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Recall roundup: GOP denialism, landslide donors & more

Following the landslide defeat of the $276 million recall, a prominent storyline has been how many state Republicans were in threadbare spin mode. For instance, here’s how Anne Hyde Dunsmore of the pro-recall group Rescue California indelicately put it to the San Francisco Chronicle: “What I’m not subscribing to is this grand mandate, that we got it shoved up our ass. Because we didn’t.”

While the International Bureau of Weights and Measurements gives no guidance on how to meet Dunmore’s metric, at press time nearly 62.1% of 12 million California recall voters were counted as “no” on recalling Gov. Gavin Newsom, and only 37.9% were in favor. To put this in context, that 24-point differential is higher than Newson’s 23-point victory in 2018 over John Cox.

Yet equally defiant of this reality was CAGOP Chair Jessica Patterson who declared a partial victory in her recall-night statement: “Newsom and his allies can no longer ignore millions of Californians – Democrat, Republican and Decline to State – who voted yes and recognize that state government has failed to deliver on its core responsibilities.”

Again, when a politician who previously won in a landslide extends that victory margin, one must be celebrating Opposite Day to believe he will be more inclined to support the unpopular far-right positions of today’s CAGOP base.

Then there’s Asm. Kevin Kiley, who a day after the recall tweeted: “The governor has won nothing.” True, Newsom was governor before the recall and remains governor, but electoral politics is as clear a zero-sum game as there is. One side loses; the other side wins. But undaunted, the 36-year-old spinster doubled down the next day with another blind stab at a sliver lining:

Unfortunately, no data supports this. Far from the recall creating a “countless” new wave of Republicans, California Secretary of State data from Feb. 10 to Aug. 30 this year show Californians registered Republican actually dropped by 48,639. Meanwhile, California Democrats – already with nearly twice as many registered voters as the CAGOP – added a net 37,753 registrations.

Larry Elder: GOP Spoiler?

Quietly and not so quietly, other Republicans actually interested in winning on election day have been quite critical of Larry Elder. First, many point out before Elder jumped into the race, he claimed to be more a Libertarian than a Republican. So his interest in strengthening the CAGOP is questionable.

Second, they feel Elder stole most of the media attention with a long list of shock-jock political pontifications that instantly damaged him in the eyes of most independent and no-party preference voters. To win on the recall question, California Republicans knew they needed a relatively low Democratic turnout and to win a solid majority of those indy voters, and neither happened.

John Cox finished third among GOP recall replacement candidates and told the Sacto Politico, “You get a guy like Elder who comes out of the woodwork at the last minute and just hands the damn thing to Newsom. We had [the recall] all about Newsom. It should have been all about Newsom, and it ended up being all about Elder.”

“Then he wanted to talk about fraud, which only made it worse,” Cox said. “A lot of people voted, but a lot of people voted to keep Elder out.”

Cox added he hasn’t made a decision about running in next year’s gubernatorial primary. “It’s still under consideration.”

Financing a landslide

On the other side of the recall, one wonders if the big donors behind the more than $60 million raised to fight the recall, in hindsight, regret spending so much on a rout. On the record, none of the bigger donors reached expressed regret. This included the SEIU California State Council, which reported spending $6 million, including large contributions from locals 721, 1000, 1021, 2015 and United Healthcare Workers West.

SEIU California spokesperson Mike Roth called it all well-spent: “When our values are under threat, we leave nothing on the table.” He said the largest category of spending was for “the largest field operation in nearly a decade that included phone banking, direct texts and door-to-door voter contact.”

It’s worth noting, SEIU Local 1000 contributed $1 million of this total. This became extra-notable because its newly elected president Richard Louis Brown campaigned against such partisan donations, but shortly before Brown took office, his outgoing predecessor called an emergency board meeting that approved the $1 million.

DLC 723 President Steven Alari had introduced the proposed donation. Despite the landslide and difference with Brown’s platform, Alari defended the gift: “It was important for state employees and for California that the recall be defeated. We needed to marshal all of our resources and forces to be able to defeat it. We are pleased with the result.”

But one wonders if anyone now wishes some of those funds were held back for 2022 election needs.

Fourth Estate Missteps

After each election cycle, media outlets regularly run “What have they learned” pieces about the major political parties and candidates. Less regularly do they review how well they performed in their role as watchdogs and meeting the information needs of voters. So let’s redress that here and say the media earns a mixed grade for the recall.

On the positive side, one can say there would never have even been a recall election if not for the major French Laundry scoop by The San Francisco Chronicle on Nov. 13 last year. This showed the governor flouting his own pandemic guidelines with rich donors. This pushed frustration over the top to help recall organizers get the final signatures they needed.

It was a textbook example of holding the powerful accountable by shining a shaming public light. Plus the governor made it worse by at first not being fully transparent. However just a few months later, the very reporter who broke this story was in the middle of his own transparency controversy involving the Sacramento Press Club, for which he serves as club president.

On Aug. 17, the press club hosted a recall debate open only to club members, accredited media and invited ticketed guests. But the debate was loudly interrupted when John Cox was served a subpoena. This publication later revealed the press club quietly knew one of its members was the ultimate source of the ticket used by the process server. Two of the invited candidates called for full transparency by the club publicly and share the name of the press club member involved and how the ticket got to the process server. But to date, the press club has refused multiple requests to transparently share this information.

Also, while character issues were well covered in the cases of Newsom and Elder, few outlets did so with the other top candidates. For example except the San Diego Union-Tribune, no outlet pressed former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer about a sketchy nine-figure real estate deal during his first term. This deal paid a campaign advisor millions and left the City of San Diego with more than $100 million in undisclosed, unexpected repairs. When the Los Angeles Times reluctantly endorsed Faulconer on Recall Question 2, they said he “should publicly answer questions about his role in this deal.” But in their own hourlong Editorial Board interview with him, they never asked about it.

Then despite the enduring nature of Trumpism and far-right ideology among the GOP’s remaining base, most news outlets were generally reluctant to straight-on ask GOP candidates about this. Further, this publication was alone in reporting the CAGOP Chair Patterson and Kiley spoke at a recall rally featuring speakers with radical ties and a co-organizer who had recently called for Americans to arm for civil war.

How avoiding such issues serves the commonweal and the voting public’s information needs remains very unclear.

And last was the issue of the candidate criteria for the debates media outlets hosted. Two statewide polls (here and here) prior to both the Sacramento Press Club’s Aug. 17 debate and the Aug. 19 debate hosted by Nexstar Media showed Democratic centrist Kevin Paffrath polling in the top two on Recall Question 2. He ultimately finished second, but neither debate invited him. The Press Club did not share its invitation criteria, but Paffrath seemed to meet all of Nexstar’s posted criteria. However Nexstar would not specify what ruled Paffrath out.

“We don’t understand why they didn’t include us. We think it was a crime,“ Pathraff told me shortly after the Aug. 19 debate. “The reality is Californians should hear from top-polling candidates. If the polls shift, the candidates in the debates should shift.”

Fortunately the final Aug. 25 debate organized by Hearst Media did include Paffrath. This resulted in the most lively and informative of the four debates. Paffrath even challenged Faulconer by bringing up the real estate controversy, which probably confused some viewers as it was the first time they had heard about it.

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