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Democrats See a Road Map in California Outcome

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 9/16/2021 Aaron Zitner, Christine Mai-Duc
Gavin Newsom holding a sign © Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s overwhelming victory in Tuesday’s recall election could provide a model for other Democrats to solidify their footing ahead of midterm elections next year and the Virginia governor contest this year that present challenges for the party, including sinking job approval ratings for President Biden and a Covid-19 pandemic that has gained new strength.

While recall elections are unusual and California is heavily Democratic, analysts in both parties said Wednesday that Mr. Newsom’s lopsided win contains lessons for 2022 candidates. With nearly three-quarters of precincts reporting Wednesday night, some 64% of those who voted had opted to retain Mr. Newsom as governor, with 36% voting to oust him, an Associated Press tally showed.

Democrats say Mr. Newsom showed how to turn the recall into a choice election focused on approaches to the Covid-19 pandemic, more so than a referendum on the governor’s own overall performance.

In a statement Wednesday, President Biden said Mr. Newsom’s victory was “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.”

Mr. Newsom told voters during the campaign that radio show host Larry Elder, a Republican and leading vote-winner among replacement candidates, would roll back public-health protections, such as the state mandate that healthcare workers be vaccinated, and said a successful recall would empower former Republican President Donald Trump and his allies. Mr. Elder, who has said he is vaccinated, said that government officials shouldn’t be able to force people to wear masks or receive the vaccine and called Mr. Newsom’s school and business restrictions arbitrary and extreme.

Republicans on Wednesday focused on what the outcome said about candidate selection. Many said that Mr. Elder set a poor example for the type of candidate who should win coming GOP primaries for House, Senate and governor in Democratic-leaning or swing territory.

“Larry Elder’s candidacy not only saved [Newsom] but delivered him a landslide rejection of the recall,” said Kevin Spillane, a San Diego-based GOP strategist. He said Mr. Elder was “obsessed” with courting the state’s conservative GOP base with statements opposing abortion rights and promising to fill a potential U.S. Senate vacancy with a Republican.

Republicans enter the 2022 campaign with significant advantages: The party out of power in the White House almost always gains ground in a midterm election. The GOP would take control of the Senate with the net pickup of a single seat, and it could win a House majority with as few as five additional seats. More Americans have said in recent weeks that they disapprove than approve of Mr. Biden’s job performance, compounding his party’s challenge.

“The Democratic majorities in the House and Senate were at risk before the recall, and they continue to be at risk after the recall,’’ said Nathan Gonzales, a nonpartisan analyst. Few of the battlegrounds that will determine House and Senate control have the lopsided party mix of California, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly two to one.

But strategists in both parties said the stunning turnaround in polling—from a statistical dead heat over the summer to a double-digit lead by early September—is an indication that Democrats can overcome the prospect of low voter turnout next year.

The Newsom campaign launched a formidable field campaign in the midst of the pandemic—knocking on 2 million doors and sending 31 million text messages to voters by the eve of the election.

“We have a silver lining here that we can apply to the big, big problem we have nationally in 2022,” said Sean Clegg, one of Mr. Newsom’s top strategists. “The base may start out asleep but you can wake up the base.”

If current turnout trends hold, “Democratic turnout during this new era of polarization is breaking through new ground,” said Mike Madrid, a Sacramento-based GOP consultant and co-founder of the Lincoln Project.

In some ways, the results showed that the state’s prevailing political preferences remained the most important force in the election and were little altered by issues in the recall campaign.

The still-incomplete results show 64% opting to retain Mr. Newsom, close to the 62% who backed him for governor in 2018 and the 63% who supported Mr. Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

Similarly, each party’s share of the vote in some of California’s biggest urban counties were almost identical to the prior two elections. That was true in Los Angeles and San Diego counties, the two most populous. In Orange County, a former Republican stronghold that is now more politically competitive, nearly 53% of voters opted to retain Mr. Newsom, incomplete results showed, a larger share than the 50% who backed him in 2018.

“If Jesus Christ himself had run as a Republican, I don’t know that he could have won in California,’’ said Glen Bolger, a veteran GOP pollster.

The number of voters who chose not to weigh in on a replacement candidate outnumbered Mr. Elder’s support by millions. But the Republican radio host had an overwhelming lead among those who did—46.9% as of the latest tally-—and has sizable leads in every county but super-liberal San Francisco, showing that GOP base voters still have a strong appetite for outspoken candidates in Mr. Trump’s mold.

Still, Democrats proved that they could rally their party and escape the pitfall of failing to capitalize on their registration advantage. More than 9 million votes have been tallied so far, and the total could rival the 12.7 million cast in the 2018 midterms, a state record for a mid-cycle election.

If Democrats can replicate that energy next year, they won’t necessarily retain their congressional majorities but might hold off the kind of wave election in which a party suffers sweeping losses, as hit the GOP in 2018 and Democrats in 2010, Mr. Gonzales said.

“We get wave elections when one party is energized and one party is depressed,’’ he said. ”If both parties are energized, we have much closer elections. So, if Democrats can replicate the energy they had in California in 2021, they might avoid a Republican wave.’’

Analysts said that a better test of the political environment will come in November with the election for governor in Virginia, a state that has trended Democratic but where Republicans often remain competitive. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat and former governor, is competing against Republican Glenn Youngkin, a political newcomer and former chief executive of Carlyle Group Inc., the asset-management and private-equity firm.

Mr. Youngkin has said that vaccinations should remain a personal choice rather than a state mandate but released an ad saying that the shots save lives. This week, he invited Mr. McAuliffe to cut a public-service announcement with him, urging Virginians to get vaccinated.

Several polls find that Americans as a group favor vaccine mandates and other Covid-19 precautions, but with some variation by the type of activity at issue. About 54% support requiring vaccinations for people to work in offices or attend sporting events and concerts, a CNN survey conducted in August and September found, but only 41% said vaccines should be required to enter a grocery store.

A recent Axios/Ipsos poll found 60% support for Mr. Biden’s recently announced effort to require vaccines or testing for businesses with 100 or more workers vaccines for most federal employees. Independents in that survey strongly favored vaccination mandates, but their support was more tepid in the CNN survey.

Mr. Youngkin has tried to hold the support of core Republican voters while drawing in independents or swing voters. He has sought to focus attention on his record as a successful business executive and, while identifying with the stance of abortion-rights opponents, hasn’t made that issue central to his campaign.

If Mr. Youngkin’s approach wins over independent voters, it could significantly boost the Republican in a state where the two parties are far more closely divided than in California, with self-described Democrats outnumbering Republicans by only 4 percentage points in the 2020 electorate.

The California recall suggested that independent voters were available to either party, with half voting to oust Mr. Newsom and half voting to retain him, according to an exit poll conducted by Edison Research and published by news outlets.

Mr. McAuliffe has called for expanding some of Virginia’s Covid-19 mandates. His campaign has also tried to make Mr. Trump a factor in the election, highlighting the former president’s endorsement of Mr. Youngkin. In 2020, Mr. Trump lost Virginia to Mr. Biden by 10 percentage points.

Democrats made a similar connection in California between the leading GOP candidate and the former president. Mr. Biden told voters during a campaign appearance for Mr. Newsom that Mr. Elder was “the clone of Donald Trump.’’

Write to Aaron Zitner at aaron.zitner@wsj.com and Christine Mai-Duc at christine.maiduc@wsj.com

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