Gavin Newsom won because of Republican arrogance — just like in Alabama

Gavin Newsom won because of Republican arrogance — just like in Alabama
The 2017 Alabama election was a low point for Trump’s presidency and proved something inconvenient that many in the GOP just don’t want to know

After months of uncertainty about the California recall election, Governor Gavin Newsom easily defeated Republican challenger Larry Elder to hold onto his seat.

It’s tempting to dismiss this victory as paltry and inevitable; California, after all, is an overwhelmingly Democratic state. It’s worth remembering, though, that at close to the same point in Trump’s term, his party lost a major Senate seat in Alabama, which is about as red as California is blue. Off-year special elections are a particular kind of test of party discipline, competence, and coordination. The 2017 Alabama contest and the 2021 California one suggest that Republican chaos, extremism, and antipathy to democracy does in fact have a real cost for them in contesting elections.

The 2017 Alabama election was held at one of the (many) low points of Trump’s presidency. Thanks in part to his administration’s efforts to gut the nation’s healthcare system, his approval in early December was only about 38 percent according to poll aggregator 538. Democrats nominated respected attorney Doug Jones, who had deep roots in the state and was well-known for successfully prosecuting Ku Klux Klan members for the infamous 1963 racist church bombing which killed four African American girls.

Republicans, for their part, nominated Roy Moore, an extremist who had been removed from the Supreme Court in 2016 for ordering probate courts not to issue same-sex marriage licenses in defiance of federal law. During the campaign, multiple women accused Moore of sexually assaulting or harassing them when they were underage.

It was a perfect storm for Republicans. Their president was unpopular, they had nominated an extreme and toxic candidate, and the Democrats had a solid, popular alternative. Jones managed to turn out Black voters in large numbers, while Moore’s conservative base was uninspired and stayed home. Republicans stabbed themselves in the foot, the stomach, and the eye; Democrats managed to avoid similar self-maiming, and as a result Jones squeaked out a narrow but stunning victory.

In the California recall, the details are different, but the overall story arc of Republicans self-destructing is similar. California’s recall process is incredibly poorly designed. Governors can be recalled for any reason or no reason by petition of a sliver of the electorate, and the rules discourage the party in power from backing a replacement candidate. That means it’s easy for a minority party to win despite opposition from the vast majority of voters.

Republicans were hoping to take advantage of this broken process, and for a while it looked like they would succeed. Newsom damaged himself by violating his own Covid-19 restrictions; partially as a result, Democratic voters were disinterested and Republican voters were energized. Early polling suggested Newsom could be narrowly unseated.

But the ever-radicalizing GOP inevitably settled on a radical candidate: talk radio host Larry Elder, who promised to end vaccine mandates for state workers and who has made inflammatory statements about women. Nationally, Democratic President Joe Biden’s approval has weakened recently, but he’s still at 46 percent: popular enough to make him a welcome presence on the trail for Newsom. Democrats are mostly happy with their national leadership, and Elder scares them. They focused as the election drew closer, and buried Republicans easily.

In both Alabama and California, Democrats managed to find national and/or local politicians who were respected and not particularly polarizing. Meanwhile, Republicans chose candidates at the local and national level who whipped up their base, but whose extreme positions and ethical lapses made them toxic for large numbers of voters. The last Republican governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, carefully cultivated an aura of pragmatism and bipartisanship. A similar candidate could have given Newsom a real scare. But the GOP has largely lost the ability to compromise in any way since Schwarzenegger stepped down a decade ago.

Losing two unusual off-year elections four years apart doesn’t mean the GOP is doomed, of course. They’ve won plenty of contests in the interim, and have huge structural advantages on top of their willingness to simply cheat. They could easily win control of Congress in 2022, and the presidency in 2024.

It’s easy, and not necessarily wrong, to catastrophize. But it’s also important to recognize that the GOP is not infallible, and often is not even marginally competent. Their assault on basic decency and competence, and their refusal to hold their politicians even minimally accountable (as the Democrats did, for example, by forcing out Andrew Cuomo) does come at a price. For California, that means the Republicans won’t get a chance to turn the state over to Covid, and many lives will be saved. For the rest of us, it’s a small but real hope for a future in which voters hold Republicans accountable.


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