SACRAMENTO – California Gov. Gavin Newsom survived a historic recall election Tuesday, winning a vote of confidence during a COVID-19 pandemic that has shattered families and livelihoods and tested his ability to lead the state through the largest worldwide health crisis in modern times.

National television networks called the election for Newsom shortly after the polls closed at 8 p.m. Pacific time. Surveys of voters leaving the polls had shown the recall headed for defeat and conservative talk show host Larry Elder leading the field of 46 candidates vying to succeed Newsom.

The election provided California voters an opportunity to judge Newsom’s ability to lead the state through the COVID-19 pandemic, a worldwide health crisis that has shattered families and livelihoods.

The recall offered Republicans their best chance in years to take the helm of the largest state in the union, though Newsom and the nation’s leading Democrats, including President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, portrayed the campaign to oust him as a “life and death” battle against “Trumpism” and far-right, anti-vaccine activists.

Newsom spent part of election day at an anti-recall rally in a San Francisco union hall, and warned supporters about the consequences to California’s economy and the public health of its nearly 40 million residents if he was recalled and replaced with Elder, who had vowed to repeal the state’s mask and vaccination mandates.

“California has outperformed Florida, Texas, Indiana, the United States as a whole in not only health outcomes, but economic outcomes,” Newsom told reporters. “Our economy contracted at a more modest rate than those states.”

Newsom also criticized both Elder and former President Donald Trump for saying Tuesday’s election was rigged, calling those unfounded allegations a threat to democracy and continuation of the “big lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump.

“This election fraud stuff is a crock; it’s shameful. And when I say that, I mean that,” he said. “Guys like me come and go. We’re a dime a dozen, politicians. Quite literally a dime a dozen. Its about our institutions. It’s about this nation. It’s about trust and confidence.”

For Newsom, the election capped an extraordinary eight-week fight for his political survival that came less than three years after he won the governor’s office by the largest margin in modern history.

Newsom’s campaign to defeat the recall effort began on an upbeat note, with the governor touting that California was “roaring back” thanks to lower COVID-19 infection rates in the state and efforts to ensure residents got vaccinated. The state’s restrictions and shutdowns were lifted. Baseball stadiums overflowed with fans starting in June, people were dining inside restaurants and, Newsom promised, public schools would be open for the new academic year.

Newsom and his political allies had prevented any prominent Democrats from jumping into the field of replacement candidates, eliminating a credible alternative for left-leaning Californians who may have soured on the governor.

But in late July, just after the recall election was officially certified for the ballot, cause for concern surfaced for Newsom: A poll showed that likely voters in California were almost evenly split over whether to toss the governor out of office, a dire sign in a state where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans almost 2-to-1.

Political scientist Mindy Romero, director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Inclusive Democracy, said the lingering aftereffects of Newsom’s COVID-19 policies probably made some voters who supported him in the 2018 election indifferent this time around.

She said they held Newsom “at least partially responsible” for the government-mandated restrictions that devastated businesses and forced schoolchildren to stay home in distance-learning programs. Under Newsom’s watch, the state also paid out billions of dollars in fraudulent unemployment benefits while at the same time millions of out-of-work Californians with legitimate claims faced frustrating, lengthy delays in receiving their payments.

Romero said Newsom’s most costly mistake came in November when recall supporters were struggling to gather enough petition signatures to qualify for the ballot. Newsom attended a lobbyist’s birthday party at the upscale French Laundry restaurant in the Napa Valley after he had pleaded with Californians to stay home and avoid multifamily gatherings.

Recall proponents seized on that, criticizing Newsom as an out-of-touch elitist and hypocrite who thought he was above the rules he imposed on other Californians. Romero said that message was “simple and intuitive for people to understand.” It appealed to voters across the political spectrum and lingers still, she said.

“This never should have gotten close,” Romero said. “This whole process has damaged the governor.”

Dave Gilliard, one of the Republican strategists leading the effort to oust the governor, said Newsom was in serious trouble up until August. That changed once Elder emerged as the leading contender to replace Newsom as governor.

“He was in bad shape,” Gilliard said. “Once the focus moved away from Newsom and to his opponent, Elder in this case, his numbers improved greatly. He was able to get Democrats interested again in the election.”

Elder was a perfect foil, Gilliard said. The Republican opposed abortion rights and supported offshore oil drilling, anathema to the state’s Democratic majority. Elder has also been a die-hard supporter of Trump, an immensely unpopular figure in California. In fact, Gilliard said, recall proponents pleaded with Trump’s advisers to “convince him to stay out of it,” which was successful until recent days when he started making baseless claims that California’s recall election was “rigged.”

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