The right’s California recall strategy casts a shadow on democracy

newsom recall

Citation Andrea Austria / Media Matters

The Republican effort to recall California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom went down in flames last night. More than 60% voted to keep Newsom in office, largely matching recent polling in the deep blue state. The recall campaign functioned as a referendum on the governor’s aggressive pandemic control measures and the Trumpist GOP. But the race may, in the end, be remembered most for its stretch run, when Republican politicians and right-wing propagandists argued that only corruption and fraud could explain a result in which Newsom retained the office he won three years ago with 62% of the vote

In that light, the California recall election marks a dire harbinger of a new era, one in which President Donald Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him has suffused right-wing politics to such an extent that its partisans have normalized using baseless cries of election fraud as a sort of campaign failsafe.

Voter fraud conspiracy theories have been at the heart of the right-wing media coverage of the recall campaign for weeks. The baseless claims are everywhere, from the social media fever swamps, to right-wing talk radio, to the towering heights of Fox News prime time, where star host Tucker Carlson has called for “outside observers” to “make sure this election isn’t stolen.” At times, commentators explicitly claimed that fraud would be the only possible explanation for a Democratic win in a state where President Joe Biden won nearly two-thirds of the vote.

Trump himself also weighed in on Monday to say that the recall election was “rigged” and “another Giant Election Scam.”

And the leading GOP vote-getter in the race to replace Newsom, right-wing radio host and Fox regular Larry Elder, apparently agreed. Elder, who had previously promoted conspiracy theories that the 2020 presidential election was rigged, accused Democrats of planning to “cheat” during the recall campaign and refused to say he would accept the election results. The day before the recall vote, Elder’s campaign published a website allowing supporters to report fraud, which the website said had “result[ed] in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor." 

If the election had been close, Elder and the right-wing press would have been prepared to reject the results and scorch the earth. But “recall” was smashed on Tuesday by such a whopping margin that Elder and his Fox allies had little choice but to concede. 

The right, it appears, is now following in Trump’s footsteps and laying the groundwork to use baseless claims of voter fraud to contest any close election in which it loses. The former president warned before both the 2016 and 2020 elections that if he were to lose, it would be because of voter fraud; he won the first time and contested his defeat the second time. 

This grotesque strategy of telling his supporters that the elections were rigged -- which built on decades of partisan propaganda about widespread voter fraud -- has proven wildly effective. A majority of Republicans now say not only that Trump won, but that believing he won is an important part of the GOP identity. And Republican candidates like Elder are responding by adopting his same strategy of questioning the votes while the election is still ongoing, further building the party consensus around contesting results.

It is actually in Elder’s interest to behave this way. If he wants to run for office again, or keep grifting off of his audience, he is better off throwing out baseless conspiracy theories. He knows that neither the institutional right-wing movement nor its rank and file will punish him for feigned martyrdom -- and may very well reward him for it. Criticism, meanwhile, will come from Democrats, journalists, and Republicans from the party’s small and ineffectual anti-Trump wing, all of whom can be used as foils. He leaves the campaign in a stronger position than he entered it after winning by far the largest share of votes to replace Newsom. 

In California, right-wing politicians and media personalities pushing bogus voter fraud claims will have little purchase. In fact, the biggest impact of their campaign within the state may have been to depress GOP turnout for the recall. 

But Republicans weaned on the Big Lie are trying to change the equation for election administration in states across the country. Republican candidates who previously backed efforts to overturn the 2020 election are running for positions that oversee state elections, some garnering endorsements from Trump himself. Former Trump adviser and whack job Steve Bannon is driving a surge of election deniers to run for precinct officer, a low-level Republican Party post that can influence who oversees local elections. GOP lawmakers in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are following Arizona’s lead in pushing for a new search for fraud in the 2020 results. Powerful, well-funded right-wing organizations are using Trump’s rigged election lies as a pretext to crack down on voter access and strip independent or Democratic election officials of power. And Republican officeholders who oppose these antidemocratic shenanigans are being purged from the party.

The Republican game plan seems clear. The party now has a culture in which politicians, propagandists, and voters are comfortable rejecting the results of any close election that Democrats win. And its operatives are amassing power over the administration of elections, giving them the opportunity to use ginned-up fraud claims as a rationale to overturn them.

In California, the GOP’s margin of defeat was so large that they were unable to execute that strategy. But other states may not be so lucky.