives blanking their Senate ballots and so on and so forth and so on (and on).

But none of that matters. What matters is the perceived opening and opportunity for a left-wing Democrat. Nature abhors a vacuum. So too does politics. There will be a left-wing “replacement” candidate.

That being the case, “mainstream” Democrats will have to field a “replacement” candidate of their own, to prevent the possibility of some Bernie Bro seizing power and upending the established order, its favor-banking system and all the various derivatives that flow from it. The established order is a multi-billion dollar, recession-proof business enterprise. The possibility of it being over-run by wild-eyed lefties is simply unacceptable to the mainstreamers. So they’ll have a candidate. For sure.

And California being California, there will be at least one very rich, self-funding, “independent” candidate, posing as a populist and ticking off every last talking point from exhaustively polled and focus group-tested “position papers.” Which makes 3 on the Democratic side.

On the Republican side, there are already 3 or 4 candidates jockeying for position. (Candidates, for some reason, always “jockey for position”). If there are 3 or 4 or more Republican “replacement” candidates, the GOP will lose. Case closed. Nothing more needs to be said.

But if there’s just one GOP “replacement” candidate (more accurately: one candidate around whom Republican, evangelical, and right-wing voters coalesce), then the party’s chances of winning the governorship in California are not bad. Not great, but not bad.

And how might those voters come to coalesce around one candidate? Who could make that happen?

You know the answer: The Big Guy!

It’s perfect for former president Trump. First, he goes all in on the recall referendum. If it fails, illegal aliens and sleazy Democratic nursing home vote-bundlers are to blame, as they always are when Republicans account for their endless string of defeats in statewide elections in California in recent years. If it passes, Mr. Trump casts himself as the decisive factor in Newsom’s demise; the man who did what no one else could do: “impeach” a Democratic governor in California. The “I” word! What could possibly be more enticing to Trump…or more delicious.

Second, he endorses a “replacement” candidate and calls on all the other Republican, conservative and populist candidates to withdraw from the race, making it more likely that “his” candidate will finish second (at the very least) in the “replacement” balloting.

The Republican, conservative and populist candidates not endorsed by Trump would risk the enmity of Trump’s much-feared “base” if they did not do what Trump asked them to do. Their fund-raising would go dry. Right-wing media would attack them, ferociously. Their future political prospects would diminish if not dissolve. All of that being true (and it is true) a Trump endorsement could and probably would clear the field on the right.

Assuming the recall petition passes and the “replacement” election becomes binding, a 4-way race (the Trump candidate, the Left candidate, the “Mainstream Democrat” candidate and the Mr. Moneybags “Independent” candidate) would be fully competitive. Trump himself got 34% of the vote in California in the 2020 presidential election, without spending one dime on his campaign there.

For Trump, the recall “effort” is all reward and no risk. Defeat is expected and blame for it can be easily assigned to others. Victory on the recall vote would be astonishing. The election of a Republican governor would be, politically speaking, earth-shattering. Trump would be perfectly positioned to take credit for the latter two outcomes, in part because he would deserve some credit (perhaps a great deal of credit) for each outcome.

A strong showing of any kind, even one that ended in defeat, would reaffirm Trump’s standing as The Boss of the GOP. Perhaps most important, a Trump “California campaign” would put him back where he most wants to be — at the center of the cable television news universe. Fawning Fox anchors, seething MSNBC talking heads, supercilious CNN contributors would all be focused, once again, on The Big Guy. The order of things would be restored. The planets would again circle the sun. And most important — and don’t you ever forget it — the ratings would improve.



John Ellis

Founder and Editor, News Items. Political analyst. Founder of and contributing editor to Bird News Items. Former columnist for The Boston Globe.