A political earthquake is underfoot in America's most populous and powerful state, and it has the establishment quaking in their boots.
When you think about the politics of America’s most populous and powerful state, California brings to mind shades of blue that are deeper than the crisp waters of Venice Beach on a summer’s day.
It is almost a foregone conclusion that when Californians vote, they will side with the Democrats who have won every Presidential election there for almost 30 years – with an increasingly powerful majority each time.
However, an incredibly powerful conservative political earthquake is happening right now that is threatening to send shockwaves across the nation.
It’s all happening because Californians are headed to the polls once again today to have their say in the state’s recall election – a system that has been in place since 1911 and allows Californians to boot their governor from office.
Democrats are sending their most powerful figures into the state, and are using increasingly alarming language to show that this vote means everything to them and their vision for America.
“Everything is on the line,” Barack Obama told his 130 million Twitter followers last week. “Your vote could be the difference between protecting our kids or putting them at risk; helping Californians recover or taking us backwards.”
It’s clear the party is rattled and expecting a dogfight as Californians gear up to go to the polls today.
In their corner stands California’s beleaguered Governor, Gavin Newsom, who faces being ejected from his position if he loses, even by a tiny number of votes.
In the other corner stands Larry Elder, a conservative talk show host with an impressive grassroots following in the state, who has built up a head of steam and could snatch Mr Newsom’s job for the remainder of the term.
He is riding a wave of rising anger in the state against scandal-hit Mr Newsom who is being blamed for a long list of problems – including a crime wave, out-of-control homelessness in Californian cities, rising living costs and house prices and Covid-19 mismanagement.
Why are Californians voting again?
It’s a reasonable question to ask considering Mr Newsom already secured his seat in a 2018 vote. In that election he took almost 62 per cent of the votes in a crushing landslide.
That majority is not surprising given how heavily California leans left, and the fact that registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by two to one.
The victory should have meant that he would hold the job until January 2023, but Californians love a recall vote – a system that supporters say holds governors in runaway Democrat or Republican states to accountability.
Every Californian governor in the last five decades has faced at least one recall attempt, but usually those efforts fail.
The reason for so many challenges is that it’s pretty easy to trigger a recall vote in California. The political opposition need only gather signatures equivalent to 12 per cent of the number of people who voted in the last election – which in California is just 1.5 million people from around 40 million residents in the state.
Are the Democrats in trouble?
Plots to unseat Mr Newsom have not gathered a lot of steam and looked like they were going nowhere, even as Covid-19 and his unpopular lockdowns hit last year.
However, his image has taken a battering and the state’s problems are on the rise – leading to a wave of discontent against the governor.
While he was telling Californians to stay home because of Covid-19 last year, he was photographed having dinner at super expensive restaurant The French Laundry without a mask, and with far more people than his own social distancing rules allowed.
His opponents said this showed he was elitist and out of touch with regular folk, and propelled the petition for a recall vote over the line.
Then things got worse for Mr Newsom.
In November, nine district attorneys and a federal prosecutor reported the state Employment Development Department had been mistakenly paying out unemployment benefits to convicted murderers, and other jail inmates.
State investigators had identified $400 million paid on roughly 21,000 unemployment benefit claims improperly filed in the names of California prisoners.
Added to the scandals are a big list of problems in the state like the “tent cities” where thousands of homeless people live in the streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco, a wave of crime that is growing worse by the day and the unwanted remergence of Covid-19.
The Delta strain has taken off at the worst possible time for Mr Newsom.
California, where 67 per cent of the population aged 12 and up is fully vaccinated, is still losing more than 100 lives a day to the virus, a 28 per cent increase over the past fortnight.
To make matters worse for Mr Newsom, the Democrats appear to be bleeding support at a federal level too – after the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan and a controversial new vaccine mandate for 100 million American workers, which has divided states, businesses and even Democrats.
Who is Newsom up against?
The recall vote is made up of two parts. Californians are asked first if they should kick Mr Newsom out of office. A simple majority carries the vote.
If he is removed, whichever of the 46 candidates gets the most votes – no matter how few – wins. That means Mr Newsom could get two or three times the support, and still lose to a Republican, which is why the system is seen as unfair by some Democrat voters.
Not only that, the Republicans voters are expected to be far more motivated to turn out and vote than a regular election, because they have a much better chance of getting a result.
Reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner is among the challengers, but chief among them is talk radio star Larry Elder.
Dubbed the “black face of white supremacy” by a Los Angeles Times columnist in August, Mr Elder has been described as a Donald Trump-supporting extremist, despite a platform of reopening schools, building affordable housing and curbing the state’s notoriously high levels of homelessness.
He brought his radio audience with him to the campaign and has been holding rallies to solidify his base. Remarkably, he only needs to secure 15 per cent of the vote to win, if voters elect to kick Mr Newsom out in the first part of the ballot.
A Elder supporter who spoke to AFP gave a good insight into why the radio host is resonating with some Californians.
“I know Larry’s positions from so many years listening to him. He’s well reasoned, consistent and not a politician, therefore his views on the issues are real,” said Lynn Frank.
“He understands the folly of big government and the loss of freedoms that go with it … He has no interest whatsoever in being part of a dynasty or elite group of politicians who hand down orders from on high without regard for the realities in people’s lives.”
Can Elder win?
Although Mr Elder is winning some support, history is very much on Mr Newsom’s side.
Only one recall has ever succeeded: bodybuilder-turned-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger ousted unpopular Democrat Gray Davies in 2003.
Arnie, who ended up running the state for more than seven years, was the Golden State’s last Republican governor.
After a shaky start, Mr Newsom now seems set to avoid a similar termination, with respected poll-crunching website fivethirtyeight.com predicting 55 per cent will vote to keep him.
< About seven million Californians have voted already via mail-in ballot; 34 per cent of them from Democrats and 30 per cent from Republicans. Whether enough of the 22 per cent of ballots sent in by independents are angry with Mr Newsom remains to be seen.