GOP has to make 2022 about policy, not personality

California recall result holds lessons, silver linings for Republicans

Republican Larry Elder’s base-focused campaign didn’t help him much in deep-blue California, Winston writes. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)
Republican Larry Elder’s base-focused campaign didn’t help him much in deep-blue California, Winston writes. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted September 22, 2021 at 6:00am

The California recall election, without a cataclysmic event, was likely a fait accompli for Democrats from Day One and a fever dream for Republicans frustrated with the decline of what, sadly, was once the “Golden State.”

Unseating Gov. Gavin Newsom in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 2-to-1, where Donald Trump got trounced in both 2016 and 2020 and where no Republican has been elected statewide since 2006 was a long shot at best. Remember, it was California that delivered by such a huge margin for Hillary Clinton in 2016 that she was able to win the popular vote while losing the rest of the country and the Electoral College.

Since the election, Democrats in California and nationwide, along with their cheerleaders in the media, have tried hard to claim that the recall was a mandate for Newsom’s COVID-19 policies and President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda in Washington.

It would be wrong to read this victory as a mandate for Democrats’ national policies any more than the last election, which gave us the most closely divided Congress in history. But they are certainly trying.

Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison said the California result was “a win for the bold agenda put forth by President Biden, Governor Newsom and Democrats in Congress to build our country back better.”

Newsom claimed his victory was a “yes” to science, women’s rights, immigrant rights, the minimum wage and the environment, saying, “We rejected cynicism and bigotry and chose hope and progress.”

Biden called the result a win for Democratic coronavirus vaccination and masking policies. He’s right that the preliminary exit polls showed that COVID-19 was the No. 1 concern for California voters, and 81 percent of that group voted “no” to the recall. What he didn’t say was that Democrats made up the vast majority of those voters. 

The Trump card

But Democrats’ focus, especially in the final weeks of the recall campaign, was not on a national agenda or Newsom’s COVID-19 record or homelessness, the No. 2 issue per the exit polls. It was on tying Republican candidate Larry Elder to Donald Trump.

In a story about a joint Biden-Newsom campaign event in Long Beach, Calif., on the eve of election day, RealClearPolitics’ Susan Crabtree wrote that “the Democratic pair spent far more time warning of a return to Trumpism than they did touting Newsom’s record during his COVID-plagued 2½-year tenure leading the state,” invoking Trump’s name 14 times.

Biden told the crowd: “You either keep Gavin Newsom as your governor, or you’ll get Donald Trump.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that. 

Even after his victory, Newsom warned, “I said this many, many times on the campaign trail: We may have defeated Trump, but Trumpism is not dead in this country.”

So what did this Democratic victory in one of the bluest states in the Union really mean? Not as much as much as Democratic leaders and pundits would have us believe. 

What the recall turned out to be, in terms of actual results, was a rerun of the 2018 gubernatorial election in which Newsom defeated Republican John Cox 62 percent to 38 percent. Like so many Republicans, Elder ran a base-focused campaign in a state where liberals and moderates outnumber conservatives by double digits — 44 points. Given the huge Democratic edge in party registration — 47 percent Democrat, 24 percent Republican and 29 percent independent — any California Republican looking to win statewide has to not only do well with independents but also with some Democrats. Looking at the recall vote — currently 63 percent “no” and 37 percent “yes” — Elder did neither, and nor did Trump.

In fact, Trump got 31 percent of the overall California vote in 2016 and 34 percent in 2020, losing independents both times by wide margins. The recall’s “no” vote did slightly better but was still far short of the majority needed to succeed.

Unfortunately, Elder compounded his “base strategy” problem by backing off his previous statements that the 2020 presidential election wasn’t fraudulent and agreeing with Trump’s preelection charges that the California recall would be “rigged.” That didn’t work for Trump in 2020, and it didn’t work for Elder either. 

Lessons to learn

Still, there are some positive findings in the recall’s preliminary exit polls for Republicans. Compared with the 2020 presidential election, the party made some headway with several key groups.

Hispanic voters in California went from favoring Biden over Trump by 52 points last fall (75 percent to 23 percent) to opposing the recall by 20 points (60 percent to 40 percent). Asian American voters backed Biden by 54 points (76 percent to 22 percent) but voted against the recall by 28 points (64 percent to 36 percent). Finally, independent/other voters went from supporting Biden by 22 points (57 percent to 35 percent) to voting “no” on the recall by just 4 points (52 percent to 48 percent).

While the comparison isn’t exact, it should give Democrats pause and Republicans hope, but the road back for the GOP isn’t an easy one.

For Democrats, the California recall result seemed to only reinforce their takeaway from the Senate runoffs in Georgia earlier this year — that voters have given them a mandate for a sweeping transformational agenda and that playing the Trump card next year may be a path to holding their majorities. That was evident in California as Newsom clearly preferred playing the Trump card over talking about the impact of his policies. So this was not a test of who had the better ideas and policies, it was about personalities.

What the GOP needs to realize is that a Democratic opponent with a few negatives doesn’t ensure a win for Republicans, it only opens a door. Republicans have a great opportunity next year to retake the House and Senate, but what they absolutely need is a unifying, forward-looking strategy focused on broadening their coalition by appealing to independents and key voter groups, especially Hispanics, with a positive, “kitchen table” center-right agenda that connects with ordinary Americans.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as an election analyst for CBS News.