Commentary: California recall election doesn’t provide model for 2022 congressional races

The final result of the California recall election retaining Gavin Newsom as governor was certainly not surprising. What was surprising was that any question existed about the outcome.

For most of the campaign, Newsom and his Democratic allies were very nervous. Polls showed deep dissatisfaction with his administration. Democrats were compelled to raise and spend $83 million on advertising and campaign expenses, according to the L.A. Times. They called on every heavyweight Democrat in the country to support Newsom – including Pres. Biden, former Pres. Obama, VP Harris, top congressional leaders, movie stars, Silicon Valley millionaires, etc.

And yet, the large field of candidates running to replace the governor could not have been weaker. The person who would have replaced Newsom, had he not received 50% of the vote, was far-right radio talk show host Larry Elder (who spent about $600,000). Democrats spent many millions of dollars portraying him as a Trump-loving extremist. The California media dug up dirt on him. A columnist in the L.A. Times called Elder “the black face of white supremacy.”

Few prominent Republicans even engaged much in the race. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, from Bakersfield, didn’t talk much about the election and didn’t endorse a candidate. The state Republican Party didn’t endorse Elder or any candidate.  

Thus, it would have been miraculous – inconceivable — for Elder or any of the other candidates to have won in Democrat-dominated California.

So, the Democratic base woke up and Newsom won in a relative landslide. But it will take a lot of analysis of voting results to determine if the vote was pro-Newsom or anti-Elder/Trump. The media portrayed it as a triumph for Newsom’s hard-line pandemic policies and harsh anti-Trump messaging. They believe Democrats can win on mask and vaccine mandates and by portraying Republicans as Trump lovers.

But I doubt those will be winning messages in 2022 for congressional Democrats in swing states and districts across the country. Those battleground districts and states will determine who controls Congress – not what just happened in the California recall election.