California Recall Election Could Be a Win for Vaccine Mandates

California Governor Gavin Newsom appears on track to defeat the recall effort and remain in office with the election just two days away and mail-in voting already ongoing.

A victory for Newsom in the September 14 election may also be seen as a win for the governor's efforts to mandate vaccination against COVID-19 in the state, which will now require vaccines for healthcare workers.

All healthcare workers in the state will have to be vaccinated by September 30 and there is no opt-out for those who receive weekly testing. California also became the first state in the nation to require state employees to show proof of vaccination or get tested at least once a week.

California has introduced the same requirement for teachers and other school employees - either show proof of vaccination or get tested on a weekly basis.

In a recall election that was largely prompted by dissatisfaction with Newsom's approach to the pandemic, including a stay-at-home order and controversy about his mask-free fundraising dinner at a Napa Valley restaurant, vaccine requirements have proven a key issue in the closing days of the race.

All of the Republican candidates running to replace Newsom, including leading contender and conservative radio host Larry Elder, have said they will repeal these mandates if elected.

Elder has been vaccinated against COVID-19 but he believes taking the vaccine is a matter of choice for individuals and parents - that position has been a focus of some campaign ads aimed at defeating the recall effort.

At a vaccine event in Oakland on August 31, Newsom said: "There is no more consequential decision to the health and safety of the people of the state of California than voting no on this Republican-backed recall."

Newsom has leaned heavily on the COVID-19 issue as part of his pitch to beat the recall and a victory for him could easily be framed as an endorsement of the mandates. However, experts who spoke to Newsweek suggested there was more going on in the race.

Mark Shanahan is a professor and head of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Reading University and editor of The Trump Presidency: From Campaign Trail to World Stage. He believes the issue is more complex.

"It certainly does look to be a case of 'Go Gavin!' rather than 'Gavin Go!', and this is definitely a case of Newsom's GOP opponents playing politics on the recall because they could rather than because they should," Shanahan said.

"There are more issues at play in this recall election than the vaccine mandates, but clearly they are front of mind and grabbing the headlines," he went on.

"But Californians will be thinking about other issues such as climate change and the recurring issues of droughts and wildfires, plus the ongoing challenges of jobs, housing and homelessness as the State moves slowly from the pandemic to endemic state of Covid-19. Overall, the majority still feel the sitting governor is doing a decent job.

"But it's vaccine mandates that grab the headlines and split voters largely along partisan lines," Shanahan said.

"Newsom's message that if he's recalled his replacement will be a Trumpist Republican has an air of scare about it. The leading Republican challenger, Larry Elder is vaccinated after all, but is pushing a message of personal choice rather than government mandate. And that's where this election breaks: essentially between personal rights and common good.

"A Newsom victory is not a straight voter message that the Democrats are getting their response to COVID absolutely right. Don't forget Newsom's handling of the pandemic in the first months was not judged well.

"But it will be a repudiation of Trumpist divisiveness and a recognition that common responsibility may well outstrip personal freedoms. If a Democrat governor can't make that stick in a bastion of liberalism, one may conclude the Democrats will be on very shaky ground come the mid-terms next year," he said.

Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London's Centre on U.S. Politics, told Newsweek that a Newsom win wouldn't necessarily be an endorsement of vaccine mandates per se.

"Although vaccine mandates might be on the ballot in the California recall, so are many other issues that voters care about - healthcare, climate, education, the economy. The list goes on," Gift said.

"It's hard to definitely say that Newsom's vaccine position - more than others - will tip the balance one way or the other. A close look at most polls show that, dating back to at least the summer, support for keeping Newsom has ebbed and flowed - but the current governor's numbers have never really fallen into negative territory. California remains a very Democratic state, and odds are, it's going to maintain its Democratic governor.

"If Newsom does win, this may just represent a fairly vanilla, and predictable, outcome: support for a general package of left-leaning policies that tends to be popular in one of the most liberal states in the country," Gift said.

The outcome of the recall election may not be determined by Newsom's stance on vaccine mandates but continuing those mandates will depend on his ability to stay in office.

Gavin Newsom Campaigns Against the Recall
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a "Vote No" get out the vote tour campaign stop at Mission Language and Vocational School on September 07, 2021 in San Francisco, California. Newsom has introduced a vaccine mandate for teachers and other school employees. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images