California has enough Democrats to save Newsom — if he can persuade them to vote

California Democrats drew national attention three years ago for their ground game when they flipped a shocking seven House seats — a victory that had Republicans trying to replicate their methods thereafter. Newsom is going to need to find the same energy during this odd-year recall election.

“Election Day for us was always Aug. 16,” California Labor Federation spokesperson Steve Smith said, referring to the date by which recall ballots will be mailed. “It’s just that Election Day happens to last for several weeks after that.”

Registered Democratic voters vastly outnumber Republicans in California, and Newsom has lapped the GOP field by assembling a roughly $40 million war-chest. But complacency and indifference have become Newsom’s greatest obstacles. The governor fears too many Democrats are taking his victory for granted, and Newsom’s team is asking supporters daily to vote, volunteer and donate. He got help this week from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who tells voters that “Trump Republicans” are responsible for the recall in ads airing statewide.

Newsom campaign manager Juan Rodriguez said in an interview that turnout in an off-year election driven by the governor’s foes has “been a concern from day one.” Newsom and allies have spent weeks touting the governor’s record and assailing the recall as a power grab driven by opportunists and the Trump-aligned fringe. In the weeks ahead, the campaign’s focus will shift from making the case for keeping Newsom to reminding voters of their role.

“It becomes less about persuasion and more about voter awareness and making sure people know an election will happen Sept. 14 and they will receive a ballot in the mail,” Rodriguez said, “which is an anomaly, not something people are generally thinking about.”

That will entail trying to text every registered Democrat with a phone number on file, along with in-person contacts and an advertising blitz, Rodriguez said. Democrats will follow up with voters to collect and turn in completed ballots as California law permits. The Newsom campaign has enlisted nationally recognizable messengers like Warren, who pointedly noted in the new campaign spot that “every Californian will get a mail-in ballot.”

“I think you’ll see more familiar faces over the coming weeks as people begin to vote, and it becomes more relevant when they actually have a ballot in their hand,” Rodriguez said.

Labor unions will play an instrumental role. Organized labor, a mainstay of Democratic political power, has rallied behind Newsom and poured $17 million so far into his recall defense. Now unions are pledging a concerted campaign to communicate with both union households and the Democratic electorate writ large.

The statewide California Labor Federation will kick things off with a rally next weekend, setting the stage for ballots to begin arriving about a week later. Their goal is to contact at least three million households in the monthlong voting period. Focus groups have found that voters “are very low information about the recall,” Smith said, but they can be persuaded to participate if campaigns can reach them.

“If they don’t know much about it, they’re not motivated to cast a ballot, but the Republicans do know about it. The base of the Republican party is very engaged,” Smith said. “So this is a turnout election, and in a turnout election it takes more than just being on TV or being on digital to win. So that’s the role we see ourselves in at this point.”

Newsom’s electoral math relies on running up large margins in populous, heavily Democratic areas like the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. Those media markets have accounted for most of the campaign’s advertising spending so far.

Los Angeles County Labor Federation President Ron Herrera has pledged that L.A. “will anchor the ‘no’ on the recall,” and he said in an interview that the union planned to spend more than $1 million to supplement its volunteer effort with paid precinct walkers and canvassers. The effort will target both union households and Latino voters, a huge voting bloc, and will also entail ballot collection.

“We feel confident of the machine we’ve created here in Los Angeles,” Herrera said. “We’re not going to leave any vote out there.”

But Republicans looking to break a long California losing streak have confidence in their own ground game. The party made a concerted effort in 2020 to win back House seats by adopting Democratic collection techniques they once derided as “ballot harvesting.”

Beleaguered California conservatives see their best shot in 15 years at claiming statewide office. The California Republican Party will look to harness soaring grassroots enthusiasm by dispatching more than 60,000 volunteers, and part of the turnout puzzle will entail collecting ballots voters have filled out but not submitted.

“Ballot harvesting is our number one priority,” party Chair Jessica Millan Patterson said in an interview. “This is something we’ve been training our volunteers to do over the last two and a half years now.”