California Governor Gavin Newsom appears to have survived a rare state-wide vote to remove him with a clear majority, US media report. Republicans launched the election over his handling of the pandemic.
The Democrat, currently in the third year of his four-year term, had faced a field of 46 candidates, and was expected to win by a large margin. Both President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris campaigned with Mr Newsom ahead of the contest.
“I’m humbled and grateful to the millions and millions of Californians that exercised their fundamental right to vote,” Mr Newsom said in a victory speech in Sacramento. The outcome has been closely watched as a bellwether for national 2022 elections.
Mr Newsom’s main rival, conservative radio host Larry Elder, claimed that the vote was rigged before polls even opened. On the eve of the recall vote, Mr Biden appeared at a rally with Mr Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor to tell voters that their choice will “reverberate around the world”.
The effort to unseat Mr Newsom has been driven by increasingly partisan politics, but gained steam after he was photographed dining at a fancy restaurant while urging Californians to stay home to avoid spreading Covid-19. He apologised for the “bad mistake” but some voters found his actions to be hypocritical. Nearly 1.5 million signatures were gathered by petition (equal to 12% of the 2018 vote), meeting the bar for an election to test to decide whether Californians wanted to keep Mr Newsom in office, or replace him.
Mr Newsom faced a ragtag group of conservatives hoping to take his place, including reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner, who vanished from the campaign trail to film Celebrity Big Brother in Australia. Republican John Cox drew attention for travelling with a live Kodiak brown bear as part of his “unleash the beast” campaign – he cast himself as the “beast” to Mr Newsom’s “beauty”. With the largest state population in the US, California has some 22 million registered voters and the fifth largest global economy.
The Golden State has been firmly Democratic in national elections, but the state does have large Republican regions. Six million voters cast ballots for Donald Trump in 2020, leaving Mr Biden with a 29-point victory in the state. There have been consistent efforts to remove California governors through the recall process since the 1960s, though many do not qualify for a vote.
In 2003, the last time California held a gubernatorial recall election, voters booted an unpopular Democratic governor and replaced him with Republican bodybuilding actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Fellow Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan also got his political start as a Republican governor of California before later serving eight years as US president from 1981 to 1989.