Republicans overplayed their hand in California – and Democrats are laughing

Photograph: Ashley Landis/AP

On Tuesday, Gavin Newsom, California’s embattled governor, convincingly beat back a Republican-driven recall effort. Once projected to be a nail-biter, the contest degenerated into a nearly 30-point blowout. Indeed, Newsom may have even outpaced Joe Biden’s 2020 margin in California.

Related: Larry Elder: defeated California recall challenger takes a page from Trump’s big lie playbook

Ten months later, Donald Trump’s name was no longer on the ballot, but his spirit still lingered. Before the polls had closed, the former president was carrying on about the recall being rigged. Meanwhile, Larry Elder, Newsom’s leading Republican opponent and a rightwing radio host, had tentatively planned a post-election legal challenge.

In the end, the threat of Elder in the governor’s mansion galvanized Democrats. To put things in context, Elder, who is black, has argued for reparations for slave owners. Let that sink in.

On 18 July, on the Candace Owens Show, Elder opined: “Their legal property was taken away from them after the civil war, so you could make an argument that the people that are owed reparations are not only just Black people but also the people whose ‘property’ was taken away after the end of the civil war.”

Also, Elder separately confided his support for “appointing judges and regulators who respect the constitutional right to life”, and announced that “the ideal minimum wage is $0”. Not surprisingly, little more than a third of California’s voters held a favorable opinion of Elder.

As framed by John J Pitney, the Roy P Crocker professor of politics at California’s Claremont McKenna College, “in a heavily Democratic state Newsom was probably going to survive anyway”. But Elder “helped him turn surviving into a triumph”, Pitney told the Guardian. Elder was a gift to the governor.

To be sure, it wasn’t just about Elder. More than 60% of Californians hold an unfavorable view of the Republican party, seven in 10 support mask mandates for students, and more than three-fifths categorized vaccination as a public health responsibility rather than a personal choice. The ethos of what could be called “live free and die” had a limited number of takers.

Meanwhile, talk of a foregone electoral outcome led Republicans and conservatives to stay home. Apparently, the 45th president and his minions forgot about how that same gambit cost them both of Georgia’s Senate seats in last January’s runoff elections. Sometimes, history repeats itself.

Fortunately for the Democrats, the liabilities that Elder and the Republicans displayed will not vanish in the coming weeks. Rabid Republican resistance to Covid vaccination, Florida’s needless deaths, and Texas’s draconian abortion law are not going away. They are now baked into the Republican party’s creed and DNA.

In that same vein, the pledge by Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, to make rape magically disappear, and the embrace of Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, of Covid conspiracy theorists, will not be forgotten anytime soon.

By the numbers, self-described moderate Californians opposed the recall by better than a three-two margin. Opposition to the recall ran broad and deep. To be sure, what happens in California doesn’t usually stay in California. All this may yet make a difference in Virginia’s upcoming governor’s race.

There, Democrat Terry McAuliffe holds a small but steady lead over Republican Glenn Youngkin, a former equity management executive. According to a recent Monmouth poll, Covid is the leading issue in the state followed by public schools.

Earlier this summer, Youngkin was captured on video telling supporters that he had to remain quiet about abortion lest it cost him the support of independents and suburbanites, but once in office he could “go on offense”. Youngkin has also opposed vaccine mandates and labeled the jabs a matter of personal choice.

Once upon a time, Virginia was home to Robert E Lee, the commander of the Confederate army and Trump’s favorite general. These days, no Republican holds statewide office there. The Commonwealth last voted Republican in a presidential election in 2004.

Democrats can momentarily exhale. Gloating, however, is strongly discouraged. Their relative weakness among Latino and Asian American voters persists.

In California, Biden bested Trump by more than 50 points among each of those two demographics. Yet less than a year later, opposition to the recall among Latinos and Asian Americans was just 16 points and 24 points, respectively.

Late Tuesday night, Elder conceded the election, saying: “Let’s be gracious in defeat,” but adding: “We may have lost the battle, but we are going to win the war.” One thing is certain: the embers of America’s cold civil war continue to burn red hot. California’s recall was one more scrum.

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