California Republicans clash in 1st debate in Newsom recall

Four Republicans hoping to claim Gov. Gavin Newsom’s job in a September recall election skirmished in their first debate Wednesday, August 4, 2021.

Four Republicans hoping to claim Gov. Gavin Newsom’s job in a September recall election skirmished in their first debate Wednesday, labeling the incumbent Democrat a failure whose pandemic policies sent the state into a tailspin while housing costs soared on his watch.

Each of the candidates — John Cox, Kevin Faulconer, Kevin Kiley and Doug Ose — made early moves to distinguish themselves from their rivals while heaping criticism on Newsom.

Faulconer, the former San Diego mayor, has made his record on cutting homelessness a cornerstone of his campaign. But Ose, a former congressman, said falling numbers of homeless residents cited by Faulconer were the result of rejiggered calculations, labeling Faulconer a "plastic man." Faulconer disputed that and defended his record.

MORE: California Secretary of State prepared for gubernatorial recall election, urges people to vote

Many of the exchanges touched on signature conservative issues in the state that appeared aimed at energizing Republican and right-leaning voters, including building more water storage, restraining the growth and powers of state government and slowing the flow of taxpayer dollars to people who entered the country illegally.

Ose promised to swiftly replace Newsom appointees across state government. Cox, a businessman who lost to Newsom in 2018, said he would call a special legislative session to deal with housing costs.

Faulconer urged Californians to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. And Kiley, a state legislator, said he would rein in emergency powers imposed by Newsom while pressuring Democrats who dominate the Legislature to make changes.

"This used to be the state where anyone could get ahead. Now it’s the state that many can’t wait to leave behind, and our soaring housing costs are central to that," Kiley said.

The two best known candidates were conspicuously absent: Caitlyn Jenner has been in Australia filming a reality TV program, while conservative talk radio host Larry Elder will be at a Bakersfield fundraiser. His spokeswoman said Elder wants to debate Newsom and warned in a tweet that a "circular firing squad" among GOP candidates would only benefit the governor.

The stakes are elevated with mail-in ballots going to voters in about two weeks. Polls suggest the race is growing tight, with Newsom’s once-comfortable edge slipping as coronavirus cases climb and mask restrictions return across much of the state. Earlier Wednesday, a judge tentatively ruled in Newsom’s favor in a lawsuit that sought to block him from labeling the recall a Republican effort in the state’s official voter guide.

ALAMEDA, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 16: California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference after he toured the newly reopened Ruby Bridges Elementary School on March 16, 2021 in Alameda, California. Gov. Newsom is traveling throughout California to

Democrats have sought to link the recall effort to far-right extremists and supporters of former President Donald Trump. Faulconer backed Trump in 2020 after spurning him four years earlier. When asked if he would welcome Trump’s endorsement, the former mayor called the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol in Washington "abhorrent," but said he was eager to win support from Republicans, Democrats and independents, without directly mentioning Trump.

The debate comes at a time when Republicans already have witnessed signs of infighting that could drive down turnout and distract from the goal of toppling Newsom. Cox has accused GOP insiders of trying to steer an endorsement to Faulconer.

The recall, which could remove Newsom in the midst of his first term, grew out of widespread frustration during the pandemic over whipsaw stay-at-home orders, crushing job losses from business closures and long-running school closures that together disrupted life for millions.

Library officials said Newsom did not respond to an invitation.

MORE: Race for CA governor: Learn about the candidates who plan to unseat Newsom

The contest is being watched nationally as a barometer of the public mood heading toward the 2022 elections, when a closely divided Congress again will be in play. A Republican upset in the heavily Democratic state would be a stunning rebuke, and Newsom has warned that his ouster would have national implications in politics and policy-making.

Republican candidates have depicted Newsom as an incompetent fop whose bungled leadership inflicted unnecessary financial pain during the pandemic. Democrats have sought to frame the contest as driven by far-right extremists and supporters of former President Donald Trump.

Newsom earlier appeared well-positioned to beat back the recall attempt. But his standing has slipped, with polls showing Republicans are eager to vote while many Democrats have shrugged at the election. Newsom also is being faulted by GOP candidates for rising crime rates and energy and water shortages.

Voters will be asked two questions: First, should Newsom be removed, yes or no? The second question will be a list of replacement candidates from which to choose. If a majority votes for Newsom’s removal, the candidate who gets the most votes on the second question becomes governor.

With 46 replacement candidates on the ballot, it’s possible a winner could emerge with as little as 20% of the vote should Newsom be recalled — a fraction of what a candidate would need in a typical statewide election.

That unusual election math also has allowed Republicans to largely target their campaigns at Republicans and right-leaning independents, which could provide a sufficient coalition to win.