Democrats tout California recall result ahead of 2022 midterms

Newsom pinned his success on rejection of Trumpism and Democrats’ aggressive efforts to contain pandemic

Rep. David Valadao is among the four California Republicans whom Democrats are targeting next year.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. David Valadao is among the four California Republicans whom Democrats are targeting next year. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 15, 2021 at 3:02pm

Some Democrats touted California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s landslide victory Tuesday in a recall election as a good sign for their chances in the 2022 midterms, as some Republicans and strategists downplayed any connection between the result and what might happen in congressional races more than a year away.

Democrats suggested that high turnout in the recall election meant Newsom had hit on a successful formula that could help other candidates overcome the voter apathy that typically disadvantages parties in control of Congress in off-year elections.

Newsom retained his spot convincingly, with initial results showing the vote against the recall ahead by around 30 points early Wednesday.

Newsom cast that success as a rejection of the Trumpism embodied by GOP front-runner Larry Elder, as well as an affirmation of Democrats’ aggressive efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 9 million Californians cast ballots in the recall election, surpassing totals for the state’s previous recall election in 2003 and the 2014 midterms.

“We’re pretty excited about California, and it’s not because we thought we were going to lose. It’s because the margin is better than expected, and it shows that the Republican message is failing badly in swing districts,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney said in a press call Wednesday.

“You couldn’t have had a better mouthpiece for the Trump brand than Larry Elder in that election, and he got his ass kicked,” Maloney said.

Democratic candidates in some of the state’s most competitive House districts were already adopting those messages.

Caution ahead

But strategists on both sides of the aisle cautioned that the political realities could shift dramatically in the next 14 months and that it would be a mistake to draw too many comparisons between a statewide race and federal elections, in which the dynamics are automatically different.

“The recall election won’t have any impact on the midterms, and anyone who claims otherwise doesn’t have a clue what they are talking about,” said Torunn Sinclair, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans.

Democrats are targeting 21 House Republicans in 2022, including four in California: David Valadao in the 21st District, Mike Garcia in the 25th, Young Kim in the 39th and Michelle Steel in the 48th.

But the competitiveness of those races will be determined by the new congressional map that is currently being redrawn by California’s nonpartisan redistricting commission.

It could be weeks until population and district-level data from the recall election is released, which would offer a clearer picture of how voters responded in the parts of the state that will matter most to the midterms.

“I would be little hesitant to be standing on the rooftop to say, ‘Look at this, we beat them in a recall, oh boy!’” Democratic pollster Paul Maslin said in an interview before the results were released.

“But, if in fact it did produce a larger Democratic turnout in California, it does suggest this could be a mechanism of overcoming a grave worry of the midterms, which is turnout,” Maslin said.

Pressing ahead

Maloney said the DCCC would continue to press vulnerable Republicans in California, using House floor votes to force them to go on the record on issues he considered to be in play in the recall.

Especially, Maloney said, the debate over abortion rights that intensified this month, with a new GOP-enacted law that essentially halts most abortions in Texas.

“If you’re Young Kim or you’re Michelle Steel out in those California districts, where last night you watched your Republican message go down in flames, you’re now going to get to go on the record, and we’re going to know whether you’ll stand with this bounty hunter law in Texas that attacks women or whether you’re going to do the right thing,” he said.

Former Rep. Harley Rouda, who is attempting to retake the Orange County seat he lost to Steel in 2020, was among the Democratic House candidates already taking those messages to the campaign trail.

“Californians spoke with a united voice tonight, rejecting Larry Elder and Michelle Steel’s harmful and extremist agenda,” Rouda said in a statement Tuesday night.

“Despite Elder’s far-right views, including eliminating the minimum wage, eliminating a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions over her own body, claiming women ‘know less than men,’ eliminating the Affordable Care Act, and slashing Social Security and education, Michelle Steel stood by and defended him, calling him a ‘friend’ and a ‘good guy,’” Rouda said.

Steel had been supportive of Elder’s campaign and, with her husband, contributed an essay attesting to their 30-year friendship on his campaign website.

In the 39th District, a spokeswoman for Democratic candidate Jay Chen pointed to recent social media posts by Kim, the Republican incumbent, that called for voters to reject Newsom as evidence that she is out of step with the district, which straddles Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties.

“It seems like she’s really trying to align very tightly with the recall movement, which is a little surprising, given that the recall movement could be described as anti-science, anti-women’s rights, anti-vaccine,” Chen campaign manager Lindsay Barnes said.

She added that Chen did not see his fortunes as tied to Newsom’s.

Kim’s campaign did not return a request for comment in advance of the election Tuesday. And Republican strategists were skeptical that attempts to tie GOP candidates to Elder would stick.

“This guilt-by-association thing? They tried it once before. It didn’t work,” said one strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s a heavy lift for them.”

Kate Ackley contributed to this report.