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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

The Recall We Were Warned About

Dianne Feinstein, Gray Davis, and Jesse Jackson opposing the 2003 recall (Source: San Jose Mercury News)

“Someone could win with 15 percent of the vote. Will they be qualified? Where will they stand on the issues? What will the uncertainty do to our economy?”

This was U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s warning about the California gubernatorial recall election of 2003. That didn’t happen. Arnold Schwarzenegger defeated 134 rivals and garnered 49 percent of the vote. Just the top three candidates in that race managed to win 94 percent of all the votes. The new governor had fairly moderate views that were well known to Californians, and the state did not fall into the sea.

Yet the outcome that Feinstein warned about 18 years ago could very well happen next month. According to recent polling averages, the recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom could squeak through -- it only needs 50 percent + 1 -- but the poll leader on the replacement ballot, Republican talk show host Larry Elder, has less than 20 percent support. A handful of other Republicans garner support, as well, including former gubernatorial candidate John Cox, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Falconer, Board of Equalization member Ted Gaines, former athlete Caitlyn Jenner, and state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley. Democratic YouTuber Kevin Paffrath is hovering at around 10 percent.

Why is this recall different from its 2003 predecessor? What made the 2003 results not a complete circus was the presence of party coordination. This was the subject of a paper I wrote in 2011.

There was definitely some coordination on the Democratic side in that election, with the party pressuring other Democrats (including Feinstein) not to run on the replacement ballot, as that might increase the chances of the recall passing. However, the party was unsuccessful in its entreaties to Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante (he and Governor Gray Davis had a longstanding beef), who ran but came in second.

Far more organized in that election were the state Republicans, sensing a rare opportunity to take the governor’s office in an electorate that had moved steadily away from them. Some of them were instrumental in recruiting Schwarzenegger to run for office. Others rallied the party behind his candidacy. County Republican party organizations and conservative interest groups resoundingly endorsed Schwarzenegger, recognizing that he was well to their left but also a uniquely electable Republican.

Party insiders also pressured a number of heavy hitter Republicans -- including former gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon, Major League Baseball commissioner Pete Ueberroth, L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, and more -- to drop out of contention. This was no small feat, and involved endorsements, campaign donations, and sometimes personal conversations and threats.

Now, of course it helped that the party had a convenient coordination point. Schwarzenegger at the time was a rare talent -- a highly successful and well-liked multi-decade movie star still making popular films (the underrated “Terminator 3” had just come out earlier that year) with some political connections, knowledge, and experience. He was also something that was scarce in 2003 and virtually extinct today: a Republican who supported environmental regulations, gun control, and reproductive freedoms.

Republicans don’t have quite that level of pick available to them this year. But they didn’t really try to cultivate one. Jenner briefly seemed to be trying to pitch herself in the Schwarzenegger model, but then swung hard right on cultural issues and traveled to Australia right in the middle of the campaign.

Importantly, the state Republican Party declined to endorse anyone in the recall. We don’t know how easy it would have been to recruit a strong candidate and rally the party behind that person, but they don’t appear to have tried very hard.

But the recall could still pass! Thanks to the peculiarities of California’s recall provisions and the Republicans’ failure to coordinate, we could well see a governor removed from office and replaced by someone eight out of ten voters didn’t even want.

This isn’t necessarily the fault of a modern political party. It’s the recall rules, designed by Progressives in the early 1900s, that made this sort of outcome possible. But parties can be very helpful in developing solutions to bad institutional design. That’s not happening today.

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