Editor’s Note: Lincoln Mitchell (@LincolnMitchell) teaches in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. His most recent book is “The Giants and Their City: Major League Baseball in San Francisco, 1976-1992.” (Kent State University Press, 2020) The opinions expressed here are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
By the time the voting ended Tuesday night, the defeat of the effort to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom was widely expected.
California is a solidly Democratic state that has not elected a Republican to statewide office since 2006 and has not cast its electoral votes for a Republican presidential candidate since George H. W. Bush carried the Golden State in 1988. Nonetheless, the scope and timing of Newsom’s victory may be a bad sign for the GOP even beyond California. With roughly 80% of the vote counted, about 64% of the more than nine million Californians who took part decided against recalling Newsom.
According to the CNN exit poll, almost every major group in the state rejected the recall: Whites, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, every age group, men and women, urban and suburban residents, parents and non-parents, those with and without college degrees and LGBTQ Californians.
A number of those groups are already part of the Democratic coalition, but some of the numbers are bad news for the GOP, particularly the gender data: 64% of female voters and 62% of White female voters decided to keep Newsom in office, far more than men.
Those numbers are significant. Consider that as recent as 2020, President Joe Biden only won 51% of White women in the state.
The clear majorities Newsom won among African Americans (83%) and Latinos (60%), particularly female members of those groups, ensured he would stay in office, but those voters were not the focus of the GOP – White people were. Donald Trump secured 47% of California’s White voters in 2020 but just 41% of that demographic voted yes on the recall.
This broad support for Newsom, particularly the gains he made with White women, suggests that the GOP message is not breaking through to the kinds of voters who the Republican Party needs in order to be competitive in other parts of the country. The Republican-backed recall movement sought to portray Newsom as ineffective, uncaring and unwilling to follow his own rules, notably when he dined at the French Laundry restaurant with a party that included lobbyists shortly after announcing Covid restrictions in 2020. That message didn’t resonate enough to convince most voters that California would be better off under the stewardship of today’s GOP.
For the Republican Party to compete in future elections that, unlike the recall, it can and needs to win, it is essential that it wins over White women. The data from the recall suggest that in California those women are not in favor of candidates like Larry Elder, the kind of Trumpian figure who will likely be on the ballot in a lot of states and districts in 2022. Huge landslides against the recall in places like Santa Cruz county, where 80% opposed the idea; Los Angeles County, which went 71% against the recall, and Newsom’s hometown of San Francisco, which cast 87% of its votes against the recall, were expected. But the failure of the GOP to make progress in places like San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange counties, which were once solidly Republican but went for Biden in 2020 and against the recall in similar numbers this time, indicate the GOP is still not reaching the voters it needs.
The GOP losing votes may not matter statewide in blue California, but if White women, whether they live in moderate and conservative suburbs in California – yes those places exist – or elsewhere in the country, continue to abandon the GOP, suburban districts around the state and country will trend more Democratic and leave the GOP scrambling to figure out how to advance its political agenda and how to win back voters.
Newsom’s resounding victory also occurred at a time when the Democratic Party has been on the ropes on the national stage. The withdrawal from Afghanistan had dominated the news and has hurt President Biden politically, while the rise of the Delta variant had made the back-to-school period difficult and stressful for many families, including in California. This was a moment when a Democrat in a state like California should have been vulnerable, if not to defeat, then at least to a relatively close election. Instead, the Republicans, and the de facto GOP standard-bearer in the person of Elder, were humiliated.
That victory means Newsom will stay in office, very likely cruise to reelection in 2022, possibly against Elder, but it also will put some wind in the sails of a Democratic President who badly needs it right now. The recall was a referendum on Newsom, but indirectly on Biden and the Democrats as well. The numbers show that it wasn’t close and that Californians, including the White women whose support is so crucial to the GOP’s future in the state, were not buying whatever the GOP and Elder were selling.