"Gavin don't surf": The California recall election, on the ground in Orange County

Long a Republican heartland, this vast suburban county is changing. But is that enough to save Gavin Newsom?

Published September 9, 2021 5:50AM (EDT)

Protesters burn face masks at Huntington City Beach in Huntington Beach, California, on June 15, 2021, as part of a protest against California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state's mask mandates. (Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
Protesters burn face masks at Huntington City Beach in Huntington Beach, California, on June 15, 2021, as part of a protest against California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state's mask mandates. (Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Around Huntington Beach, California, it's not hard to spot traces of the last election and previews of the next. The must-have red cap of any true Trumpist is still in heavy rotation, as is the serpentine "Don't Tread on Me" symbol, cast in various forms for wear or display. A flag billowing above a robust two-story home, valued at $1.46 million and situated on a prime stretch of Lake Street, reads "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Donald Trump."

Then there's a newer catchphrase splashed across locals' T-shirts and bumpers: "GAVIN DON'T SURF." Those enjoying coastal living in Surf City, as Huntington Beach is also known, recognize that to take up this slogan is to pile on the Golden State's besieged governor, Gavin Newsom, with an especially damning brand of homegrown scorn. Inspired by Newsom's polarizing April 2020 decision to close Orange County's beaches during the first surge of COVID-19, the phrase also serves as a retaliatory call to arms in a bid to sweep the governor from office in the Sept. 14  gubernatorial recall election, the single most significant political event to be held here in at least 10 months. 

There are few places better positioned to offer a broad view of the stakes, warring factions and sensibilities involved in this recall election than Orange County. Often stereotyped as backward or overshadowed by Los Angeles and the Bay Area, the O.C. is coming into focus as a key battleground in the recall. It's actually a roiling mix of contradictions, at once laid-back and buttoned-down, beachy and preachy, forward-looking and reactionary, behind the "Orange Curtain" and newly, or nearly, flipping blue. From one block or even one building to the next, residents may inhabit different political universes, consume different media, mask up and vaccinate or refuse to do either. And depending on who you ask, the recall represents a number of possibilities — a referendum on Newsom's leadership, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis; a chance to undo some of the damage caused by the 2020 vote; an opportunity to leverage momentum from 2020 and push for further change — and its significance extends well beyond state bounds. 

For his part, Newsom seemed well aware of the urgent need to get out the vote in the state's third most populous county when he beamed in between recent stops on his "Vote No" campaign tour for a Zoom call with O.C.-based Democrats. He framed his own plight not around his decisions relating to the pandemic but in the context of an ongoing struggle between progressive and regressive elements jostling for control of California and the country, claiming that the recall "was initiated when I introduced a budget to the legislature to expand health care regardless of your immigration status."   

That an upset of this magnitude is possible now is proof, according to Newsom, that Donald Trump hasn't actually left the national stage, even if he has left the White House. "It's not surprising," Newsom said of the recall drive. "We had hoped we had turned the page on after the Big Lie," he said, invoking the former president. "We recognize that despite the fact Trump was defeated resoundingly, Trump is still alive and well." 

Reading the California recall battle against the backdrop of Trump's ongoing influence seems less like a potential deflection tactic when tracking funding sources for the recall. The Los Angeles Times reported that $42.8 million in pro-recall funds have flowed in from coffers within and outside California, including $225,000 from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's PAC, HuckPAC. That figure has been eclipsed, however, by the $81 million raised to ensure Newsom stays put.  

Given the structure of California's political system, the steady build of pandemic-linked animus targeting the governor, and the outcome and fallout from the 2020 presidential election, it's no surprise that Republicans, sensing vulnerability and opportunity, are coming for Newsom. Five previous recall attempts since 2019 failed to garner the nearly 1.5 million signatures needed to qualify for the ballot, and this one was also falling far short of qualification when a judge, citing the pandemic, extended by four months the time to gather signatures.

Recent polling numbers from the Public Policy Institute of California are looking better for Newsom, with 58% of likely California voters projected to oppose the recall, but complacency isn't an option for the governor and his supporters — an Emerson College/Nexstar poll released in early August had Newsom in a dead heat, with 48% against recall and 46% in favor. If more than 50% favor recall, then Newsom is out, and the candidate on the ballot with the most votes becomes governor. Newsom got 62% of the vote in 2018 but could end up unseated by one of 46 contenders, most of them Republicans, including Black conservative radio host Larry Elder (polling highest among likely voters at 26%); former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer; businessman John Cox; and athlete, reality TV star and transgender rights activist Caitlyn Jenner. 

The current moment feels like a throwback to 2003, as another Democratic California governor cut from the career-politician mold faces down a recall election with competition from, among others, a prominent pundit and a sports star-turned-celebrity. In the 2003 vote, then-Gov. Gray Davis was defeated by Arnold Schwarzenegger (with Arianna Huffington trailing behind) in the wake of an energy crisis. But though viewing the "Left Coast" as a monolithic punchline is an enduring tradition, the risks here are sobering and call for a more nuanced understanding.

Should Newsom lose, his defeat would represent a staggering rebuke of the Democratic Party, handing the GOP a major victory accomplished with the help of fewer than 30% of registered voters in the flagship jurisdiction of progressive politics in America, a state with the fifth-largest economy in the world. It would also be devastating to those fighting for climate action, criminal justice reform, immigrants' rights, a living wage and dozens of other causes. None of the candidates poised to succeed him are qualified to deal with these issues.  

If Newsom was late to acknowledge or to "close that enthusiasm gap," as he put it, between highly activated Republicans and his own base, that's evidently no longer the case. Newsom worked from his campaign bus to galvanize his team via a mix of motivating and alarming messages, touting accomplishments such as his "$80 billion operating surplus" (here the governor may have been rounding up) one minute and imagining a California run by Elder — a friend and ally of Fox News fixtures Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham — the next. In denying the rights of immigrants, women and LGBTQ people, for starters, and swiftly doing away with vaccine and mask requirements, Newsom said, the exploits of a Gov. Larry Elder "would make Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott blush."

The Zoom gathering of more than 150 O.C.-based supporters was a big departure from the Orange County of old, whose public officeholders were overwhelmingly white male Republicans. This event, led by Democrats of Orange County chairwoman Ada Briceño, included political leaders, union members and organizers primed to work the phones and Twitter feeds on the governor's behalf. Progressive Orange County was represented in the attendance list, which featured at least three of the 10 Democratic mayors from Orange County. Two of them — Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan, the first Muslim mayor of a major U.S. city, and Santa Ana Mayor Vincent Sarmiento — are people of color. Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr called in from her city, "at the heart of Trump country in Orange County." 

Khan, the Irvine mayor, pointed to bigger-picture considerations. "We need to let people know that this is not just about the governor's seat," she said. "It's [about] everything that comes with it." Even if a Republican were merely to take over Newsom's seat for a year before the scheduled 2022 election, that "everything" could include undermining climate legislation, threatening reproductive rights, handing Sen. Dianne Feinstein's seat to a Republican in the event of her retirement (or her death, even if no one wants to say that out loud), and appointing any number of conservative judges. The Feinstein possibility is a big one for Democrats still smarting from the Trump-era episode involving Ruth Bader Ginsberg's Supreme Court replacement.

Briceño took an optimistic tack in an interview, comparing her home county to the O.C. of just a couple decades ago. "This was a place that was not welcoming to a young Latina like myself — someone who decided to represent low-wage workers," she said. "I've seen that evolution, and I'm proud of where Orange County is headed," said Briceño. "We're not in Reagan country anymore." 

Or are we? In Newport Beach on the same day as Newsom's Zoom summit, a different get-out-the-vote push took place on a busy overpass at the intersection of Newport Boulevard and the Pacific Coast Highway, and the contrasts were stark. During the hottest part of the morning, some 15 to 20 rally-goers waved signs featuring Elder's face and campaign information, along with the simple command to "Recall Newsom," to oncoming streams of Saturday beach traffic. Other signs ventured into red-baiting territory, attacking Newsom for his "communist vax travel papers." A wagonload of merchandise, including shirts with the message "We the People Are Pissed," scripted in a font with distinct Founding Fathers appeal, was parked in the shade. 

Their efforts were met with a steady cacophony of horns blasting from a range of vehicles — from white Mercedes SUVs to electric blue Ferraris, metallic pickup trucks carrying kayaks and surfboards, a Newport Tattoo company van and a Newport Beach fire truck — in support of the recall. "We want better schools! We want small businesses to come back!" shouted one sign-bearer. There were no exchanges with anyone holding opposing viewpoints that didn't take the form of hand gestures or insults from one or both sides. "The delusion is so real right now, it's incredible," a rally-goer remarked from the sidewalk.

The pro-recall group was, with two exceptions, all white, and with one exception, middle-aged or older. All were maskless, and most were leery of speaking to the press. Though word circulated that a "troll" was in their midst, two Orange County residents, who introduced themselves as Jennifer and Buck, agreed to comment on the record. Tall and athletic, with dark hair pulled back into a ponytail under a Donald Trump visor, Jennifer got right to her list of grievances with the leadership in Sacramento, starting with the claim that "the tax rate in California is the highest in the country, and the world," and that it had destroyed her business. As for Newsom, she made an unfounded claim seemingly fueled by QAnon misinformation, saying, "He's a pedophile, and he's endorsing all the pedophiles in the state." 

Buck, an affable boomer-era recall supporter in a Trump cap, red polo shirt and khaki shorts, described himself as a "dyed-in-the-wool Republican." He'd been listening to Elder for about 25 years, and he didn't believe that the COVID-19 vaccines work. "I take ivermectin and Vitamin D," he said. Buck said he supported the recall in part because of the "illegal mandates" that the "arrogant" Newsom had instituted during the pandemic.

Though its standing as a conservative stronghold hasn't fully collapsed under the influence of shifting demographics, the changes in Orange County are evident in more than just census numbers and voter rolls. Take Huntington Beach, where a June 2020 anti-masking "Freedom March" drew international media coverage and where one defiant restaurant owner refused to serve masked customers — while reportedly seeking PPP funds.  It's also where, less than a year after a loose coalition of white supremacists, business owners, police officers and Trump supporters brought a Black Lives Matter march to a halt on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Main Street, a "White Lives Matter" demonstration was overwhelmed by counter-protesters. Just last month, mixed-martial-arts star and local Trumpian curiosity Tito Ortiz's vacated city council seat was filled by Rhonda Bolton, a civil rights attorney and reportedly the first Black council member in the city's history.

Orange County may have gradually moved leftward along with the rest of the state, but it's important, particularly at critical junctures like this, not to overestimate that development. According to Dan Schnur, political strategist and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, it's happening comparatively slowly and unevenly. 

"Northern and eastern Orange County is a completely different place than it was a generation ago," he said, "but if you go further south and further west, you might just as well be traveling in a time machine." Schnur views Orange County as an influential player in the recall election. "If there was not evidence of strong recall support in Orange County, it's almost impossible to see how it would pass," he said, adding that Newsom's biggest challenge is getting his supporters as fired up as those of his opponents. "They may not have the numerical advantage that they had 10 or 20 or 30 years ago," he said, "but it appears that what they lack in numbers, they're making up in fervency." 

Longtime political consultant, onetime GOP strategist and O.C. resident Eileen Padberg also stressed that changes in the county's makeup should always be gauged in context. "The demographics have changed, but the underlying philosophy really hasn't," she said. Padberg, who left the Republican Party during Trump's tenure, saw Elder's candidacy as emblematic of bigger problems with the country's politics. She took a similar tone to that of many local Democratic leaders in expressing fears that California could be close to losing the plot. "As I see it, in the last 15 years, we are electing less people of character and more people [from] entertainment looking for a job," she said. "I think there'll be more yahoos in our future than ever before, and we'll never get back to governing and policy-making." 

By Kasia Anderson

Kasia Anderson's work has appeared in a number of online and print publications, including the New York Daily News, Truthdig, The Wrap, Reuters, The Orlando Sentinel and ScheerPost. She also teaches communication and journalism at USC Annenberg, where she received her doctorate in 2018.

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California Recall Democrats Gavin Newsom Larry Elder Orange County Reporting Republicans