End COVID mandates. Fill vacancies on everything from the state dental board to — maybe — the U.S. Senate. Sign executive orders sending the National Guard to the southern border. These are just some of the things a new governor could do if Gov. Gavin Newsom loses his job in the recall election.
The notion that Newsom, who came into office as a popular Democrat leading a deep blue state, could be sent packing Sept. 14 sounded ludicrous even a few months ago. But recent polling and enthusiasm among Republican recall supporters suggests there’s a realistic chance the San Francisco native gets booted from Sacramento. And under California’s bizarre recall rules, that means a replacement candidate without a prayer of winning a regular statewide election could ascend to the state’s top post with, say, 15 percent of voters behind them — all they need is one more vote than anyone else gets.
What would that mean for Californians? Given that any replacement will need to run again in November 2022 — when, realistically, they are likely to lose to a well-funded, mainstream Democrat — how much could a GOP governor really change in the meantime? Or, for that matter, a new Democrat? At least one poll puts Democrat Kevin Paffrath — a 29-year-old politically inexperienced real estate broker and YouTube star with views and ideas all over the ideological spectrum — in the lead.
But for every Democrat named Kevin there are a host of Republicans, including two Kevins — former San Diego Mayor Faulconer and Sacramento-area Assemblyman Kiley — reality star Caitlyn Jenner and outspoken conservative talk radio host Larry Elder, who is leading most polls among the 46 replacement candidates.
“Having a Republican governor would absolutely change some things,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “But with California being such a huge and complex state, you can’t change the state overnight either, with respect to policy or politics.”
Any new governor would immediately run into a Democratic veto-proof supermajority in the legislature, making their hope of passing anything from new laws to a budget an uphill battle.
“If you’re expecting bold, sweeping legislation, it’s not going to happen,” said Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution research fellow who worked as a consultant for former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, winner of the last recall election in 2003.
“Politics being politics,” Whalen said, “if a Republican stands before the legislature and offers a bipartisan agenda, he or she will be met with two words and those will not be ‘Merry Christmas.’”
That wouldn’t stop a new state leader cold, however.
Leading GOP candidates like Elder and the more moderate Faulconer have said they oppose vaccine and mask mandates and could do away with state orders imposing them. Paffrath would likely keep them. Any replacement could appoint ideologically-aligned people to executive agencies and the state judiciary.
They would also potentially be able to decide the balance of the U.S. Senate. The governor would be the one to appoint a new senator if a vacancy arose, something alarming to Democrats. At 88, Dianne Feinstein is the oldest sitting U.S. senator.
“The appointment power that the governor has is very strong,” said Melissa Michelson, a Menlo College political science professor.
A new governor could sign executive orders affecting everything from immigration to the environment. A governor could deploy the National Guard to the border with Mexico or tell the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to deploy more inmates to fight wildfires. Tackling homelessness has been a popular topic among recall contenders, with top GOP contenders and Paffrath promising to get people off the streets. Any winner could declare a state of emergency and try to forcibly remove homeless encampments or, as Elder has suggested, suspend the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a controversial law that affects where and when new developments are built.
Even if a new governor wasn’t passing new laws, “he’d still have a tremendous amount of authority over how the laws on the books are being enforced,” said longtime political strategist Dan Schnur, a former Republican who served as spokesman for former Gov. Pete Wilson.
It’s almost a given that some actions, like trying to do away with CEQA, would be met immediately with legal challenges, which could tie them up in court for months. Ending COVID mandates would also likely generate pushback at the local level or in Sacramento, with individual counties or the legislature creating their own rules.
Still, any attempt to relax pandemic regulations with the highly transmissible delta variant spreading “could very quickly change people’s lives,” Levinson said.
Another wrinkle for any incoming GOP governor is staffing.
Likeminded Republicans, Whalen said, “have not been in government for a long time now.” And, he added, finding qualified candidates to fill positions that could very well disappear in little more than a year would be “a challenge.” The term ends in January 2023 after a November 2022 election, when it is very likely a Democrat, be it Newsom or someone else, will triumph in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans two-to-one.
“These weren’t challenges for Schwarzenegger in the immediate aftermath of his recall win,” Whalen wrote in a recent column. “He came to office less than five years after Pete Wilson’s governorship had folded its tent—the end of 16 years of Republican governors in Sacramento. That meant plenty of talent available to fill the ranks of the executive branch. Moreover, Schwarzenegger could offer job security in that he didn’t face re-election until November 2006,” roughly three years later.
But it’s unlikely — or in some cases almost impossible — that some of the ideas bandied about on the campaign trail would move forward. Paffrath’s pitch to address the state’s drought by building a giant pipeline to the Mississippi River? Unrealistic. Elder’s notion that the minimum wage should be zero? Not going to happen in California. Faulconer’s tax cuts? Dead on arrival in Sacramento.
“We live in a state where the Democratic legislature will really hold,” Levinson said, “and will hold against a Republican governor and will very likely override any legislation they don’t like.”
But a new governor would still wield the power of the bully pulpit — something Newsom has used to his advantage as he’s held campaign-style events surrounded by allies to push his pandemic measures — and some Democrats are worried a very conservative replacement like Elder, who does not believe systemic racism is real and has said that women know less than men about political issues and economics, could be harmful.
“If elected, his views on race and marginalized people would be front and center,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Jean Guerrero. “The threat to immigrants in this state and racial justice for all would be catastrophic.”
Elder’s campaign hit a speed bump this past week when the LAPD confirmed it is investigating a 2015 domestic violence complaint from his former fiancée, a claim Elder denies. In an interview with this news organization earlier this month, Elder pushed back at the idea that his views on issues like homelessness and the pandemic are unpopular. And he also insists he’s under no illusion that he could transform California overnight.
“I’m not running,” he said, “to turn the state around into some libertarian utopia.”
Friends, this isn’t the time to be complacent. If you are ready to fight for the soul of this nation, you can start by donating to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris by clicking the button below.
Thank you so much for supporting Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign.