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The Democrats’ California Lesson: Make Covid the Issue

Gavin Newsom was in trouble until his team decided to make the race about Covid-19. It worked this year in this deep-blue state. Can it work next year in purple ones?

An Occupy protest in Berkeley, California, 2011
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
California Governor Gavin Newsom bumps elbows with a teacher as he tours an elementary school in March.

There was a point during the campaign to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom when the governor’s advisers fretted about an enthusiasm gap between Republican voters and Democratic voters—something 2021 campaigns and early 2022 campaigns are seeing across the country. On top of that, the coronavirus pandemic persisted, not just in California but across the country. The delta variant of the pandemic was reversing the progress the state had made during the pandemic. 

Sean Clegg, one of Newsom’s senior strategists, recalled the meeting, this past summer, in which the governor told his campaign team that officials in California’s Department of Public Health had laid out to the governor’s staff the new and alarming trajectory of the variant’s spread in the coming days—not weeks, days!—and noted that the campaign would have to factor that into its plan to keep the first-term governor in office. “I think we saw immediately the opportunity to not play defense on delta but to play offense,” Clegg recalled in an interview.

So the Newsom team dived in, opting to frame the recall not as a referendum on Newson, which it literally was, but as a choice between Newsom and a single conservative alternative aligned with Donald Trump, whose skepticism about vaccinations is on par with the most conservative corners of the Republican Party. Right-wing radio host Larry Elder, who emerged as the most likely Republican to become governor if voters did recall Newsom, wanted Republicans to know he was of the anti-mandate, anti-masking variety—and so did Newsom’s team.

“Our campaign strategy, in a nutshell, was to identify the villains and define the stakes, and the delta surge elevated the stakes level to life and death. That’s what we said in our ads,” Clegg said. “It’s not hyperbole.”

According to a memo by Newsom’s pollster, David Binder, reviewing the outcome of the recall, California swing voters “felt the number one issue facing the state was managing the Covid pandemic.” The memo detailed survey findings from August that showed majorities supported allowing businesses to require vaccine verification for customers and vaccination requirements for health care workers and teachers.

“When voters were provided a contrast between Governor Newsom’s support for these measures and Republican candidates’ vow to prohibit them, they strongly showed a preference for Governor Newsom’s policies, with a margin of 17 percent from the key group of independent voters,” the memo read.

The Newsom campaign acted on these sentiments in ads hammering Elder’s opposition to vaccine requirements. Newsom eagerly pointed it out in appearances. And by early September, the governor had begun to build a comfortable lead over the forces pushing to recall him and install Elder or someone else.

Public polling followed that trend, as well. A poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies released days before the recall showed that the pandemic was at the top of voters’ minds. Forty-nine percent of likely voters said that they believed Newsom’s response to the coronavirus was “about right,” and of those voters, 82 percent said that they approved of Newsom’s job performance overall. The poll also found that 60 percent of voters disagreed with the argument that Newsom had “greatly overstepped his authority as governor” in responding to the pandemic.

The Public Policy Institute of California released a poll in the days before the election that showed that 61 percent of Californians support requiring proof of vaccination to enter certain large outdoor gatherings and indoor venues, and around six in 10 also supported how Newsom and Biden were handling the pandemic. This polling appeared to bear out in the immediate aftermath of the election. According to CNN exit polling, 81 percent of respondents who voted against the recall said that the coronavirus was the most important issue facing California. Eighty-four percent of “no” voters also said that vaccines are a public health responsibility.

In the end it appears Newsom won comfortably, a decided shift from some of the headier days of the recall when the prospect of Elder or someone else replacing Newsom was not entirely laughable. At about two-thirds of the votes counted, Newsom led by a 30-point margin, according to the Associated Press.  

It’s an outcome that other Democratic campaigns are hoping to replicate and that top Democrats are signaling is a strong approach in a midterm that looks promising for Republicans. A day after the recall election, President Biden and Vice President Harris released separate statements hailing Newsom’s victory. Both congratulatory statements touched on Newsom’s approach to the pandemic.

“This vote is a resounding win for the approach that he and I share to beating the pandemic: strong vaccine requirements, strong steps to reopen schools safely, and strong plans to distribute real medicines—not fake treatments—to help those who get sick,” Biden said in his statement.

Similarly, Harris said, “The pandemic has reminded us who we can count on, and Californians know they can count on Governor Newsom. He is focused on beating back Covid-19 and helping the state make a big comeback.”

The statements resemble a sort of bat signal from two of the highest-ranking Democratic officeholders in the country. That message is clear, too: Pegging Republicans as dangerously misguided on Covid-19 might be the solution to an ominous-looking midterm cycle.

Of course, this first test run was in deep-blue California, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by about two to one. Virginia may be much more telling. There, former Governor Terry McAuliffe’s campaign has aired multiple ads attacking Republican opponent Glenn Youngkin on masks and Covid-19. Virginia polls right now show McAuliffe a few points ahead. In New Jersey, the third and easiest state for Democrats among the three 2021 gubernatorial contests, incumbent Governor Phil Murphy’s team has repeatedly attacked Republican opponent Jack Ciattarelli for pandering to “anti-maskers and Covid deniers.” 

All three of these contests are in basically blue states, so if all the Democratic candidates win with a heavy emphasis on bashing their opponents over dealing with Covid, that still might not be enough to stave off what could be a disastrous midterm election. After all, the most competitive races—the ones that could decide control of Congress in 2022—are in decidedly purple or red-leaning states: Georgia, Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and North Carolina.

At the same time, though, Newsom’s chances did improve after he started pegging his opponent as dangerous on pandemic prevention during the ongoing pandemic. That’s an approach that could be applied elsewhere.

“The real lesson from this is not what Democrats and Republicans learn vis-à-vis each other,” Christine Pelosi, a Democratic strategist and California Democratic National Committeewoman, said in an interview. “The larger question is, what’s happening in those communities most decimated by Covid?”