What to purchase if you’re a California Republican and still in need of a Halloween costume?
How about an Arnold Schwarzenegger mask?
That’s because Schwarzenegger treated the California GOP to its last statewide victories 13 and 16 years ago—the trick being that “the Governator” was first elected in a 2003 recall election that required only two months and one day of his personal involvement.
Besides, on an otherwise spooky evening, Arnold still puts a fright into some California conservatives. For example, this line he uttered at this spring’s New Way California summit in Sacramento: “I want to see a great Republican Party in California that can stand up to the [national] Republican Party.”
A little Halloween history: it dates back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which included the wearing of costumes and the lighting of bonfires (fire festivals not being a good idea these days in parched California) to denote the seasonal change and to ward off ghosts. After Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as what today is recognized as All Saints’ Day, the night before that occasion became known as All Hallows’ Eve—aka Halloween.
Such talk of seasons and spirituality seems like a good time to look under the hood of the California GOP and ask this question: what does the future hold for a political party that once produced the likes of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan (from 1952 to 1984, either man was on seven of nine national GOP tickets) and minted Republican governors for 75 of the 100 years of the 20th century?
For some activists, the future is the past—i.e., reverting to the 2003 playbook and starting another recall campaign against a sitting Democratic governor.
Indeed, such an effort is underway.
In the beginning of October, crowds gathered at the State Capitol to collect signatures for two campaigns to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom (in order to trigger a recall election, at least 12% of the number of Californians who voted in the previous gubernatorial election must place their name on a petition—roughly 1.5 million signatures from at least five counties).
About the two recall efforts: one’s spearheaded by a retired sheriff’s deputy from Yolo County who wants to oust Newsom for suspending California’s death penalty and restricting gun owners’ rights; the other’s led by an immigrant La Jolla doctor who disagrees with Newsom on California’s sanctuary policy for undocumented residents.
The challenge for these efforts, other than collecting the requisite signatures by February and March of next year and getting them through a vetting process dominated by friends of the governor (that would be a Democratic secretary of state certain to toss any signatures that seems remotely fishy): the polarizing nature of the issues in question.
In 2003, Schwarzenegger ran on widespread public frustration over rolling blackouts from two years prior and a tripling of the state’s annual vehicle license fee (aka the “car tax”) just one month before recall advocates turned in their signatures. Add voters’ concern with the incumbent governor’s leadership skills, and Arnold had a formula that enabled him to collect almost 48.6% of the recall vote—some 17 points better than the second-place finisher. (On the other part of the recall ballot, a yes-no question as to whether the governor should be recalled, 55% of voters chose to do away with Gray Davis.)
However, the death penalty, gun rights, and sanctuary laws don’t have the same consensus appeal as Schwarzenegger’s choice of issues. A March survey by the Public Policy Institute of California showed 62% of respondents preferring life imprisonment to capital punishment for those convicted of first-degree murder. An April UC Berkeley IGS Poll had voters passionately divided on immigration. Another PPIC poll—this one released last month—had 68% of Californians of the opinion that gun sales should be more stringent.
But wait a second, you might say: isn’t the purpose of a recall petition merely to trigger an election, not to decide it?
That’s correct. And in this case, the recall advocates can chase after those 4.74 million California voters who cast a ballot for Newsom’s Republican challenger—and presumably haven’t been won over by him in the near year since that election took place.
For argument’s sake, let’s suppose that at least one of the two recall efforts manages to get enough signatures to prompt a special election (once the signatures are certified, the recall would take place in the next 60 to 80 days).
Getting back to the concept of the Schwarzenegger Halloween disguise, who could pull off the same costume he did—that of an outsider reformer bent on cleaning up the stables in Sacramento?
Unfortunately for California Republicans, there presently is no celebrity-in-waiting as there was in 2003, certainly not a luminary with almost universal name recognition in California, plus a personal fortune to invest (Arnold had a $20 million war chest for the two-month recall campaign—almost half of it his own money).
However, different times might necessitate a different approach for a struggling California GOP, which now finds itself relegated to third-party status in terms of voter registration.
If an outsider worked in 2003, perhaps Republicans should consider someone within their elected ranks, with a successful record to tout, were a recall opportunity to arise.
The obvious choice: San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, the answer to the trivia question of the largest American city currently run by a Republican.
Why would Faulconer make sense as a GOP standard-bearer in the short dash that is a recall election? For openers, he’s familiar with unfavorable political landscapes. At present, Republicans account for only 23.6% of all political party registration in California (Democrats lead with 43.1%, followed by “no party preference” at 28.3%). The Republican presence in San Diego: just 22%.
Second, Faulconer may have found the soft underbelly to the Democrats’ domination of California: homelessness (the topic of the most recent installment of Hoover’s Eureka publication, which includes a column from the mayor).
Under Faulconer’s watch, San Diego’s blended approach to the city’s homeless epidemic—expanding shelter, increasing serves, and ramping up law enforcement—has led to a 6% reduction in the local homeless population. Meanwhile, homelessness is up 12% in Los Angeles County since 2018 and 30% in San Francisco since 2017—the latter, the city that Newsom ran before running for lieutenant governor in 2010.
Third, as with Schwarzenegger in 2003, a two-month election would allow Faulconer to bypass a lengthier primary in which he’d be under fire from the right for differences with President Trump over immigration, as well as his more moderate stances on abortion, gun control, and climate change (the goal of San Diego’s Climate Action Plan is 100% clean energy by 2035).
It’s not the stuff of a Hollywood blockbuster (speaking of which, Schwarzenegger’s latest Terminator robo-apocalypse hits theaters tomorrow). But it might be the only script with which Republicans can win a statewide vote in California—that is, if the falcon hears from the Faulconer.