With all eyes turning to California on Tuesday to see whether Gov. Gavin Newsom is recalled, a few places within the Golden State could offer some early clues — not only about whether the Democratic governor can keep his job — but also what the political climate might look like next year in a state where Republicans picked up four House seats in 2020.
Republicans’ best scenario for ousting Newsom in this overwhelmingly blue state has always been outsized GOP turnout and low Democratic turnout. That’s because registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by nearly 2 to 1.
All of the state’s 22 million registered voters were mailed ballots last month. All counties were also required to make one or more early voting locations available for at least four days beginning the Saturday before the election, and many kept them open longer. So there’s already significant data about who’s casting votes. Republicans are hoping for a massive Election Day turnout that could tip the scales.
But so far, Democrats have been more engaged than expected. About 53% of ballots cast so far have been from registered Democrats and 25% from registered Republicans, according to Political Data Inc., a firm that does work for Democratic candidates, progressive organizations and nonpartisan campaigns. That means Democrats are still outperforming their registration level in the state.
But to see whether that turnout advantage holds (and translates into Newsom’s survival), here are some specific places to watch on Tuesday.
1. The Big Blue areas where Democrats must perform
When those first results drop after the polls close at 8 p.m. PST, all California politicos will be looking closely at the margins in the heavily Democratic Bay Area (home to San Francisco and Oakland) and Los Angeles County to see whether Democrats managed to turn out the huge numbers in raw votes that could start to make the math look impossible for Republicans. Several Democratic strategists said that if the “no” side hits the mid-60s when that early vote posts from those areas, they believe Newsom will be headed for victory.
2. One-time GOP strongholds
Strategists will also be keeping a close eye on the traditionally red pockets of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties in the Inland Empire, which is east of Los Angeles, as well as within Orange County and eastern San Diego County to see if Republicans are able to pump up turnout there toward presidential levels and beyond.
“If there’s no Republican blowout in those areas, it’s impossible for the math to add up,” said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. (San Bernardino and Riverside counties were once Republican strongholds, but the growing, diverse, younger populations in those areas has turned them blue in the last few presidential cycles).
Keep an eye on GOP turnout in a place like California’s 50th Congressional District in eastern San Diego County — the seat once held by former Rep. Duncan Hunter and now by GOP Rep. Darrell Issa — to gauge how high Republican enthusiasm is for the recall.
3. Flipped districts
The California battlegrounds of 2020 will be the battlegrounds of 2022. Last year, Republican Young Kim beat Democratic incumbent Gil Cisneros in California’s 39th Congressional District, which includes portions of Orange County, Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County. Republican Michelle Steel beat Democratic incumbent Harley Rouda in California’s 48th, which encompasses much of coastal Orange County, Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa.
It was a show of strength by those female candidates, who became the first Republican Korean American women in Congress, to appeal to the many different ethnic groups that make up their racially diverse districts. They each overperformed the top of the ticket, earning a higher share of the vote than former President Donald Trump. President Joe Biden won both districts, carrying Steel’s by just a point and a half and Kim’s by a wider 10-point margin.
But the margins in the two congressional races were razor thin, so strategists from both sides of the aisle are looking to see whether Tuesday’s recall results could offer some hints about how the national Republican Party’s messaging on Covid will play out in these districts next year, without Trump on the ballot, in a state where the vast majority of Californians favor mask and vaccine mandates.
“The results will tell me how much work we’ve got ahead of us,” said Mark Gonzalez, chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. “This is a big training for the marathon that is to come for 2022.”
4. The Central Valley
The anger at Newsom is palpable in California’s Central Valley — especially in red counties like Kings, Kern and Tulare. Pro-recall signs dot the highways in this heavily agricultural area that has been hard hit by the state’s historic drought and water restrictions. Those three counties all voted for Trump in last year’s election even though Biden won the state by nearly 30 points. Voters there may use the recall as an opportunity to punish the Democratic governor for the havoc the drought and the state’s water crisis have created, even though they have been decades in the making.
Also keep a close eye on California’s 21st District, where Republican David Valadao unseated Democrat TJ Cox by another tight margin in 2020 — 50.4% to 49.6%. Valadao, who also held this seat from 2013 to early 2019, is one of Democrats’ top targets in 2022 because he represents a district that Biden carried by nearly 11 points. The district includes Kings County and portions of Fresno, Kern and Tulare Counties and is 75% Latino, according to the latest Census data.
5. LA County’s and Imperial County’s Latino communities
There have been a lot of questions about what the level of participation will be among Latinos in this recall election, because that community was hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic. Some 64% of Latino voters supported Newsom in 2018, when he was first elected governor, but some Democratic leaders have worried that they are not as engaged in the recall after the turmoil of the last year and a half. Political experts will be looking at the level of turnout in areas like populous East Los Angeles to see whether the heavy push to get those late-deciding Latino voters to turn in their ballots was effective.
Rural Imperial County, east of San Diego County along the southern US border with Mexico, is 85% Latino, and could offer an interesting window into the mood of Latino working-class voters in an area that was among the hardest hit by Covid-19. The county is often described as its own universe because of its uniqueness within the state as a sparsely populated agricultural county with a high level of poverty. But it will be interesting to see whether an area that endured so much tragedy from Covid-19 turns out to support the governor, who many recall proponents have blamed for being too strict with his pandemic restrictions.
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