Get ready for California recall to break the bank in 2021

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference on March 16, 2021 in Alameda, California. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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OAKLAND — Limitless money, a slew of candidates and undivided national attention are about to converge in a battle for California’s future.

An effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom is highly likely to qualify after supporters submit their last signatures this week. The ensuing campaign will be a melee free from the constraints that inhibit other statewide contests in California. Donation caps don’t apply. Hundreds of millions of dollars are likely to inundate the state as the full might of California’s Democratic establishment vies with a concerted Republican effort to oust a humbled blue state leader.

“The fact that a recall has no contribution limits means that you can go to your wealthiest supporters, both individuals and organizations, and ask them to dig deeper than they ever have before,” said Democratic strategist Rose Kapolczynski, noting “one inspired individual could give a million dollars or more.”

“There’s nothing like a threat,” she added, “to rally your supporters behind you.”

California politicians are bracing for an enormous, all-consuming campaign for several reasons. Newsom’s supporters are highly motivated to defend him against what they see as an opportunistic partisan attack. Republicans see a national rallying point that can reinvigorate the base after a disappointing 2020. A scant 2021 elections calendar will focus everyone’s attention, as the only other statewide contests are in Virginia and New Jersey.

“It’s getting a lot of national interest, and it’s going to be the only political game in town in the country, so it’s going to attract a lot of money,” said Dave Gilliard, a Republican strategist who has been working for the recall campaign.

After months of avoiding the topic, Newsom launched his countercampaign in earnest this week by announcing $250,000 from the California Democratic Party, appealing to his donors for support, and rolling out endorsements from high-profile Democrats — like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Stacey Abrams — who can tap into national fundraising networks. Sen. Bernie Sanders has already urged his supporters to get on board after Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive ally, reached out on Newsom’s behalf.

Newsom strategist Dan Newman said in an interview that “donors and allies have certainly been itching to push back and help out,” both within California and nationally. He said Newsom defenders were motivated in part by the race’s increasingly national dimensions.

Former Arkansas Gov. “Mike Huckabee and the national Republican Party invest in this and you get more and more calls from Democratic supporters in California and elsewhere saying we want to help,” Newman said.

The governor can draw on a ready-made support network that poured tens of millions of dollars into his 2018 campaign. Supporters included California’s formidable organized labor movement, Silicon Valley and Hollywood executives and a roster of influential interest groups that included law enforcement, health care and real estate interests. Potential funders have been organizing Newsom’s defense “for the last month or two” as it became clear “this thing could become a reality,” trial attorney and longtime donor organizer Joe Cotchett said.

“We’re all going to get on it,” Cotchett said, adding “it’s going to take millions of dollars.”

While dissatisfaction with Newsom has simmered among some organized labor and progressive players, those allies are expected to step up for Newsom because Republican alternatives are far worse. And given California’s enduring Democratic dominance, other interest groups such as the California Chamber of Commerce will likely remain cautious about shifting their stance or backing a rival unless surveys suggest voters will remove Newsom. Political players will be out in the cold if they bet wrong and Newsom prevails.

“Most institutional players like industries, labor unions, others, they look at a campaign like this and say, ‘Is it winnable?’ and ‘If Gavin Newsom is governor for the next four years, do I want him feeling like I betrayed him?’” said Kapolczynski, who ran former Sen. Barbara Boxer’s campaigns.

Republican opponents readily concede they are likely to be outspent, but they argue that no amount of money can erase frustration with how Newsom has managed pandemic restrictions. They believe the fallout from shuttered schools and businesses wrecked by fluctuating rules will haunt Newsom into the fall.

“He has the majority here, and he’s their governor, so there are going to be any number of special interests that want to make Gavin Newsom happy,” said Duane Dichiara, a consultant for Republican former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who is widely viewed as the establishment Republican frontrunner. “Gavin Newsom is hoping that large volumes of money can bury the fact he’s done a terrible job. I don’t think the voters buy it.”

California’s challenging demographics aren’t dissuading Republican funders from dipping their toes into the water. Anne Dunsmore, who manages one of the recall committees, said that now that the recall is on the brink of qualification, she is hearing from donors who are “feeling invigorated by the unexpected success of the recall effort.”

“You’re going to see a lot more national interest. There really is nothing else going on,” Dunsmore said.

The beleaguered California Republican Party sees an opportunity to end its yearslong exile from statewide office — the party has been shut out since Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reelection in 2006 — and to build on a successful 2020 cycle in which Republicans clawed back four House seats. Party chair Jessica Millan Patterson predicted “a lot of surprising money” flowing in from enthused allies.

“When you can be a turning point and a beacon of hope in a very blue state like California, that shows there is hope for the rest of the country,” Patterson said. “We always said 2020 was about turning the tables so we could bring back balance in 2022. I don’t think we realized the opportunity was going to come in 2021.”

Campaign handicappers are studying the 2003 recall that saw voters eject Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and install Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But comparisons only go so far. While Newsom’s poll numbers have declined, he is in far stronger position than Davis was. Democrats have telegraphed unity in a series of campaign events extolling Newsom’s leadership and socked money into an anti-recall committee.

“I think unlike the Davis recall, the Democrats are more united in terms of getting behind the governor and beating this recall,” said State Treasurer Fiona Ma, who contributed $10,000 but echoed other Democrats in calling the recall “a big waste of money” at a time when Newsom and other officials “should be focused on the pandemic and getting people back to work, kids back to school.”

But one 2003 theme is likely to recur: an overabundance of candidates. Unlike in typical elections, there is no primary to winnow the field. A low bar to entry all but ensures that scores of candidates will surge into the race. As in 2003, the allure of being governor is likely to draw in not just politicians but affluent business executives or celebrities — some of whom will bring their considerable resources to bear.

That means a self-regarding billionaire can saturate the airwaves. Advertising costs could rise as a result. Even if a paltry return on investment yields few votes, other candidates would be forced to compete or risk getting drowned out by the cash cacophony. The more crowded the field, the less predictable the race’s dynamics.

“This is the kind of thing that can quickly turn into a circus. Are we going to have more than a thousand candidates? Are any of those going to spend millions of dollars?” said Newman. “There are a lot of unknowns and also not a lot of limitations.”

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