SUTTER CREEK – Looking to oust the governor? Ed Brown has just the right merch for you.

Camouflage Recall Newsom hats and Recall Newsom masks. He’s got Recall Newsom yard signs. A stack of Recall Newsom pamphlets.

But just days before California voters decide whether to push Democrat Gavin Newsom from office, the trailer off Golden Chain Highway was mostly a shrine to former President Trump.

“As far as I’m concerned, Trump is the president,” said Brown, 67.

And as for the recall election?

“They’ll probably do something to cheat,” he said of Newsom’s supporters, adding that he will vote for Larry Elder because “he’s more like Trump; he’s for the people.”

The Republican-backed recall election could not be more consequential for California. Set amid a deadly wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with record-breaking wildfires and a relentless drought drying fields and faucets, it gives the GOP its best shot in over a decade at governing the nation’s most populous state.

And if there’s a symbolic heart of recall mania, it may be here in Amador County in the Sierra foothills, where about 1 in 5 registered voters signed petitions to give Newsom the boot. That’s the highest concentration in California.

The most fervent support for the recall has come from Northern California, where rural conservatives say that their voices are drowned out in Sacramento by urban Democrats and that they would be better off seceding to form their own state called Jefferson. 

And yet, in many ways, this election is still about a man named Donald J. Trump.

Conservatives talk about the recall effort through the lens of Trump’s lies that he won the 2020 election. By and large, they refuse to cast their ballots by mail, believing his false claims that mail-in voting leads to rampant voter fraud. If Newsom prevails, many won’t trust the results – just as they didn’t after Trump lost.

In Newsom, they have found an avatar for the Democratic Party and everything they hate about it – a political entity in opposition to many of the things they hold dear, including (and sometimes especially) Trump.

“In many ways, the recall was never really about Gavin Newsom in particular,” said Kim Nalder, a political science professor at Cal State Sacramento.

Rather, she said, recall supporters are fueled by a “laundry list of complaints that Republicans had about liberals.”

“If you’re a Republican, especially a Trump-supporting Republican, in California, it’s a rough time in state politics,” Nalder said. “You feel really disenfranchised, and (if) you combine that with the high anxiety we all have about the fires and the pandemic and homelessness, you get a high level of motivation to do something about it.”

Despite the angry fervor of recall supporters – which has led Newsom’s allies to openly worry that an enthusiasm gap would spell his political demise – the effort’s chances don’t look as good as they once did. Recent polling shows that 58% of likely voters oppose the recall, compared with 39% who support it.

Vince Destigter, chairman of the Amador County Republican Party, said the recall has channeled rural voters’ deep-seated anger at the state’s liberal politicians and at institutions such as public schools and the news media, which they claim give them the short shrift.

“We have to be real sure that you understand: We don’t like your newspaper,” Destigter told a Los Angeles Times reporter at a diner in Jackson last week. He said he screams at the news: “Come on, you guys have no concept of what we do up here!”

Destigter, 79, of Pioneer said people here are an independent lot who “don’t like the government running our lives.”

That became especially clear during the pandemic. Newsom, he said, abused his power in shutting down schools and businesses and mandating facial coverings.

In public, masks are a rare sight in Amador County, which had more patients hospitalized with COVID-19 last month than at any other point in the pandemic.

Destigter said he is vaccinated, but like most conservatives here, he believes people have a right to decline the shot. A friend, he added, plans to quit his job as a delivery driver because he refuses to get inoculated and will not be allowed in a nursing home to deliver oxygen.

As Destigter spoke, TVs in the diner showed long lines of evacuees fleeing nearby South Lake Tahoe as the Caldor fire burned. The crowded room got quiet.

Recall supporters, Destigter said, blame Democrats for forest management policies that they believe have made wildfires more destructive.

“There are many – I’m sorry, but they’re liberals – they don’t believe in cutting trees,” he said.

Destigter voted for Elder and dropped his ballot off at a drop box instead of mailing it.

“We’re very fussy about that,” he said. “We believe that there were a lot of shenanigans done with the voting” in the presidential election.

In El Dorado County – a majority-Republican county that also had one of the highest concentrations of people signing recall petitions – election officials have been scrambling to reach Caldor fire evacuees.

Bill O’Neill, the county’s registrar of voters, said ballots were mailed out the day the first evacuations were ordered.

“Quite honestly, we looked at each other and went: ‘Well, the ballots mailed out today. The last thing on anybody’s mind is going to be voting,’” he said. “But our phones have been ringing off the hook. People want to know how to vote even though they’re displaced. ... They are super committed to it.”

The county election staff borrowed a cargo van and created a “self-contained mobile voting center” complete with mobile ballot printing devices and secured communication systems to ensure, in real time, that voters were registered and that they had not already turned in a ballot.

They drove around to places where evacuees were camping, including the sheriff’s personal ranch, a church, an RV resort and the Walmart parking lot in Placerville.

“They’re dealing with enough,” O’Neill said. “Voting should not be an additional pressure for them.”

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