Care about whether U.S. Senator is controlled by Republicans?

Think California’s recall election doesn’t affect you? It really does, I’m afraid

Arwa Mahdawi

The election is a depressing reminder that Republicans are incredibly good at finding sneaky ways to get into power and hold on to it

Governor Gavin Newsom of California.
Governor Gavin Newsom of California. Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP

Sat 28 Aug 2021 08.00 EDT

Why everyone should be paying attention to the recall election in California

The wine bill alone apparently came to $12,000. Last November, when California was under a partial lockdown, Gavin Newsom was caught breaking his own rules and celebrating a lobbyist friend’s birthday at the French Laundry, an uber-expensive Michelin-starred restaurant. The Democratic governor’s night at the French Laundry didn’t just stain his reputation, it may have ended his political career. Nobody likes a hypocrite and anger over Newsom’s fancy night out helped fuel Republican-led efforts to oust him. A special gubernatorial recall election is currently under way and there’s a very real chance that, in a couple of weeks, Newsom might lose his job to Larry Elder, a rightwing radio host with some terrifying views and a long history of misogynistic comments.

California is a deeply blue state where Democrats outnumber Republicans almost two to one. How on earth is it possible that Newsom, who is still very popular, might get replaced by a Republican? Because of the weird way that California’s gubernatorial recall elections work, basically. Voters are asked two questions. The first is whether they want to recall Newsom or not. If a majority say yes, then he’s out. The candidate that gets the most votes on the replacement ballot is in. It’s a democratic process with the potential for a very undemocratic result.

Perhaps you don’t live in California or the United States. Perhaps you think none of this really affects you. It does, I’m afraid. It really does. California is the fifth-largest economy in the world: the person running it matters immensely. While a replacement governor would serve for just over a year (Newsom’s term ends in January 2023), that’s still enough time for someone to do a lot of damage.

There’s also a “doomsday scenario” that is weighing at the back of some Democrats’ minds. The Senate is currently split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats; Kamala Harris gets the tie-breaking vote. One of California’s senators is Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who is 88 years old. (The average life expectancy in the US for women, by the way, is 81 years old.) If she needed to step down for health reasons before the end of her term, the governor of California would appoint her replacement. And if a Republican gets appointed then the Senate would be back under GOP control. That’s not inevitable, by the way. If Newsom loses, Feinstein has the opportunity to step aside before the new governor is sworn in – however she has said she has no intention of doing that. Can’t put the greater good ahead of your career, you know! And while the odds of this doomsday scenario happening are slim, recent years should have taught us that we ought to be prepared for anything.

I’ve got a feeling that, in the end, Newsom will probably cling on to power. But that’s not really something to celebrate either. This recall election is going to end up costing $276m. That may only be five bottles of wine at the French Laundry for the likes of Newsom; but for normal people, it’s a colossal waste of money that is desperately needed for other things. The election is also a depressing reminder that the Republicans are incredibly good at finding sneaky ways to get into power and hold on to it. The power-grab in California is just a small taste of things to come.

Arwa Mahdawi’s new book, Strong Female Lead, is available for pre-order.

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