On Aug. 4, five California GOP candidates in the Sept. 14 recall election will debate ending Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration early. This will happen at the library of former Republican President Richard Nixon, the only U.S. President to ever have his term in office curtailed in disgrace.
Apparently, the irony of this location did not strike the debate organizers. Neither has the irony of Republicans attempting a quarter-billion-dollar power grab to achieve – at least rhetorically – a smaller, more responsive government.
So expect Wednesday’s debaters to lob volumes of criticism at the absent Newsom. (And who would have not declined the pleasure of the GOP’s invitation?) Some jabs will be fair, but the vast majority will be exaggerated to stir up an “anyone-but-Newsom” anger. But as someone who conducted long-format Q&A interviews with the three longest running GOP recall candidates (John Cox, Kevin Faulconer and Doug Ose), here’s what I’ll be watching for during the debate, which will also feature Rocklin’s Asm. Kevin Kiley:
1.) Will any questions be asked about the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection?
Despite Republican attempts to downplay Jan. 6 (including one Congressman calling it “a normal tourist visit”), the insurrection was a historic event with seismic ramifications for our democracy. It claimed six lives and left at least 140 injured. So far, 24 Californians have been indicted, including two tied to an alleged plot to bomb the Sacramento County Democratic headquarters that day. Plus the extremism that fueled the insurrection remains a tangible feature of the Republican Party nationally and in California.
In my interviews, each recall candidate meticulously avoided calling Jan. 6 an “insurrection” or “riot.” Ose twice even termed it an “activity,” and Faulconer called it an “assault” and “wrong” but would go no further. John Cox said straight out he wants to put the event quickly behind us: “Anybody who broke into the U.S. Capitol should be prosecuted and that should be the end of it. What we shouldn’t be doing is make every aspect of our political life revolve around it and have it used as a political cudgel.”
The debate will be moderated by conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt, with additional questions from Fox-11’s Christine Devine and Elex Michaelson, and Robert O’Brien who served as Trump’s National Security Adviser during the insurrection. Whether any of them “go there” on Jan. 6 will be interesting to watch, including if they point out any verbal gymnastics by the candidates to avoid basic terms like “riot” and “insurrection.”
2.) Will the candidates strongly recommend the unvaccinated get Covid shots?
More than 8 million Californians 18 or older (26%) have yet to receive any Covid vaccination. All three GOP recall candidates I interviewed said they were vaccinated, but none would strongly advise other people to do the same. Each tried to straddle with some version of “consult your doctor and make the best decision for yourself.” This was done presumably to avoid offending vaccine-hesitant voters who comprise a large part of registered California Republicans.
Ose perhaps came the closest to endorsing vaccination when he explained how his 95-year-old mother from the Black Hills of Tennessee had survived several epidemics and told him “go get the vaccine.” But quoting someone else’s endorsement is not the same thing as clearly stating your own.
Cox’s answer was the most muddled. He at first staked the strongest position against vaccinations. He said the science was clear that anyone healthy under 50 probably doesn’t need to be vaccinated, even though the stronger Delta variant was then on the rise and threatens all ages. But then he seemed to contradict himself by twice saying different versions of most citizens “should want to get the vaccine.”
Recently some Republicans began calling out the unvaccinated for causing the country’s current fourth spike in Covid cases and deaths. This included Alabama Republican Gov. Kay Ivey who said, “It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks… It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.” Will this embolden any of the recall debaters to more clearly voice the simple, obvious truth: the best way to protect yourself and speed a return of California to normal is by getting vaccinated?
3.) Do they believe Trump’s Big Election Lies and whether California’s election systems can be trusted in the recall?
More fence-sitting here. None would express full faith – or conversely a lack of faith – in California’s recall election system. This despite the fact the Sept. 14 recall will again feature universal mail-in balloting and those GOP-maligned Dominion and Smartmatic voting systems.
For instance, Cox said he found far-right concerns about the California election system understandable since he once witnessed ballot fraud firsthand 45 years ago in his native Chicago. That’s a different century and more than 2,000 miles away, so not the most convincing rationale. But Cox made clear his administration would go beyond the opinion of mere election professionals and experts: “When I am elected governor, one of my jobs is to make sure that elections are run not just free of fraud but in a fashion that people can have confidence,” he said.
Does this mean Cox recommends an expensive replacement of all Dominion and Smartmatic voting systems in the state to placate the conspiracy theorists? To this he said, “Listen, I take all this with a grain of salt.”
In Faulconer’s case, his answer was a bit of a Rorschach test leaving plenty of interpretive wiggle room for all: “I am confident that Californians’ voices will be heard, and votes will be counted.”
So does this mean he’s confident this will happen on election day as a matter of course? Or he is expecting the need to challenge if any chicanery happens as many California Republicans – including one federal lawsuit by nine CAGOP-endorsed Congressional candidates – believe occurred in November? All good questions.
Ultimately, these issues and questions reflect how most serious Republicans are stuck uncomfortably between a rock and their hard right. They need to coalesce a large part of that 24% of the state that is registered Republican and then prove they aren’t as crazy as their base to a lot of third-party and no-party-preference voters. Plus they are doing this with an eye not just for the Sept. 14 recall but also next year’s regular gubernatorial primary and general elections when – if the recall fails – they will do it all again.
Talk about tenuous tightropes for these GOP candidates. Though many of them may not agree with their extremist base on the above issues, their challenge is to safely cross that high wire with all of that added weight hanging from their necks.
Can one of them pull it off and navigate successfully to the other side? Finding the answer may start at the Aug. 4 debate.