California recall candidates slam Newsom, take shots at each other in first debate

GOP candidates Cox, Faulconer, Kiley and Ose took the stage Wednesday -- while Newsom, Jenner and Elder stayed away

Republican candidates hoping to oust California Gov. Gavin Newsom from office in September's recall election participated in their first debate Wednesday, trading barbs and taking shots against the man first elected in 2018. 

The four participants -- John Cox, Kevin Faulconer, Kevin Kiley and Doug Ose -- claimed Newsom had failed in his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, forcing businesses to close and allowing housing costs to soar. 

Republicans Caitlyn Jenner and Larry Elder declined invitations to join the debate, according to FOX 11 of Los Angeles, which televised the event. Newsom did not respond to an invitation from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, which hosted the debate.

The evening focused on conservative issues like building more water storage, restraining state powers and slowing the flow of taxpayer dollars to undocumented immigrants.

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"This used to be the state where anyone could get ahead. Now it’s the state that many can’t wait to leave behind, and our soaring housing costs are central to that," said Kiley, a state assembly member.

Republican candidates for California Governor Kevin Kiley, second from right, and Doug Ose, far right, participate in a debate at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Yorba Linda, Calif. California Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a Sept. 14 recall election that could remove him from office. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Republican candidates for California Governor Kevin Kiley, second from right, and Doug Ose, far right, participate in a debate at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Yorba Linda, Calif. California Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a Sept. 14 recall election that could remove him from office. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

"This used to be the state where anyone could get ahead. Now it’s the state that many can’t wait to leave behind."

— Kevin Kiley, California candidate for governor
California Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin. (Associated Press)

California Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin. (Associated Press)

Cox, who lost to Newsom in 2018, stressed that small businesses had been floundered during the pandemic. 

"I’m a small businessman," he said. "The big businesses were fine, Costco, Target, Home Depot had just a good time but small businesses were crushed. I think the governor’s COVID management was an absolute disaster."

"The big businesses were fine … but small businesses were crushed. I think the governor’s COVID management was an absolute disaster."

— John Cox, GOP gubernatorial candidate
Republican businessman John Cox, right, criticized Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom's response to the coronavirus. (Getty Images/AP)

Republican businessman John Cox, right, criticized Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom's response to the coronavirus. (Getty Images/AP)

The nature of the Sept. 14 recall, in which voters will be asked if Newsom should be recalled – and if a majority say yes then the challenger with the most votes wins -- means that a candidate with a small percentage of the vote could become the next governor of the deeply Democratic state. 

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While it appeared months ago that Newsom would easily fend off the recall, recent polls have shown a tightening race – and Democrats are concerned that low voter turnout could hand the election to a Republican. 

From left are California Republican gubernatorial candidates John Cox, Kevin Faulconer, Kevin Kiley and Doug Ose as they participate in a debate at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California, Aug. 4, 2021. (Associated Press)

From left are California Republican gubernatorial candidates John Cox, Kevin Faulconer, Kevin Kiley and Doug Ose as they participate in a debate at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California, Aug. 4, 2021. (Associated Press)

During the debate, Faulconer touted his progress on cutting homelessness while he was mayor of San Diego but Ose, a former congressman, claimed Faulconer's numbers were wrong. Faulconer disputed that. 

Faulconer also said he opposes mask mandates in schools, but wouldn’t give a clear answer on whether he’d prohibit schools from requiring masks. He urged Californians to get vaccinated as the delta variant surges across the state. 

Ose promised to swiftly replace Newsom appointees across state government. He said he opposes coronavirus mandates, according to FOX 11. 

Republican candidates for California Governor Doug Ose, right, and Kevin Kiley participate in a debate at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Yorba Linda, Calif. California Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a Sept. 14 recall election that could remove him from office. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Republican candidates for California Governor Doug Ose, right, and Kevin Kiley participate in a debate at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Yorba Linda, Calif. California Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a Sept. 14 recall election that could remove him from office. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

"I happen to have great faith in the ability of people to make decisions on their own, to assess the risk that they face, whether it be their child in school or their workplace or where they shop," he said. 

From left, Republican candidates for California Governor John Cox, Kevin Faulconer, Kevin Kiley and Doug Ose participate in a debate at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Yorba Linda, Calif. California Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a Sept. 14 recall election that could remove him from office. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

From left, Republican candidates for California Governor John Cox, Kevin Faulconer, Kevin Kiley and Doug Ose participate in a debate at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Yorba Linda, Calif. California Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a Sept. 14 recall election that could remove him from office. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

"I happen to have great faith in the ability of people to make decisions on their own."

— Doug Ose, GOP gubernatorial candidate

Cox said he would call a special legislative session to deal with housing costs.

A supporter of the California recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom holds a sign outside of a debate by Republican gubernatorial candidates at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Yorba Linda, Calif. Newsom faces a Sept. 14 recall election that could remove him from office. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

A supporter of the California recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom holds a sign outside of a debate by Republican gubernatorial candidates at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Yorba Linda, Calif. Newsom faces a Sept. 14 recall election that could remove him from office. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Kiley said he would rein in the coronavirus-related emergency powers wielded by Newsom, adding that he believes in "personal choice" regarding vaccinations.

Republican candidate for California Governor Kevin Faulconer speaks during a debate at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Yorba Linda, Calif. California Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a Sept. 14 recall election that could remove him from office. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Republican candidate for California Governor Kevin Faulconer speaks during a debate at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Yorba Linda, Calif. California Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a Sept. 14 recall election that could remove him from office. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Faulconer added that he would "focus first and foremost on making California affordable." 

Republican candidate for California Governor John Cox, left, speaks next to fellow candidate Kevin Faulconer during a debate at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Yorba Linda, Calif. California Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a Sept. 14 recall election that could remove him from office. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Republican candidate for California Governor John Cox, left, speaks next to fellow candidate Kevin Faulconer during a debate at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Yorba Linda, Calif. California Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a Sept. 14 recall election that could remove him from office. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Newsom aide responds

After the debate, Newsom campaign spokesman Nathan Click issued a statement reacting to the event.

"Each of them tried to do their best Larry Elder impression - the closest thing we have to Trump here in California and the clear front runner in the race. All of them said they wouldn’t lift a finger to protect Californians against the Delta variant or even require health care workers to prove their vaccination status. That’s pretty outrageous."

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a news conference in Oakland, California, July 26, 2021. (Associated Press)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a news conference in Oakland, California, July 26, 2021. (Associated Press)

Elder was attending a Bakersfield fundraiser. His spokeswoman said Elder wants to debate Newsom and warned in a tweet that a "circular firing squad" among GOP candidates would only benefit the governor.

Jenner was reportedly in Australia shooting a reality TV show. 

Newsom and Democrats have sought to link the recall effort to far-right extremists and supporters of former President Trump. 

On Wednesday, a judge tentatively ruled in Newsom's favor in a lawsuit that sought to block him from labeling the recall a Republican effort in the state's official voter guide.

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The recall, which could remove Newsom in the midst of his first term, grew out of widespread frustration during the pandemic over whipsaw stay-at-home orders, crushing job losses from business closures and long-running school closures that together disrupted life for millions.

Mail-in ballots will start being sent out to voters in the next two weeks. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.