Talking Points

3 ways the California recall will reverberate around the U.S.

What happens in California doesn't stay in California. The state has outsized impact on America's cultural imagination, and it has one of the biggest economies in the world  — so naturally today's recall election for Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor, is drawing extraordinary interest from far beyond its own borders. "The eyes of the nation are on you," President Biden told a rally for Newsom on Monday night.

He's right. The results of the election could have national ramifications in several areas:

Control of the U.S. Senate: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is 88 years old and her ability to perform her job has come under increasing scrutiny over the last year. If for some reason she doesn't complete her current term — which ends with the 2024 election — California's governor will appoint her replacement. Democrats are in control of the 50-50 Senate only by virtue of the vice president's tie-breaker; today's election could determine whether that status endures, or if Republicans can claim a one-vote majority and immediately bottle up much of President Biden's agenda.

Larry Elder, the conservative talk show host who has emerged as Newsom's main challenger, has made the stakes clear. "They're afraid I'm going to replace her with a Republican — which I most certainly would do and that would be an earthquake in Washington, D.C.," he told a conservative radio host.

Tackling climate change. Under Democratic governors, California has taken a number of ambitious steps to reduce carbon emissions, with impacts felt beyond the state — for example, orchestrating a deal with carmakers to meet higher gas mileage standards than what the federal government requires. Those efforts could falter if Newsom loses today.

"While a new governor would not be able to mount a legislative attack on California climate policy, they would be able to slow down, redirect, and even reverse the implementation of California climate policy," UCLA's William Boyd told CNBC.  "Losing a year or more is not something we can afford given the accelerating climate crisis."

The limits of right-wing pandering. As CNN points out, Newsom was struggling to get traction in the recall election — right up to the point Elder, long known in the state for his brash right-wing views, entered the race. That's when the polls started to turn in Newsom's favor. "Somebody smiled on Gavin Newsom and presented California voters with the opportunity to listen to Larry Elder," a Democratic strategist told the network.

California leans further left than the nation as a whole, of course, but a loss by Elder would be another data point suggesting the limits of angry Trumpist conservatism among the broader electorate. Donald Trump himself never won a majority in either of his two national elections, and for the moment — the election isn't over until it's over — it seems Elder might have inadvertently generated more support for Newsom than Newsom could muster on his own. If Republicans keep losing elections, the smart thing to do would be to craft a more moderate message to appeal to independent voters. Instead, Elder — taking a page from Trump — is making unfounded allegations of voter fraud. That's probably one more trend that won't just stay in California.