Republican politicians, donors, organizations and volunteers from Orange County are playing a pivotal role in reviving a once-stagnated recall effort against Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“Orange County is the heart and soul of this campaign,” said Randy Economy, spokesman for Recall Gavin 2020.
Organizers had secured more than 1.1 million signatures as of Thursday, Jan. 14, from Californians who support putting the recall question on the ballot, with many citing frustration over how Newsom has handled the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. They have until March 17 to gather at least 1.5 million valid signatures, though they want 2 million by then to cover any signatures that are thrown out. If they hit the legally-required signature target, a special election will be scheduled sometime between late summer and early next year.
Newsom is up for reelection in fall 2022. He was elected in 2018 by the widest margin in a gubernatorial race since 1950 and has maintained favorable approval ratings with a majority of Californians throughout his term. Democratic voter registration also has continued to grow in the state, and four previous recall attempts brought against Newsom have failed to qualify for the ballot.
Those factors have some political observers predicting that even if the effort gets enough money and signatures to force a recall election, it isn’t likely to result in Newsom being booted. Cal State Fullerton political science professor Scott Spitzer, for example, put those odds at “almost zero.”
But recall proponents say such predictions don’t account for voter frustration that’s built up in recent months, on both sides of the political aisle, as businesses have struggled and coronavirus cases have surged — coupled with mounting examples of Newsom and some other Democratic leaders breaking state rules. As evidence they point to a surge in signatures and funding that’s come their way in recent weeks, much of it from Orange County.
Bipartisan frustration in O.C.
“There’s no question when you talk to regular people, regardless of the party or without even knowing their politics, that frustration over the leadership of this state is broad-based,” said former Assembly speaker and Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, who now is honorary chair with Rescue California, the biggest political action committee backing the recall effort.
Of Rescue California’s 11 honorary chairs, five are from Orange County. Along with Pringle, Orange County GOP chair Fred Whitaker, Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner, longtime GOP consultant Anne Dunsmore of Laguna Beach and Newport Beach Mayor Pro Tem Kevin Muldoon also have leadership roles. Several former county politicians hold other roles with the PAC, including former State Senate GOP Leader Dick Ackerman and former Orange County Supervisor Jim Silva.
Roughly two-thirds of Rescue California’s big-dollar funding has come out of Orange County, with six local donors giving a combined $564,500. Most of that came in a single $500,000 donation from an Irvine-based LLC called Prov. 3:9, a reference to the Bible verse that instructs believers to “honor the Lord with your wealth.”
Earlier this month, with little information available about Prov. 3:9, Ann Ravel, former chair of the political watchdog group the Fair Political Practices Commission, filed a complaint that accused Newsom recall proponents of using a shell company to illegally hide the identity of their donors.
Thomas Liu, a tax adviser in Irvine who’s registered as the officer for Prov. 3:9, responded by issuing a statement the next day clarifying that Prov. 3:9 is a faith-based company that “has funded charitable works in the past, using the proceeds of its single member John Kruger.” Liu didn’t provide any information about Kruger or respond to a request for further details. But other sources identified Kruger as a wealthy retiree in Orange County, with financial records showing he’s donated large sums in the past to support the California Republican Party, charter schools and other conservative causes.
“Both Mr. Kruger and I believe that the Governor’s executive actions prohibiting religious assembly and worship violated the constitutional rights of Californians to congregate and worship,” Liu said, noting a recent United States Supreme Court decision that he believes supports that view.
“For this reason, Prov. 3:9 has exercised its right to contribute to the recall effort and help allow Californians to have a voice on this,” Liu added.
Rescue California was launched in 2003 to support the effort to remove Democrat Gray Davis from office, a push that is the only successful recall effort against a governor in California history. During the Davis recall, the group was buoyed by a $1.7 million donation from Darrel Issa, who was a congressman at the time. Issa later tried to run for governor when Davis was recalled, but lost to Arnold Schwarzenegger and is now back in Congress representing the 50th District.
“This recall is no more likely to get on the ballot than the previous one was in 2003,” said Dan Schnur, a politics professor at USC. “But all it takes is for someone to write one big check, and it happens.”
This time around, Whitaker said Rescue California’s goal is to raise $2.5 million, which he believes will be enough to help get the recall question on the ballot.
Rescue California is the largest of several PACs raising money to support the recall effort. The California Revival PAC out of Merced County also gave $60,000 to the recall campaign in the fall.
Recall gets a jolt
Through much of last year, the recall campaign — launched in the spring by former Folsom law enforcement officer Orrin Heatlie and Covina business executive-turned political organizer Mike Netter — languished and seemed destined to end as the four previous Newsom recall efforts.
But that changed on Nov. 6, when Newsom attended a birthday party for a lobbyist friend at The French Laundry, a pricey restaurant in Napa Valley. The event, which soon became a news story and dominated talking point for recall proponents, included guests from multiple households, a violation of Newsom’s own health recommendations. And while Newsom initially said the event took place outdoors, photos that ran in newspapers around the state including the New York Times and Politico, showed guests were at times in a dining room that largely was enclosed.
Economy said the party was “an early Christmas gift” and a turning point for the recall effort, which has now reported more than $1.3 million in fundraising. Irvine-based Prov. 3:9 also is by far the biggest donor on that ticket, having given $499,999 directly to the campaign in the weeks after what’s known as “the French Laundry incident.”
“He lost the moral authority to lead our state in the pandemic,” said Seth Morrison, executive director of the GOP fundraising group the Lincoln Club of Orange County, which is supporting the recall.
Proponents got a second gift in November when a judge, citing the pandemic, extended the deadline they have to collect signatures. Without that extension, the effort already would have failed to qualify.
Despite the virus, recall backers are seeing solid success with mass email blasts and “old school” direct mail campaigns, according to Whitaker. And both are cheaper than paying signature gatherers to go door-to-door or standing in front of grocery stores, which they can’t do because of the pandemic.
“Everyone thinks California is such a blue state,” Whitaker said. “But we have more Republicans in this state than any other state in the nation. That is a very significant base of angry and upset and motivated people.”
It’s true that California has a lot of Republicans. It’s also true that California has many more Democrats. State data shows the gap between the parties is a wide 21.9 percentage points, with Democrats accounting for 46.1% of all registered voters and Republicans accounting for 24.2%. In 2003, when Republicans recalled Davis and elected Schwarzenegger, Democrats held a slimmer registration advantage of 8.3 percentage points.
Still, in a hyper-partisan environment, energy counts. County Supervisor Wagner said he wanted to recall Newsom even before the pandemic, citing complaints with how he’s handled the budget, issues with energy companies and wildfire management, among others. He pointed to Florida (where the COVID death rate is about a third higher than in California) as an example of a state that he believes has better balanced health and economic concerns during the pandemic. And with frustration mounting over issues such as the problem-riddled Employment Development Department, Wagner said he’s optimistic they’ll collect the signatures they need to get the recall question on the ballot.
Left pushes back
Newsom’s camp has largely avoided discussing the recall effort, saying the governor is focused on the pandemic. They also have described the recall as a waste of money and attention during difficult times.
The California Democratic Party called a press conference on Jan. 12 where party Chair Rusty Hicks and other Democratic leaders promised to discuss how recall proponents were linked to the violent Jan. 6 siege at the U.S. Capitol. But they didn’t give concrete examples of any such connections. And they caused an uproar by calling the effort to recall Newsom as a “coup” because it seeks to oust an elected governor — ignoring the fact that the recall process is constitutionally protected.
There have been some reports of individuals connected to both movements. That includes Michelle Stauder Peterson, lead organizer for the Huntington Beach chapter of the “Recall Gavin Newsom” effort. She posted a video on Facebook showing herself and a friend rushing into the U.S. Capitol as people yell expletives at police officers.
Economy said the recall campaign denounces anyone involved in the Capitol riot. When asked if the movement would distance itself from Peterson or any others found to be involved, he said, “it’s hard to cut ties with a volunteer” and to “manage a movement” where anyone can print recall ballots and collect signatures.
What comes next?
None of the local recall proponents would name the GOP candidate they’d like to see replace Newsom. John Cox, who ran against Newsom in 2018, and former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer have both expressed interest.
Neither of those candidates has anywhere near the name recognition of, say, Schwarzenegger, which Schnur said is a major disadvantage for recall proponents this time around.
The pandemic is working in recall proponents’ favor, though, Schnur said, noting that it’s affecting people in much more serious ways than the rolling power blackouts that helped drive Davis’ recall. But if the vaccine rollout slows the spread, and if lockdowns are eased before the recall hits the ballot, he said the recall effort could lose momentum.
In fact, if Newsom is recalled, the biggest winner might not be the GOP.
In Schnur’s mind, the question is whether a well-known Democrat might step up if the Newsom recall question makes a ballot. For their part, O.C. Republicans say that while they acknowledge that possibility, their disdain for Newsom is such that getting any other governor in his place is worth the gamble.
But if the recall effort falls flat — as Spitzer and other analysts predict — that might depress Republican turnout in the 2022 mid-terms.
Schnur said California Republicans don’t have much to lose by taking this risk. And if they win, he said, it could help boost GOP candidates next year.
“Winning in contagious” he said, “and so is losing.”