(Bloomberg) -- California Governor Gavin Newsom beat back a recall effort, with voters resoundingly deciding to keep the first-term Democrat in office after a historic special election.
Democratic voters in the most-populous U.S. state turned out to defeat a conservative-led movement that was fueled by anger over pandemic restrictions. The result wasn't close, with major news outlets declaring the race in Newsom's favor less than an hour after polls closed.
The outcome is a major win for Newsom, 53, and Democratic leaders who had characterized the recall attempt as a power grab by supporters of former President Donald Trump. A loss would have marked a sharp reversal for California, which has championed itself as a leader in progressive initiatives and hasn't elected a Republican to statewide office since 2006. It also would have signaled trouble for national Democrats heading into the 2022 elections.
Californians were asked two questions: Should Newsom be removed, and if so, who should replace him? About 66% of voters answered "no" to the first query, according to data from the Secretary of State as of late Tuesday, with more than half of votes counted. The governor was elected in 2018 with about 62% of the vote.
The margin of victory in the recall was a "whupping," said David McCuan, chair of the political science department at Sonoma State University. He said a difference of 15 to 20 points would have been considered a landslide.
"They wanted a smackdown of the Republicans, and that's what it looks like they did," McCuan said.
The recall election was only the second for a governor in California's history. Success for Newsom hadn't been assured, with polls showing Republicans especially galvanized to vote. Yet his momentum grew in recent weeks as Democrats rallied support and framed the leader in polls to replace him, conservative radio host Larry Elder, as holding views that are anathema to most residents.
Newsom, speaking in Sacramento, called the vote a rejection of cynicism and negativity, while warning of the deleterious impact of the recall movement and unfounded claims of voter fraud touted by some Republicans.
"Democracy is not a football, you don't throw it around," Newsom said. "It's more like an antique vase -- if you throw it, it breaks into a million pieces."
Elder led among the more than 40 candidates who vied to replace Newsom in the event of an ouster, with about 44% of the vote, according to the Secretary of State. Carl DeMaio, a spokesman for the "Yes on Recall" campaign, said in a statement that he believed results would show a narrower race against Newsom once more votes are counted.
"We may have lost the battle but are going to win the war," Elder told supporters in Orange County late Tuesday, while listing his stances on issues such as schools and water policies.
The win solidifies Newsom's support ahead of 2022, when the politically ambitious former mayor of San Francisco would run for a second term. It also delivers another stinging disappointment to Republicans, outnumbered by nearly 2-to-1 in the state.
The movement to remove Newsom started before the coronavirus outbreak and grew in momentum as people chafed under his attempts to control it. He was criticized for dining at a luxury Napa Valley restaurant, maskless, last November while telling Californians to avoid such social interactions.
With the state fully reopened in June, Newsom's detractors focused on crime, homelessness and unaffordable housing and costs of living as reasons he shouldn't stay in office.
Newsom's anti-recall campaign intensified in mid-August, when vote-by-mail ballots arrived in the homes of all registered voters. Liberal leaders including Vice President Kamala Harris, former president Barack Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren stepped in to show support for him.
Newsom also tapped the support of high-profile executives from Silicon Valley to Hollywood, garnering large contributions from the likes of Netflix Inc.'s Reed Hastings, former Google leader Eric Schmidt and director Steven Spielberg.
President Joe Biden campaigned for the governor Monday in Long Beach, framing Elder as a "Trump clone" and urging Californians to send a message to the nation by keeping Newsom. Elder supports policies such as rolling back minimum wage laws and mask mandates, and has faced criticism for past sexist remarks.
"Democrats in California got scared," said Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College. "Larry Elder's beliefs were really far to the right of the average Californian. That was enough for them to think, 'Wow, that can actually happen. I don't want Larry Elder running the state.'"
There have been 55 recall attempts for a California governor since 1913. The first to make it to an election, in 2003, resulted in the removal of Democratic Governor Gray Davis and the ascension of Republican movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger. No such prominent candidate appeared in this year's slate.
(Updates with comment from Elder in 11th paragraph.)
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com
Subscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.