As the California recall campaign intensified in July, Democratic operatives peered at the written responses to their latest survey asking voters about Gov. Gavin Newsom’s handling of the pandemic.
One word kept popping up among those who supported the Democratic leader: “Florida.”
The Sunshine State’s deadly summer battle with the coronavirus Delta variant, it turned out, would help galvanize California Democrats. In the months that followed, Newsom and his Democratic allies turned Gov. Ron DeSantis into an unofficial opponent. They linked the Republicans on the ballot to DeSantis’ hands-off approach to the public health crisis and doubled down on vaccine and mask mandates that Florida’s governor has opposed.
“Don’t DeSantis my California,” became a rallying cry that sparked Internet memes and campaign signs.
“What was happening in Florida, in Texas, was leading the national news every day,” a senior adviser to Newsom’s anti-recall campaign, Nathan Click, told the Tampa Bay Times. “It provided a very clear contrast.”
Newsom’s strategy prevailed Tuesday. With millions of ballots still to count in Democratic areas, more than 63 percent of voters rejected recalling the governor.
Democrats, staring at a difficult midterm season ahead, are reticent to draw too many conclusions from the California results. An off-year, September election in a Democratic stronghold won’t necessarily translate to the political realities in 2022 battlegrounds like Florida, where DeSantis himself will be on the ballot.
“The only takeaway is Democrats and normal people like not dying from COVID,” said Kevin Cate, a Florida media strategist advising Florida Agriculture Commissioner and Democratic candidate for governor Nikki Fried.
Republicans dismissed any connection between the California recall and future races in Florida. Joanna Rodriguez, spokesperson for the Republican Governors Association, noted that Democrats needed last-minute visits from President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to close the deal in a state where they chose the date of the election and their voters outnumber Republicans two-to-one.
“California and Florida voters are drastically different,” Rodriguez said. “The presidential election results from the last election speak for themselves. If California is something Democrats are worried about, they’re in trouble nationally.”
But the high turnout in California encouraged Democrats who believe candidates can win by siding with public health officials. David Turner, an adviser to the Democratic Governors Association, said the results in California demonstrated that people understand the pandemic “isn’t going to end on its own” and they don’t want policies that will prolong the threat of shutdowns and mass deaths.
The Newsom campaign’s last internal tracking polls showed a vast majority of voters had received the coronavirus vaccine. Of the vaccinated, 70 percent voted against recalling the governor, including 15 percent of vaccinated Republicans.
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“The GOP was counting on low Democratic voter turnout to be successful in California, yet the prospect of California turning into the new Florida was enough to energize the Democratic base in an off-year election — and that speaks volumes,” said Samantha Ramirez, a spokesperson for Rep. Charlie Crist, another Democrat running to challenge DeSantis next year.
The hard-fought attempt to take down the top Democrat in the country’s biggest, bluest state was prompted by dissatisfaction in some quarters with mask mandates, stay at home orders and other coronavirus mitigation measures taken by Newsom.
As the effort gained steam, DeSantis often drew comparisons between his state and Newsom’s. Florida was open, businesses were thriving and his state’s experience with the virus was no worse than states that took more aggressive approaches, like California, he said.
“At what point does the observed experience matter?” DeSantis said in November.
DeSantis, meanwhile, became the GOP’s model for pandemic management and was featured often on Fox News. In California, some Republican candidates hoping to unseat Newsom vowed to follow DeSantis’ lead if voters put them in charge.
DeSantis did not endorse in the race. He visited the state this summer, but only to raise money for his own re-election bid.
Political sentiments in California and Florida flipped this summer as the southeast became the epicenter of the country’s outbreak and California saw rates of infection decline. Newsom became the first governor to require public employees, teachers and health care workers to get vaccinated. DeSantis, meanwhile, saw his poll numbers fall to their lowest point since the early days of the pandemic.
Democrats in California suddenly couldn’t talk about DeSantis enough. They invariably contrasted California’s caseloads and hospitalization rates to Florida’s numbers. Newsom often cited Florida, Texas and Mississippi at events, TV appearances and on social media.
“Your daily reminder that on September 14th the Republican party is trying to drive CA off the same cliff as Florida and Texas,” Newsom tweeted in August. “They want to pretend COVID doesn’t exist.”
Larry Elder, the leading Republican in the recall fight, appeared to distance himself somewhat from DeSantis down the stretch. In early August, he had posted articles on social media that cheered on DeSantis’ fights to prevent mask mandates in schools. But later that month, he told CNN he wouldn’t take punitive measures against school boards that required masks, as DeSantis had done.
“I have no plans on doing that,” Elder said.
Another test of DeSantis’ national standing comes later this year in the race for Virginia governor, a snapshot of voter sentiment heading into the midterms. The campaign for the Democrat, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, has produced web ads and fundraising pitches tying DeSantis to his opponent, Republican Glenn Youngkin.
In Florida, the two leading Democratic contenders for governor, Crist and Fried, have routinely criticized DeSantis’ pandemic policies while taking different stances on mandates.
Crist, like Newsom and Biden, supports requiring vaccines or mandatory regular COVID-19 testing for government employees. Fried does not, saying she would instead offer incentives for employees to get the shot.
DeSantis has vowed to challenge the Biden administration’s recent vaccine mandate for employers and is threatening to fine cities and counties that issue their own requirements. There’s little indication the results in California have changed his calculus heading into next year.
“Sometimes things have to get a lot worse before they can start to get better,” DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw wrote on Twitter as California’s recall result became clear. “The Soviet Union lasted for more than seven decades, after all. One day, people will get tired of blackouts and lockdowns.”