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California’s rural voters are both hopeful and skeptical about the recall


By Dan Merica, Lucy Kafanov and Kim Berryman, CNN

For Republicans in some of California’s reddest pockets, there is both hope and skepticism in the effort to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Voters like Barbara Best, a Bakersfield native, know Republicans like her are outnumbered nearly 2 to 1 in the state, primarily by people in urban centers around Los Angeles and San Francisco, and that the odds of Newsom being ousted now look long. It’s enough, Best said, to keep her and her husband from voting — even though she said she would ultimately cast her ballot.

“Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth voting because you know, my voice may not be heard,” she said. Best then turned to her husband and added, “Both of us often feel, ‘Okay is it really going to matter in California?’ It’s always going to be Democrats.”

The recall effort has become a rallying cry for Republicans in these rural California counties, highlighting the ever-present rural-urban divide in a state that boasts four of the top 20 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. Rural voters like Best feel drowned out by their city-dwelling neighbors — Newsom lost Kern County handily during his gubernatorial run in 2018, despite winning the state overall in a landslide.

And while many of the Republican voters CNN spoke with about the recall mentioned local issues — taxes, water policy and homelessness, among them — there is also a distinct nationalization to the race. The ongoing, but baseless, questions about election fraud that were encouraged by former President Donald Trump and the 2020 election have coursed through the Newsom recall effort.

When CNN asked Ron, a Republican voter in Bakersfield who declined to give his last name, whether he thought Newsom could be recalled, his reaction was swift.

“As long as they don’t cheat,” he said, “but if they cheat, nothing you can do about that.”

And Ron was not alone.

Linda Wammack, a Republican who is voting for a replacement to Newsom in the recall, said there is so much distrust in mail in-voting — something spurred by Trump — that most of her conservative friends, dining on burgers together at a local diner, are opting to vote in person and not mail in their ballots. All registered voters in California were sent ballots for the September 14 special election.

The reason why, she said, are the claims around the 2020 election.

“There were so many stories of found ballots and just the mistrust in the mail-in system that I believe people really want to hang on and vote at the polling places,” she said.

As much as Republicans are using Trump as an avatar in the recall race, Newsom has used the former President — who lost California by nearly 30 percentage points less than a year ago — to rally his base, arguing that talk radio host Larry Elder, the leading Republican in the race, is more conservative than even the former President.

“He is to the right of Donald Trump,” Newsom told supporters in Orange County earlier this month. “He would make, honestly, Donald Trump blush.”

Republicans banking on in-person voting

For Republican operatives across the state, the fact that their base is skeptical about mail-in voting is a thin sliver of good news. As of Wednesday, about 53% of more than 6.4 million ballots cast before Election Day have come from registered Democrats and 25% from registered Republicans, according to the latest data from Political Data Inc., a firm that does work for Democrats, nonpartisan and progressive groups.

That’s a worrying trend for Republicans, with Democrats overperforming their state registration data and showing Newsom in a more comfortable place than many Republicans would have hoped. But Republicans contend, however, that it is because of those unfounded questions about the voting system that Democrats are running up the score. GOP voters, they contend, will likely come out in droves through in-person voting.

And Elder has been encouraging these questions — without evidence — in the closing days of the campaign.

“What I believe is that no matter what they do — and I believe that there might very well be shenanigans, as it were in the 2020 election — no matter what they do, so many Californians are angry about what’s going on” that he will win anyway, Elder said, echoing comments he has made throughout his campaign.

That message is welcome, even if it is unfounded, to Republicans in places like Kern County.

When Dennis Jeffers, a Bakersfield native who recently moved to Nevada, was asked about the chances to unseat Newsom, he bluntly responded, “Probably slim and none because they will cheat, just like they have been cheating for Democrats.”

“It was bad in the last election,” Jeffers said. “It will be bad in this one.”

‘We are considering leaving California’

The antipathy for Newsom in places like Kern County is deep — with many Republican voters feeling he represents everything they despise about Democrats in California’s coastal cities. Many view him as pompous, a political operator who knows little about their lives — both of which were highlighted by his decision to have an unmasked dinner inside the pricey French Laundry restaurant, going against his own recommendations in the fight against Covid-19.

Cathy Abernathy, head of the Kern County Republican Party, has been making calls from the headquarters’ conference table, telling Republicans, “We need to get the votes in as soon as we can.” She said the recall effort has lit a fire under many Republicans in the area. Even though the election is coming in an off-year and at a time when most elections aren’t held, the party headquarters has been swarmed with volunteers over the last few weeks.

Abernathy said this recall would “detonate a political earthquake in that state capital” if it were successful “because the governor’s office and the capital are just working at odds with rational thinking.”

And her hope is Democrats, especially those in rural California, view their party counterparts in Sacramento and along the coast as out of touch.

“These extremes produce a switch in parties,” she said. “And I don’t believe all the Democrats in California are the same philosophy as the Democrats in that state Capitol building.”

And it is rural communities like those around Bakersfield and throughout California’s Central Valley that powered this recall effort. Anti-Newsom signs dot the landscape here, mixed in with the ever-present signs supporting Trump’s 2020 campaign and urging him to run again in 2024.

In total, more than 1.7 million Californians signed the petition to attempt to recall Newsom. While hundreds of thousands of signatures came from urban centers like Los Angeles, a tiny percentage of those counties’ registered voters signed on to the effort. It is counties across the Central Valley and in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada north and east of Sacramento that had the highest percentage of registered voters who signed the recall petition — like Amador County east of Sacramento, where 19.1% of the county’s roughly 26,000 registered voters signed on to the effort.

Part of that is driven by a feeling that people in cities — most of whom are Democrats — don’t understand life in rural California and continue to make decisions that hurt their lifestyle.

That has caused people like Best to consider leaving California.

“We are Republicans. We have lived here in Bakersfield all our lives and I feel like California has really changed over the last generation,” Best said. “It is so expensive to live here, so we are considering leaving California because of the cost of living — the taxes are so high.”

Republicans like Ron echoed that sentiment.

“It is definitely time for a change because if there is not a change, my wife and I are out of here,” he said. “We are leaving the state.”

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