California’s incumbent Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom could have spent the summer windsurfing instead of sweating it out on the campaign trail. He swatted away an attempted recall against him last week as if it were no more of a nuisance than a pestering housefly. Voters in the nation’s most populous state retained Newsom by nearly a 2-to-1 margin.
Although the buildup to the event turned out to be a letdown, it was closely watched by political junkies, especially Republicans, here in Colorado and across the country. The hope on the political right was that the election would signal some kind of bellwether the way it did in California’s 2003 recall of then-Gov. Gray Davis. In that upheaval nearly two decades ago, Democrat Davis was turned out of office and replaced with legendary bodybuilder and Hollywood action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger, who ran as a Republican.
Yet, in today’s California, a Republican doesn’t have a chance to begin with. Nationally syndicated columnist Larry Elder — the front-runner among those vying to replace Newsom — points out in his column that the simple math was against him. Voter registration favors Democrats far more lopsidedly now than was the case in ’03. And even then, California was a Democratic stronghold. (They do call it the Left Coast, after all.)
The proponents of the recall should have known better. And while the election cost California taxpayers over $300 million — it could wind up costing Republicans even more. Newsom arguably has emerged from the face-off in a stronger position than before. Certainly, given his cakewalk to victory. And just as it has burnished his image and enhanced his political clout, it has further diminished the stature of an already anemic GOP in the Golden State.
Coloradans should pay close attention to those consequences. An insightful report by our news affiliate Colorado Politics recently took note of the fact that “recall fever” perennially grips the Centennial State, as well.
Most notably, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis has weathered not one but two recall attempts in what is still only his first term in office. Both efforts were spectacularly underwhelming and couldn’t even collect enough signatures from voters to force an election.
Yet, even recall campaigns that never get as far as the ballot can serve to shore up the image of the targeted officeholder — as if to say he is so popular voters wouldn’t even sign a petition against him.
Whether true, it doesn’t do favors for candidates in the opposite party, or even his own, who might want to mount a serious challenge in the next governor’s race.
The Colorado Politics report notes there have been a dozen attempts to recall various elected officials around the state this year alone. Recall drives are ongoing against county commissioners in three counties and local officials in nine cities or towns. Some involve officials who were elected to their positions just last November.
The pretexts for some of the recalls, meanwhile, are pretty flimsy by any measure.
In Silverton, for example, voters will decide on Oct. 12 if Mayor Shane Fuhrman, Mayor Pro Tem Sallie Barney and Trustee Jordan Bierma should be recalled. The petition for Barney said she took an oath to uphold the state constitution, “which shows she isn’t here to stand up for Silvertonians.” The recall organizers, all residents of Silverton, also claimed she didn’t support economic development and wouldn’t allow off-highway vehicles to be driven through town.
It’s getting ridiculous. Mind you, we’re not digging into that old fount of civic truisms — about how recall elections should be reserved strictly for malfeasance in office and not merely for disagreements over policy. Well, sure, ideally. But let’s not be naive.
Probably most recalls are about policy differences and/or partisan machinations. That’s just political reality. And most voters happily accept the results of a recall if it swings the same way as their own political leanings — regardless of the recall’s premise.
Provided there really is a groundswell of support for removing an officeholder, the process can work well enough. The recall of Colorado’s sitting state Senate president, Democratic Sen. John Morse of Colorado Springs, is a memorable example.
Then again, Morse’s recall seems almost like the noteworthy exception that proves the rule. Most recalls simply aren’t viable.
All we are suggesting is a basic cost-benefit analysis before launching a recall. A sober assessment, in advance, of the odds of victory. A toe in the water to check if enough contributions will be forthcoming to sustain a viable campaign. An ear to the rail to see if there really will be public buy-in.
In other words, it should have a plausible chance of success. Enough so that there is a greater return on investment than merely being able to harass an officeholder. Voters pick up on that, and often enough, it will backfire.
The Gazette Editorial Board