Biden's Border Woes Could Hurt Gavin Newsom in Recall Fight, Democrats Say

A long-shot recall effort by an ex-sheriff's sergeant with a bone to pick with California Governor Gavin Newsom has quickly become real, thrusting a likely November election into the spotlight and raising concerns that the Biden administration's deepening border woes could harm Newsom's fight against the recall.

Newsom, who runs a state that is 40 percent Latino and 15 percent Asian, has long been pro-immigrant. California announced in February that it was providing up to $28 million to help arriving asylum seekers, including footing the bill for hotel rooms for COVID-quarantine efforts, food and transportation.

But as the White House has faced criticism over the pace of migration and the quality of the conditions for arriving children in detention, California Democrats worry a worsening situation at the border in the coming months could add to Newsom's political challenges. He is facing a recall effort fueled by GOP displeasure with his handling of the pandemic and supercharged by a high-profile misstep involving a restaurant outing.

Michael Trujillo, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist, said that variables and factors we can't see often affect elections and that the border quandary could be an issue that has a pile-on effect on Newsom's political fortunes.

"The fear for Democrats is that it's not just one issue that helps the recall but that it becomes a cumulative effect," Trujillo told Newsweek. "Does immigration close the gap by 3 or 4 points? Does a third wave of COVID close the gap 5 or 6 points? A few things would have to go sour to impact the governor, but what we learned is issues come out of nowhere in a pandemic."

A top progressive activist in the state, who asked for anonymity because the person is not authorized to speak publicly, told Newsweek that if Biden doesn't turn things around at the border it might cost Newsom the recall election.

"If Republicans find the right candidate, he could be stuck in a hornets' nest where immigration becomes a recall issue," the activist said. "Then does he go to the left of Biden? People on both sides start saying you're not doing enough, and processing centers in the state could become an issue."

A Public Policy Institute of California poll said Tuesday that the recall effort still has a ways to go, with 56 percent opposed to removing Newsom and 40 percent in favor of doing so. The remaining respondents were undecided.

California veteran political operative Mike Madrid, a co-founder of the Republican-led Lincoln Project who ran its 2020 data operation to oust Donald Trump before leaving the group after the election, said immigration is the one cultural issue where even Biden is worried about his right flank. He noted that, historically, immigration has been used as a cudgel by Republicans. The most high-profile instance was in California in 1994, when Governor Pete Wilson pushed the restrictive Proposition 187, which denied services to undocumented immigrants. But that effort backfired spectacularly with a backlash from Latino voters.

Still, Madrid said a lot would have to go wrong for immigration to come into play for Newsom. He noted that a rapidly reached ceiling for signatures for the recall quickly turns into a floor of support once all voters get to chime in.

"If it gets to the point where immigration is part of the equation, the race is already over," Madrid said. "Governors don't get blamed for immigration issues unless they choose to take them on themselves as a symbolic issue."

The Republican backlash against Newsom's pro-immigrant approach is actually at the heart of the recall effort.

Retired Northern California sheriff's sergeant Orrin Heatlie was recovering from a back procedure and browsing online in 2019 when he found a video of Newsom instructing undocumented immigrants to not open their doors to law enforcement unless officers had a warrant, the Associated Press reported. Heatlie took this as an insult to his profession. In a Facebook post that day, Heatlie wrote, "Microchip all illegal immigrants. It works! Just ask Animal control!"

That origin story for the unlikely recall effort has led Newsom to cast it as a partisan attack against what he calls the "browning of California."

Frustration with the realities of lost jobs, closed schools and coronavirus restrictions is easy to find in every state over the past year, but not every one is as massive and unwieldy as California. Newsom also did himself no favors with a controversial misstep when he went to the popular French Laundry restaurant last November and was pictured not wearing a mask, flouting advice he had given to California residents.

The dinner mishap greatly boosted signatures for the recall petition in December, and the Republican Governors Association told Newsweek the uneven political terrain is made worse by the border situation. An RGA spokesperson said that while Republican governors in Texas and Arizona oppose Biden's border policies, Newsom "has been nowhere to be found."

"Between the water shortages, expected blackouts and continued struggles to reopen the longest locked-down state, California was already set to have a disastrous summer under Newsom's failed leadership," the spokesperson said. "A humanitarian and security crisis on the border will only add to his growing list of troubles."

Javier Gonzalez, the former political director of a janitors union and organizer of historic immigration marches in Los Angeles in the early 2000s, said that his time working on the recall of Gray Davis, who lost to Arnold Schwarzenegger, taught him that recalls aren't a popularity contest. It's way too easy to just go negative, he said.

"If you organize your message, you can trash any politician, especially during COVID," he said.

Newsom is "guilty of not doing enough, which is different than doing harm," Gonzalez said, arguing that longtime former Governor Jerry Brown would have been a stronger pandemic leader. But Gonzalez said immigration issues and anger at Newsom's handling of the coronavirus likely aren't enough in California.

"'Newsom f***ed up COVID' is not a bad message, but replace him with who? That's where Republicans have a problem," Gonzalez said. "The recall effort is designed more to hurt his presidential hopes and be a black eye on him than to remove him from office."

California Governor Gavin Newsom enters a press
California Governor Gavin Newsom at a press conference in Los Angeles on February 16. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images/Getty