To recall or not to recall, that is the question

by Tony Quinn
May 1, 2003
One thing is for sure in the recall of Governor Gray Davis: there is not a groundswell of support for recalling the governor despite his historic low level of voter approval.

As of recall campaignís second month, only about 100,000 signatures had been turned into county registrars of voters. The recall will need to amass 900,000 valid signatures by early September to trigger the recall. At the pace signatures are coming in, the recall wonít happen.

But there are factors out there that could change everything. Wealthy Congressman Darrell Issa has now put around a quarter of a million dollars into his own effort to qualify the recall. That makes three recall committees vying for signatures. The Issa financial infusion is not enough to push the recall over the top, but it could attract other money. His seed money could be leveraged to raise more funds, for example through a sophisticated direct mail campaign. An appeal for dollars and for signatures might bring in both.

But the slowness of the campaign thus far underscores one salient fact; Gray Davis might be an unpopular governor but there is no pent up emotion out there to get rid of him. One reason the Republican establishment has shied away from the campaign is that Republicans donít have an emotional aversion to Davis as they did to former President Clinton. GOP opposition is more muted. If anything, it is disappointed liberal Democrats whose anti-Davis emotions run the strongest.

Nevertheless, the recall still might make the ballot. Once it qualifies, an election must be called within 60 to 80 days. If the recall is approved, a successor is elected on the same ballot, and by a plurality vote.

That raises two important questions: First, who would vote in a recall election; and secondly, would Democrats abandon Davis in an attempt to elect one of their own as governor?

Voter turnout would decide any recall. Generally in recalls the people who want the official out of office turn out to vote. With Davis so unpopular, it is hard to believe there will be a groundswell of voters trooping to the polls to keep him as governor. Many political observers believe that if the recall qualifies, Davis cannot win under any circumstances. This does run counter to opinion polls that show a slight majority of voters opposed to removing Davis in a recall. But would they turn out to save him?

Then again, there will be massive media attention if the recall qualifies and turnout could be higher than expected. Voters may see this as a power grab by disgruntled Republicans who could not elect their own governor last year. In that case, the institutional conservatism of the California voter could save Davis. Why shoot the piano player when you donít have a good alternative?

But if Davis cannot be saved, whom would the voters choose as governor? This is a Democratic state; more Democrats than Republicans vote, and one has to assume the favorite to succeed Davis as governor would be another Democrat. One also has to assume that if the recall qualifies, a number of popular Democrats will abandon Davis and themselves run for governor.

Senator Dianne Feinstein is Californiaís most popular politician, but would she run? Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante is also popular; would voters just give the governorship to the guy next in line? Attorney General Bill Lockyer is a favorite with labor and has the best statewide platform on which to run for governor. State Treasurer Phil Angelides is trying to position himself as the most liberal candidate for the eventual succession to Davis, so he has a claim to an important part of the Democratic constituency.

Democrats may also attempt to shift the actual recall vote to the March primary election when presumably more Democrats will be coming out to vote. That may be impossible, but it would improve prospects for a Democrat to hold the office if the vote were held at the March primary election.

On the Republican side, five names stand out. Former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan remains a popular figure, but heís everybodyís second choice. Republicans are unlikely to pick him over more partisan Republicans, and Democrats have their own partisans to choose from.

Bill Simon could run again, but he remains very unpopular with voters and there is no GOP enthusiasm for a Simon repeat. Arnold Schwartzenegger seems to be positioning himself for a 2006 campaign; 2003 might be too soon. State Sen. Tom McClintock was nearly elected State Controller last fall, so he could be a possibility, but he is a notoriously poor fundraiser, and the campaign for governor, if there is one, will be expensive and intense. Darrell Issa has said he will run if the recall qualifies, but he is unknown statewide.

That should be the biggest concern for the Republicans who are pushing the recall: youíll need already established name ID and a big bankroll to run an 80-day campaign for governor. What Republicans meet those criteria? Among Democrats, Lockyer and Angelides have large campaign warchests, so we could actually see a situation where a much stronger Democrat than Davis becomes governor of California for the next three years.

A recall of a statewide official has never happened. Now we know why. Politically, it is balloon losing air, and no one knows where it will end up.

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