California Gov. Gavin Newsom would probably never have faced a recall election had it not been for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He also might not have survived the recall had it not been for that very same reason.
But on Tuesday, he did more than survive. Newsom used a powerful pair of somewhat related fears — of pandemic backsliding, and one of a potential win for Trumpism — to coast to victory.
Newsom framed the recall less as an up-or-down vote on him and more about who could replace him: a far-right Republican, with all that that means, so long as former President Donald Trump is dominant in the GOP.
While “no” on the recall question prevailed, Newsom framed his relatively muted victory speech Tuesday night around what he said the state voted for.
Fred Greaves/ReutersCalifornia Gov. Gavin Newsom makes an appearance after the polls close on the recall election, at the California Democratic Party headquarters in Sacramento, Calif., Sept. 14, 2021.
“We said yes to science, we said yes to vaccines, we said yes to ending this pandemic,” Newsom said. “We said yes to all those things we hold dear as Californians, and I would argue as Americans.”
Newsom and his fellow Democrats leaned in on COVID leadership and the need to take restrictions seriously. They also painted the leading Republican candidate in the race, Larry Elder, as what President Joe Biden called a “Trump clone” who would roll back pandemic mandates and halt progressive advances if given the chance.
“Trumpism is not dead in this country,” Newsom said Tuesday night.
Newsom’s easy triumph was no forgone conclusion, notwithstanding the friendly terrain of a state where President Joe Biden took the presidential contest by nearly 30 points less than a year ago.
MORE: 'No' vote leading California recall effort, preliminary exit polling shows
The recall effort took inspiration from Newsom’s early and aggressive COVID-19 restrictions. The effort was turbocharged by a viral photo last fall where Newsom was shown in seeming violation of his own lockdown restrictions — dining at an ultra-exclusive French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley, no less.
Exit polls showed that COVID was indeed the top issue on voters’ minds, outpacing the economy, crime, homelessness and wildfires. But Newsom wound up getting far more credit than blame for how he’s handled the pandemic.
Jae C. Hong/APPeople wait in line outside a vote center to cast their ballots, Sept. 14, 2021, in Huntington Beach, Calif.
More than two-thirds of recall voters feel like the state’s coronavirus situation is either getting better or staying the same, according to preliminary exit polls. Forty-five percent said Newsom’s policies on the coronavirus have been about right, while another 18% actually said they haven’t been strict enough.
Some 63% said they see getting vaccinated as more of a public health responsibility than a personal choice — a broad endorsement of the Newsom-Biden point of view. And 70% support the state’s mandate that students wear masks in schools, which Newsom championed and his leading opponents promised to repeal.
It contributed to an electorate where, despite the French Laundry incident, 54% of voters in the exit poll said Newsom was in touch with their concerns.
Over in the other party, Newsom’s blowout might be spun by a beleaguered state GOP as unsurprising and unimportant.
A recall miss is embarrassing — just ask Democrats in Wisconsin — though few key midterm races will feature electorates as deep blue as the Golden State’s.
MORE: Gov. Gavin Newsom will not be removed in California recall election, ABC News projects
For all that, Republicans consolidated behind Elder, a conservative talk-show host with no previous political experience, with relative ease.
Despite being dramatically outspent, Republicans managed to put at least a brief scare into state and national Democrats by taking on a rising star who won his job by 23 points less than three years ago.
Ringo H.W. Chiu/APRepublican conservative radio show host Larry Elder argues with a TV reporter during an interview after visiting Philippe The Original Deli during a campaign for the California gubernatorial recall election on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, in Los Angeles.
Elder, though, closed his campaign by playing into unfounded and somewhat predictable allegations of voter fraud. Trump amplified the baseless concerns by tying them back to his loss last year — making it that much easier for Democrats to link Elder to Trump.
The particular set of circumstances that contributed to this recall campaign are unlikely to present themselves again. Other races later this year — most notably the governor’s race in Virginia in November — may be better bellwethers for midterm races and beyond.
But in this race at least, despite the inherent challenges of inspiring enthusiasm to maintain a status quo, Newsom and his party managed to have the campaign and the result they wanted.
A famous Bidenism is a request: “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.” That’s what Newsom asked for, and that’s what he got in earning the right to serve the last year of his term, if not more.
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