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Recall threats are common in California. But the latest one against Gavin Newsom might get further than most

California governor's approval rating slips
Approval rating for California's governor slipping, poll shows 00:41

The effort to recall California's Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom is growing, and his allies and Democrats are taking notice. This will be the sixth recall attempt against Newsom, now two years into his first term. But organizers and Republicans in the state say it's the most serious effort yet due to outrage over his COVID restrictions, slowdowns in vaccine distribution, mounting homelessness and unemployment fraud

"During moments of crisis, people need strong, solid leadership, and this governor does not offer that. And the people have lost confidence in his ability to lead," said the recall's founder Orrin Heatlie, a retired sheriff's sergeant.

To initiate a recall special election to remove Newsom, organizers will need to collect about 1.5 million signatures by March 17. They are already well on their way, with 1.3 million, though they may ultimately need as many as 2 million to account for signatures disqualified during the verification process.  

If enough signatures are submitted, a statewide review process is triggered and then a special election would be held within 60 to 80 days.

Two questions would appear on the ballot: one asking if Newsom should be recalled and one on a slate of potential replacements if the recall passes.

If successful, it would be the second recall election for the governor of California in the state's history. The first was in 2003, when Democratic Governor Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

California Democrats anticipate the recall will make it onto the ballot but are confident Newsom would survive a special election.

"People are rightfully upset, frustrated, struggling, and they really want someone to blame," said Democratic strategist Kate Maeder.

Maeder, former campaign manager for Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, said Newsom's opponents are trying to leverage "the pandemic and the economic crisis for their own political gain."

She doesn't think any Democrat will raise their hand to replace the governor in a special recall election because Newsom still has high support among Democrats in the state.

Democrats in the state are quick to blame former President Trump and his administration for failing to keep pace with other states in vaccine distribution. 

Danielle Cendejas, a veteran political operative, said California has more clout in Washington now with Vice President Kamala Harris, who is from the state, in the Biden administration. And former attorney general and longtime Newsom ally Xavier Becerra has been nominated to head up the Department of Health and Human Services.

"There is an opportunity for [Newsom] to get support from the federal government, which he didn't have at the beginning of this pandemic. So, I think there's some opportunity for things to turn a corner," Cendejas said. 

"[But] we don't have that much time to get back to basics. It's time to get caseloads down, ramp up testing and contact tracing and getting kids back in school."

California Governor Gavin Newsom discusses lifting of stay-at-home order 58:41

Newsom, who was initially praised for issuing the nation's first stay-at-home order, recently lifted restrictions, citing a greater capacity in intensive care units and lowering COVID-19 positivity rates. Asked if he had done so in response to political pressure from the recall, Newsom dismissed the idea as "complete utter nonsense."

"The recall is having dividends right now in forcing Newsom back away from what many Californians feel are arbitrary, unscientific, punitive policies," said Carl DeMaio, founder of the pro-recall Reform California organization.

The push began in early 2020, when a group of California residents launched the California Patriot Coalition and were approved for signature collection. Other consultants and groups have joined the effort, which has brought in $1.7 million in in-kind contributions. 

Recall proponents say the movement attracted more support after Newsom's dinner at the upscale French Laundry restaurant while indoor dining was shuttered. In the weeks before that dinner, 736,474 had signed the recall. Since then, in less than half the time, about 550,000 have signed.

But Newsom's latest approval rating of 58% is higher than Davis' 30% when he was recalled and Republicans lack a clear candidate to match Schwarzenegger's name recognition. 

Some have begun their campaigns in earnest.

Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer has formed an exploratory committee. Businessman John Cox, who lost to Newsom in the 2018 general election, said if the recall makes it on a ballot, he'll run. Billionaire and venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya donated $100,000 to the recall effort and launched a campaign website. Mr. Trump's former director of national intelligence, Richard Grennell has also been floated as a candidate.

Rusty Hicks, the chair of the state's Democratic Party, called the recall effort a "California Coup" and said it's "being led by right-wing conspiracy theorists, white Nationalists, anti-vaxxers." He later walked back the comparison to the attacks on the U.S. Capitol.

Heatlie argues while signatories are primarily Republican, recalling Newsom is something that resonates with Democrats and small business owners struggling with the restrictions. Mike Netter, a co-founder of the movement, said about 300,000 Democrats have signed on. 

"The recall wouldn't have this much momentum if it was just fringe," said one Republican strategist in California. "Nobody, even Republicans, should hope that Gavin fails at this. We all want him to succeed in addressing this pandemic and doing the right thing and keeping people safe. But unfortunately he just hasn't."

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