California recall election: Everything you need to know

Gov. Gavin Newsom is fighting to save his job steering California, the nation's most populous state

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Tuesday is decision day in California's recall election of embattled Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Newsom, who was overwhelmingly elected governor in 2018 in the heavily blue state of California, is facing a recall sparked last year mainly over accusations that he mishandled his state’s response to the coronavirus.

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Republicans see the recall election as their best chance to topple a politician who has never lost an election during his years as San Francisco mayor, California lieutenant governor and now governor – and their first chance to win a statewide contest since the 2006 gubernatorial reelection victory by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was a moderate Republican. Three years earlier, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis became only the second governor in U.S. history to be successfully recalled and was succeeded by Schwarzenegger, who won the recall election.

Here are some important things to know about the California recall election.

Why is California having a recall election?

The recall push was launched in June 2020 due to frustrations by many Californians over the governor’s restrictive response to the coronavirus, the worst pandemic to sweep the globe in a century. The effort was fueled by the state's COVID restrictions on businesses and houses of worship, school shutdowns and even opposition to the state's high taxes. 

The effort surged in the autumn after Newsom's dinner at an uber-exclusive restaurant, which – at best – skirted rules imposed by the governor to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The governor’s actions were widely perceived as hypocritical and the optics made Newsom look out of touch when many Californians were struggling.

California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom campaigns against the California recall election at the Culver City High School in Culver City, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. Newsom enlisted progressive star Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., on Saturday to help him overcome a looming recall election that could remove him from office, warning that his ouster carries possible consequences for the national Democratic agenda on climate change, immigration and reproductive rights. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom campaigns against the California recall election at the Culver City High School in Culver City, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. Newsom enlisted progressive star Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., on Saturday to help him overcome a looming recall election that could remove him from office, warning that his ouster carries possible consequences for the national Democratic agenda on climate change, immigration and reproductive rights. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) (AP)

State election officials announced in April that the recall effort had garnered more than the roughly 1.5 million valid signatures (the equivalent of 12% of the vote in the 2018 California gubernatorial election) needed to make the ballot.

When is the California recall election?

California’s lieutenant governor announced at the beginning of July that the recall election would be held on Tuesday, Sept. 14. The state’s Department of Finance estimates that it will cost $276 million to hold the election.

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Ballots mailed last month to the Golden State’s 22 million registered voters must be postmarked by the end of Tuesday – or deposited into drop boxes or handed in in-person at the polls by 8 p.m. PT.

How does the California recall election work?

Voters are being asked two questions on the Newsom recall ballots. 

The first question is whether the governor should be removed from office. If more than 50% support removing Newsom, the second question offers a list of candidates running to replace the governor. 

If the governor is recalled, the candidate who wins the most votes on the second question – regardless of whether it’s a majority or just a small plurality – would succeed Newsom.

Who are the California recall candidates?

There are 46 gubernatorial replacement candidates on the ballot.

While he was one of the last contenders to jump into the race (on July 12), conservative talk radio host Larry Elder is the current front-runner in polling and fundraising. Elder would make history if elected as California’s first Black governor.

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The governor and his political team for months have framed the recall drive against him as an effort by the far right, Trump supporters, national Republicans and conservative media to oust him. So it’s no surprise they’ve been blasting Elder in recent weeks, sending out press releases, fundraising emails, social media posts and indirectly targeting him in ads, highlighting Elder’s opposition to having any minimum wage and his downplaying of climate change and the nation’s issues with racial inequity.

Conservative radio talk show host Larry Elder speaks to supporters during a campaign stop outside the Hall of Justice downtown Los Angeles, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Conservative radio talk show host Larry Elder speaks to supporters during a campaign stop outside the Hall of Justice downtown Los Angeles, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) (AP )

But Elder has also come under attack this month from some of his Republican rivals for past controversial comments about women and allegations from his ex-fiancée, with some of his GOP rivals calling on him to drop out of the race.

San Diego businessman and 2018 GOP gubernatorial nominee John Cox grabbed headlines in May as he kicked off a recall campaign swing and media blitz that included him stumping with a 1,000-pound Kodiak bear. Three years ago, the first-time candidate was trounced by Newsom by roughly 24 points in the race to succeed outgoing four-term Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

Cox, who’s called Newsom’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic an "absolute disaster," joined most of the major GOP replacement contenders in saying they would roll back the governor’s statewide vaccine mandates for those working for the state, in health care and at schools. 

Former two-term Republican mayor of San Diego Kevin Faulconer has spotlighted his ability to win election twice in a city where Democrats are in the majority. 

Faulconer has also heavily criticized Newsom’s handling of the COVID crisis and has argued that local school districts and parents should have a much bigger say about implementing mask mandates. He’s also highlighted a push for $1 billion annually to fight wildfires as a key part of his campaign for governor.

Caitlyn Jenner, the 1976 Olympic gold-medal-winning decathlete turned transgender rights activist and nationally known TV personality, grabbed plenty of attention when she launched her campaign in April.

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But Jenner appeared to be playing defense this summer, defending her July trip to Australia – to appear in a reality TV program – as she deflected accusations that she wasn’t a serious contender.

Jenner, along with Elder, has skipped the gubernatorial debates, agreeing with her rival that she would only attend if Newsom took part in the showdowns.

Caitlyn Jenner, Republican candidate for California governor, speaks during a news conference on Friday, July 9, 2021, in Sacramento, Calif.   Jenner said she is a serious candidate and asserted she is leading the field of Republican candidates, even though no independent polling has been that shows that. . (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Caitlyn Jenner, Republican candidate for California governor, speaks during a news conference on Friday, July 9, 2021, in Sacramento, Calif.   Jenner said she is a serious candidate and asserted she is leading the field of Republican candidates, even though no independent polling has been that shows that. . (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Republican lawmaker Kevin Kiley, who was first elected to the state Assembly in 2016, has become a vocal opponent of the Democratic governor.

Kiley, a former teacher, attorney and state prosecutor, has pushed to end California’s COVID state of emergency, and like many of the other replacement candidates, he’s pilloried Newsom’s handling of the state’s homelessness crisis. 

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Newsom and state Democratic leaders for months discouraged fellow Democrats from running as replacement candidates. 

But Kevin Paffrath, a real estate broker who has some 1.7 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, has grabbed attention by becoming the only Democrat among the pack of leading contenders.