On Wednesday, four of the leading Republican candidates to be the next governor of California held a debate in which anti-vaccine and anti-mask rhetoric featured prominently, showing what might be in store for one of the most progressive states in the country if Gov. Gavin Newsom is recalled when the state votes on Sept. 14.
You might be asking yourself a few questions right now such as: Republican next governor of California? Debate? Recall? Though much of the country—and even state!—have seemingly not noticed, the Democratic governor of California is at high risk of losing his job. The Trump-backed recall effort in, yes, the bluest of blue states, will succeed if just over 50 percent of voters agree to replace Newsom with someone else (voters will also be asked who should replace him, and a much smaller plurality would be needed to claim victory than that 50 percent threshold for the recall itself—it’s bizarre). The candidates vying to take Newsom’s place have, to varying degrees, promised to bring COVID denialism to the Golden State. In short: We could easily become the next Florida.
The debate featured four of the most-serious GOP candidates (though all are trailing behind conservative talk show host Larry Elder, who did not attend). Each promised to emulate the COVID-19 response of much more conservative states, should they take office.
Conservative businessman John Cox—who lost handily to Newsom in the governor’s race three years ago but according to recent polls has a shot at the gig now—said during that debate that Florida would be his model.
“This disease is an awful one, I had it very early on and it’s not something you want to have but it’s 99.9 percent survivable by people who are in decent health who aren’t elderly,” Cox said, writing off whole swaths of the population to die, as well as downplaying the severity and potential long-term consequences of the disease even among young people. “What we need to do is look at what other states have done. I mean I compare California to Florida.” (Florida currently has one of the worst delta COVID outbreaks in the country, with the state making up roughly one-fifth of the cases and hospitalizations in all of the United States.)
Cox also said he would end vaccine mandates for health care workers and state employees and went so far as to encourage Californians to not get the vaccine.
“First of all, there’s a lot of people that have had COVID and have antibodies, they don’t need the vaccine, they shouldn’t get the vaccine,” he said.
The other three Republicans on the stage were similarly opposed to issuing orders to protect California residents from COVID-19, even as case counts continue to surge across the nation.
“I do not favor mandates; I favor educate: You’re not going to mandate your way out of the coronavirus,” said former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. One of the moderators asked if he would attempt to ban mask mandates in schools by local authorities, as has happened in red states such as Texas and Florida. “I do not support a mask mandate in schools,” Faulconer said.
Another candidate tried to argue the “public” out of “public health.” “I think the government has engaged in a significant overreach of its authority in terms of imposing these things,” said former Republican Rep. Doug Ose. “I happen to have great faith in the ability of people to make decisions of their own, to assess the risk that they face, whether it be for their child in school, or their workplace, or where they shop. If you go to a store that says please wear a mask, you have a decision to make, you can put on a mask and go in or you have to respect the store owners’ rights to control their own environment. I just think that government overreach has to stop.” Ose also said he opposed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s current guidance on masks.
Like Cox, State Assembly member Kevin Kiley, who seemed to be one of the more moderate GOP candidates on the stage, also said he thinks California should have been following the lead of other, redder states. “We certainly would have done a lot more good than the hoopla with these vaccine lotteries and these steps we’re taking towards mandates and passports,” Kiley said. “It is a perfect case study for the perversity of California politics.”
Again, any one of these figures could quite conceivably become the next governor of one of the bluest states in the country. According to a recent poll from Emerson College, 46 percent of California voters surveyed were in favor of recalling Newsom, with 48 percent opposed. According to another recent poll from the UC—Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and the Los Angeles Times, 47 percent supported the recall and 50 percent opposed it. According to that poll, Faulconer and Cox were in second and third place respectively on the next question in that ballot if the recall of Newsom succeeds, with 10 percent each. (Kiley had 5 percent in that poll.)
And what about that poll leader, Elder, who was not on the debate stage on Wednesday but had a leading 18 percent support according to the Los Angeles Times poll? Last week, he said definitively on Instagram: “No mask and vaccination mandates when I become Governor.”
If California Democrats don’t turn things around very quickly, that could be happening sooner than later.