Opinion

Democrats smell blood on the politics of the pandemic

They're looking to apply the California victory formula to the rest of the country — and it just might work

A month ago, Democrats were in catastrophizing mode. Early polls showed the recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom as a coin flip, with the Democrat most likely to be replaced by right-wing radio host Larry Elder. If that were to happen, it no doubt would cause the Gnostic demiurge to strike down Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Elder would replace her with the Hamburglar, Democrats would lose their Senate majority, we'd breach the debt ceiling, and the Earth's crust would crack open and swallow the country.

Instead, as my colleague David Faris writes, Republicans got rinsed. Votes are still being counted, but Newsom won by something like 28 percentage points. Now Democrats have gotten a shot of confidence and are looking to apply the California victory formula to the rest of the country — and it just might work.

The remarkable thing about the recall is that Republicans very possibly could have won it if they had behaved strategically. As David Dayen writes at The American Prospect, the recall process is an undemocratic nightmare — in one election, voters simultaneously choose whether or not to recall and then who will be their replacement. If a majority vote yes to recall, then whoever gets the most votes as replacement wins no matter how many candidates there are. In theory, Newsom could have been turfed out with 49.99 percent of the vote and replaced with someone who got 5 percent. Even many Californians don't understand how it works, or can't believe that anyone could possibly design such a moronic system.

That gave Republicans an advantage. Democrats won in 2020, and victorious parties tend to be less energized than ones out of power. If the GOP could leverage that apathy and ignorance (helped along by Newsom's disastrous decision to flout his own pandemic rules), and get behind some moderate — either a bland ordinary politician, or a popular celebrity, which worked in 2003 — they just might have been able to sneak into office.

Instead California conservatives got behind a loud, extremist idiot with no political experience: talk radio host Larry Elder. As Faris notes, this was exactly what Democrats needed to light a fire under their base. Elder not only had a mile-long history of saying incredibly inflammatory things (comments that were anti-abortion rights, denied climate science, were virulently sexist, and on and on) he also directly campaigned against popular pandemic control measures Newsom had implemented.

In terms of political plausibility, this was roughly akin to nominating Revolutionary Communist Party leader Bob Avakian in a race for governor of Mississippi. All Democrats had to do was say, accurately, that Elder would fling California into the same virus pit that Texas and Florida have been stuck in thanks to their deranged right-wing governors, and the recall was in the bag.

Now, as Greg Sargent writes at The Washington Post, Democrats are eyeing this victory as a way to keep their voters mobilized in upcoming elections in Virginia. A solid majority of the country is sick and tired of this pandemic, and increasingly willing to countenance strict measures to increase vaccine uptake and join a quickly-growing list of European countries that have basically defeated the virus. Sure enough, Republicans are exposing themselves to the same vulnerability in Virginia as they did in California. "Democrat Terry McAuliffe is highlighting his support for vaccine and mask mandates and excoriating Republican Glenn Youngkin's opposition to them, and casting this as a hangover of Trump's deranged approach to COVID," writes Sargent.

All this proves that Trumpism still rules the Republican base. Even in an overwhelmingly liberal state like California, conservatives insisted on a violently right-wing choice for governor. And in most other conservative states, Republicans' oppositional defiant disorder has made them turn angrily against President Biden's efforts to fight the pandemic, particularly the recent mandate for companies with more than 100 employees to require vaccination or weekly coronavirus testing. Dozens of lawsuits are being prepared right now to try to get the reactionary Supreme Court majority to invent some pretext to overturn the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which undoubtedly authorizes Biden's rule, to make the pandemic worse. All that is tremendously unpopular — it turns out being effectively pro-virus during the worst pandemic in a century is not a winning message!

It looks like Newsom will win by something close to the same margin he won in the Democratic wave year of 2018, when Trump inspired furious mobilization from liberals and a sweeping Democratic victory across the country. Republicans' total inability to behave responsibly even when their own voters' lives — and those of their beloved regional radio hosts — are at stake might just be enough for a repeat performance.

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