California Gov. Gavin Newsom easily held on to his seat in the state’s recall election on Tuesday in a widely predicted outcome that may nevertheless unleash a fresh wave of Republican fraud conspiracy theories.
With 60 percent of the votes counted late Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that Newsom was up by a commanding 2-1 margin.
Conservative radio host Larry Elder, who emerged as the GOP’s best chance to replace Newsom should he fall short of the 50 percent of the vote needed to hold his seat, began talking about unsubstantiated election fraud claims even before a result had been announced.
The race appeared close enough that President Joe Biden stumped for Newsom in Long Beach on Monday. “He’s a clone of Donald Trump—can you imagine him being governor of this state?” Biden said of Elder. “You can’t let that happen.” No prominent Democrat entered the race to replace Newsom, should voters have decided to recall him, and as Elder became a frontrunner Newsom was able to, in effect, run against Trumpism.
“We said yes to science. We said yes to vaccines. We said yes to ending this pandemic. We said yes to people’s right to vote without fear of fake fraud or voter suppression,” Newsom declared in a victory speech Tuesday night, in an election he'd also framed as a contest against Trump even without him on the ballot or in the White House. “We said yes to women’s fundamental constitutional right to decide for herself what she does with her body, for her fate and future. We said yes to diversity. We said yes to inclusion. We said yes to pluralism. We said yes to all those things that we hold dear as Californians and I would argue, as Americans.”
After announcing his candidacy in July, Elder rocketed to the front of a crowded Republican field by painting himself as a Trump-like figure both in panning pandemic-related public-health mandates and in preemptively making claims of voter fraud.
A website registered anonymously in August, previously reported on by NBC News, suggested that a counteroffensive was in the works long before Election Day.
The website calls on supporters to report election irregularities and has a form called “Fight California Election Fraud!” that lets users sign a petition demanding for an election audit, The Sacramento Bee reported earlier this week.
“We implore you… to join us in this fight as you are able, primarily by signing our petition demanding a special session of the California legislature to investigate and ameliorate the twisted results of this 2021 Recall Election of Governor Gavin Newsom,” the site said.
It wasn’t until Monday afternoon that a disclaimer went up on the site about Elder’s campaign funneling money to the page.
The site came against the backdrop of weeks of early voting in the state. Newsom handily won over opponents in the 2018 gubernatorial race in the deep blue state, and most polling in the lead-up to Tuesday suggested he would prevail again.
Still the site claims that “voters who cast improperly formed ballots have an advantage over voters who cast their ballots in person” and that “instances of undocumented ballots have been discovered prior to the election date of September 14.”
After casting his own early ballot in Los Angeles County last week, Elder told reporters he believed “there might very well be shenanigans” in the election.
During an NBC News interview on Monday, he continued to cast doubt over the election—even refusing to say whether he would accept the results if he lost.
“Let’s all work together to find out whether or not the election tomorrow is a fair election,” he said at the time.
Late Tuesday night, Elder told his supporters to be “gracious in defeat,” adding, “and by the way, we may have lost the battle, but we are going to win the war.”
This was only the second time a governor in California had faced a recall vote, and Newsom became the first governor to survive one after Democrat Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003.
But Newsom had faced growing criticism over strict pandemic-related rules and mandates—all while being photographed mask-less at a fancy party—and conservatives rallied to get him booted from office.
On Tuesday night, he looked past Elder to scoff at “the former president” for saying “this election was rigged,” and declared that “We may have defeated Trump but Trumpism is not dead in this country. The big lie. The Jan. 6 insurrection, all the voting suppression efforts.”
Newsom’s win puts him in a strong position to run for re-election next year, in a state where Republicans haven’t won a statewide contest since Schwarzenegger left office a decade ago.