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California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Courtesy photo
California FocusOpinion

California Focus: This recall could become Newsom vs. Trump

California’s Republican Party appears bent on making the seemingly inevitable fall recall election against Gov. Gavin Newsom into a symbolic vote on the political revival ex-President Donald Trump so avidly desires.

As the days wound down before the March 17 deadline for submitting recall petition signatures, it became clear that three men with links to Trump would likely be the most prominent figures on the recall’s list of prospective Newsom replacements.

As in any statewide recall election, voters would have two votes this time — a yes-or-no choice on dumping Newsom and a second vote choosing from a list of would-be alternatives. The winner in that contest would not need a majority, just more votes than anyone else running.

So far, the three most prominent likely candidates include former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, San Diego County businessman John Cox and Trump’s former acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell.

If the list of alternates does not soon add a figure or two who’s more palatable to the state’s dominant Democratic voters, it appears the recall won’t have much chance no matter how poorly Newsom may fare in the polls.

Cox lost to Newsom in the November 2018 runoff election by a massive 62%-38% margin, running as a strong Trump ally determined to end California’s status as the state most resistant to his policies.

That’s almost exactly the same margin by which Trump lost California last fall. It may represent the best any conservative Republican can do in this era.

The thumping frequent candidate Cox took did not dampen his enthusiasm for calling Newsom incompetent and hypocritical.

Yet, he likely won’t get as enthusiastic backing from Trump this time as three years ago.

For Grenell, said to plan on entering this list when the recall formally qualifies for a vote, has been among Trump’s most loyal operatives.

During the Trump presidency, Grenell served first as spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, then ambassador to Germany and finally as acting director of national intelligence during Trump’s final year, after the ex-president fired the previous chief spy for reporting publicly that Russia was interfering in the election on his behalf.

Grenell would not enter this race if he did not have Trump’s blessing, reportedly secured during the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee last month in Orlando.

Faulconer is not so obvious a Trumpist. He downplays his Republican identity in this state where the GOP label has lately meant certain defeat in statewide races other than those involving movie muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But Faulconer at times leans heavily to the right. Example: He endorsed former U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa early on to replace the disgraced and resigned San Diego Republican Duncan Hunter for a congressional seat. The hard-right Issa “retired” in 2018 from his former seat in North County when that district became too liberal for him to be reelected. The Hunter district leans far more toward Trump loyalty.

There was also Trump telling Fox News last June, after Faulconer visited the Oval Office, that “(Faulconer) was just in my office, great guy. He came up to thank me for having done the (border) wall…

Faulconer quickly denied saying that, his spokesman claiming he and Trump discussed only a trade deal. Still, Newsom can use the Fox News video against him, and never mind Faulconer’s denial.

A big difference between this recall and the 2003 ouster of then-Gov. Gray Davis is the absence of anyone with the innate popularity of Schwarzenegger, who dominated that vote.

All this should make it easy for Newsom’s veteran campaign team to cast this as a Trumpian attempt at a backdoor takeover of California.

If he succeeds at beating back the recall, Newsom would have already defeated all his likely major 2022 reelection opponents, plus California’s most active Trump supporters.

So he could — like some previous recall survivors — emerge as a popular hero in his own party, with an easy path to reelection next year as well as a promising potential national future.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].