Gavin Newsom handily survived an effective confidence vote that could have seen him replaced by a Republican with only minority support in one of the most liberal parts of the United States.
With more than 60 percent of the votes tallied, NBC and CNN both said that Newsom was set to prevail, having secured around two-thirds of ballots.
Millions voted by mail, allowing quick counting of valid votes soon after polls closed at 0300 GMT.
Newsom had proudly boasted that he was following the science in ordering Californians to stay at home during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But entrepreneurs blamed him for suffocating their businesses with his rules, and parents chaffed at keeping their children home from school.
The vote had been eagerly watched by politicians across the deeply-divided country as a possible indicator of how incumbents who listened to doctors -- instead of angry constituents -- would fare at the ballot box.
Newsom's main opponent was Larry Elder, 69, a right-wing talk radio star who has spoken proudly of his support for ex-president Donald Trump.
Before polls even closed, Elder took a page out of Trump's 2020 election playbook, launching a website alleging voter fraud and demanding state officials "investigate and ameliorate the twisted results" of the election.
The ballot was a two part referendum, with the first asking if 53-year-old Newsom should stay in office.
The second, which only came into play if a majority wanted him out, asked which of 46 candidates should take his place.
Traditional politicians vied with a YouTube star, a "Billboard Queen" and Kardashian clan member Caitlyn Jenner for the spoils.
The recall initiative, which has cost the state some $280 million, is one of 55 such efforts to depose a governor in state history.
Mostly they have gone nowhere, but pandemic measures Newsom imposed gave this attempt legs.
The petition to remove him gathered pace after he was snapped having dinner at a swanky restaurant, seemingly in breach of his own Covid-19 rules, fueling a perception he was an out-of-touch hypocrite.
Mary Beth, a 63-year-old business owner who cast her ballot Tuesday in Los Angeles, said she voted to "get rid of Newsom" because "the virus created chaos in our economy but he made it even worse with his lockdowns."
"There were other ways to handle that and he should have made businesses the priority," she said.
Another pro-recall voter told AFP he wanted someone who would not impose vaccine mandates -- a hot button issue throughout the divided United States.
"I feel very strongly that we need to get rid of our governor because I think he's just a corrupt Democrat, like the people we have in the federal government and we need them out," said Farid Efraim.
"We need somebody who really represents the people."
Democrats complain the Republican-led recall was an attempt to hijack the state's government: seizing power in extraordinary circumstances when they could never do it in a regular ballot.
A poll by Spectrum News and IPSOS published before results were announced found two-thirds of registered voters viewed the recall as a political power grab.
California's electoral rules set the recall bar low.
Malcontents need only gather signatures equivalent to 12 percent of the number of people who voted in the last election -- in this case, 1.5 million.
California's population is around 40 million.
"This whole recall is ridiculous," said Jake, a 38-year-old tech industry worker, who preferred not to give his last name.
"I did the math and even if every registered voter turns out, it would cost more than $12 per vote," he said.
"A lot of people could have had a breakfast with that this morning."
Vance Hagins said the recall process was an abuse.
"You have 40 people running for governor, half of them are nuts and have no chance at all of winning, yet their names are on the ballot, wasting our time," he said.
The only successful California recall brought bodybuilder-turned-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger to office in 2003.
"The Governator," who ended up running the state for more than seven years, was California's last Republican chief executive.