The absurdly undemocratic election to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom, which cost taxpayers some $300 million and exposed them to relentless campaigning for months in what was supposed to be an off-year respite from political browbeating, finally ended last week.
Ah, but … wait for it … it’s not really over.
Is it ever?
Newsom, who’s not exactly a beloved figure, will be up for reelection in 2022, reprising all the familiar themes that saved his bacon from the recall.
And why should we care about California? Because our turn in the campaign torture machine is right around the corner and the California election just served as a test market for political messaging to be unleashed all across the country in 2022.
On the Republican side, the leading candidate opposing Newsom was Larry Elder, a conservative talk radio personality who said the election of Donald Trump back in 2016 was a product of “divine intervention.” He also wrote that women “know less than men about political issues, economics and current events,” which makes them easier to manipulate, and that the “idea that there’s systemic racism against Black people is a lie.”
Remarkably, he thought this would be a winning argument in California.
Elder, who is Black, also said that slave owners were the ones who deserved reparations for the loss of their property, apparently unaware that they already were paid them back in 1862.
But his key tactic was to roil the emotions of the volatile anti-vaccination, anti-mask, anti-public health contingent in the state, campaigning on a message of freedom of choice in whether to cooperate to stop the pandemic.
Given the hostile vaccine disinformation campaign that has swept the country via social media and the conservative drive to thwart public health efforts to stanch the spread of the virus, I guess it seemed like his best hope.
It might seem irrational and maybe even dangerous for a right-wing radio host to be making this case given the numerous casualties from COVID among anti-vax right wing radio hosts in the last month. But nobody said the California recall election campaigns were rational.
Newsom, for his part, pulled out all the stops to mobilize his enormous, sometimes complacent Democratic base. And the red states made that tactic almost too easy.
First, as the recall campaign was just getting interesting, Texas passed Senate Bill 8, transforming everyday Americans (Heck, they don’t even have to live in Texas!) into bounty hunters to go after anyone who helps a woman obtain an abortion after six weeks.
It was a gift.
“Imagine the judges a Republican governor will appoint,” Newsom said in apocalyptic tones. “Imagine a governor from the state of California joining Republican governors on (an) amicus brief supporting overturning Roe v. Wade …”
The ominous pall of Texas extremism was on full display and for voters the message was clear: don’t let California end up like that hellhole.
Newsom further reminded voters that his opponent was a Trumpist and Elder unabashedly confirmed it.
By leveling allegations of election fraud before any votes were counted, he paid homage to the twice-impeached former president who incited an insurrection that left dozens of his most devout supporters facing felony charges.
Trump’s power to influence voters in California was never that great. And, as more and more disturbing information emerges from his years in office, a Trump endorsement may be the kiss of death for Republicans everywhere. That, too, will be on display in 2022.
Then there was the grand finale of the recall spectacle.
Your very lives depend on voting the right way, Newsom maintained.
“What’s at stake in the Sept. 14 recall? It’s a matter of life and death,” a Newsom ad said .
Expect to hear this one a lot in the coming months and it’s actually true.
While Elder railed against masks, lockdowns and anything that looked like public pressure to vaccinate, the delta variant was raging, filling red-state hospitals with mostly unvaccinated COVID patients and forcing hospitals to implement plans to ration care. The latest, ironically, was Providence Alaska Medical Center in Sarah Palin’s home state. Death panels are finally all the rage in red states.
Grim news kept grabbing headlines throughout the final weeks of the recall campaign.
The unvaccinated are 11 times more likely to die of COVID than those who took the vaccine jabs. One in 500 Americans has died of COVID in the last year and a half and the delta variant is more infectious and possibly more deadly than earlier variants.
In the last month, Newsom ordered a mask mandate for schools and some of the strictest vaccine mandates for teachers and health care workers in the country.
It was as if he were taunting Larry Elder. As Elder increasingly made pandemic politics front and center, Newsom called his bluff and went for the bold approach.
It worked. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the recall.
Now everybody is dissecting his strategy as if it’s a guaranteed winning playbook.
Sure, a lot can happen between now and Nov. 8, 2022. But as we look to the blistering campaigns ahead in the Colorado governor’s race and all the other elections on tap next year, the messages from California will echo across the Rockies. Watch for it.
The latest candidate to announce her bid for governor is Heidi Ganahl, a University of Colorado regent and the only Republican to hold statewide office in Colorado.
She hasn’t revealed much about her campaign, but initial interviews suggest she’s willing to go along with the Republican conspiracy fantasies about election fraud and the familiar themes of pandemic politics and leaders who are at times doing too much to stop the virus and then again not enough.
Still, there’s always the chance Biden’s vaccine mandates will significantly reduce the death toll from COVID. Vaccines for children younger than 12 could be approved soon, further reducing the spread of the virus. The tide could turn.
By this time next year, we might see the end of the pandemic crisis on the horizon, revealing the whole 2021 anti-vax, anti-mask, anti-public health frenzy for the reckless nonsense that it is.
What the heck. We can always hope.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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