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Newsom fights recall by sharpening contrast with Elder in effort to energize female voters

By Maeve Reston, CNN

As conservative talk radio host Larry Elder has surged to the front of the Republican pack in the effort to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Democrats have redoubled their efforts to activate female voters to come to Newsom’s defense — warning that California could face a very different future under Elder or another Republican whose positions are largely outside the mainstream in the state.

Many female voters are exhausted and frustrated by Covid-19 restrictions, last year’s school closures and the state’s homelessness crisis — all key vulnerabilities for Newsom’s team as they fight against Democratic apathy ahead of the September 14 election. So the controversy over Elder’s positions and past derogatory remarks about women has supplied the governor’s allies with welcome talking points as they urge disengaged and disenchanted Democratic women to return their ballots.

Elder’s past comments have drawn increasing scrutiny in recent weeks — putting the talk radio host on the defensive. After his comments about women surfaced, two of his most prominent GOP opponents on the ballot, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner, called for him to drop out of the race to replace Newsom.

Faulconer sharply criticized Elder for his past comments about women during a debate sponsored by KCRA 3 and the San Francisco Chronicle Wednesday night — alluding to the talk radio host’s past assertion that women exaggerate sexism and his books that appeared to suggest employers should be able to discriminate against women who are or intend to get pregnant, which was first reported by Media Matters.

“His attack on working women is unconscionable,” Faulconer said of Elder, before addressing “all the working moms out there.” “I’m going to support your right to raise a family, to have a career. Unlike what Larry Elder is talking about, I’m going to make sure that California’s daughters have the same opportunities as California’s sons. We need a governor that’s going to stand up for working women and knows that every woman in this state can have a career, can raise a family.”

Vote-by-mail ballots have now been sent to 22 million voters across the state who are being asked two questions: first, whether they want to recall Newsom, and second, who they would like to replace him with. There are no establishment Democratic candidates vying to replace Newsom among the 46 candidates who qualified for the ballot, and party leaders are urging Democrats to skip the second question altogether and just vote “no” on the recall before returning their ballots.

In recent days, Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California has joined with other groups that favor abortion rights in trying to activate their members both in the Golden State and nationally against what they have framed as an “extremist recall attempt.”

Mid-way through a year when other states across the country have enacted 90 abortion restrictions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and the Mississippi’s GOP attorney general asked the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, leaders with Planned Parenthood have argued that Newsom’s ouster could jeopardize coverage for abortion in California’s Medi-Cal program, as well as access to birth control and funding for other public health programs that serve women.

Elder told the Mercury News in a recent interview that he believes Roe v. Wade should be overturned and that the decision on abortion rights should go back to the states. The newspaper reported that Elder said he doesn’t understand why California voters would be worried about abortion rights, because the state has an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature that is unlikely to pass new limitations.

Newsom has highlighted those issues — and how they could be at risk given the governor’s purview over the state budget and the line-item veto — while also noting that a Republican governor would have broad powers to appoint judges and other key positions like the heads of agencies in California.

He has also emphasized the importance of Democrats’ narrow control of the 50-50 US Senate, asking female voters to imagine who a Republican like Elder would have appointed to fill Kamala Harris’ Senate seat after President Joe Biden chose her to be his vice president. Many of his Democratic allies have noted that Newsom’s appointment power carries huge significance for their party, because US Sen. Dianne Feinstein is 88 and less than half-way through her six year term — even though her aides say she has no plans to retire early.

Newsom digs into Elder’s past comments

During a livestreamed conversation hosted by Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California last week, Newsom noted that while 50% of voters would have to vote to recall him, the replacement candidate could be decided by a simple plurality — “meaning it could be a very small subset of the electorate that will ultimately determine the fate and future” of California, he said.

“That could directly impact women’s reproductive rights and the issues of women and girls,” Newsom told activists during the conversation, noting his own advocacy for increasing access to reproductive services, expanding supplemental payments to physicians and working to “double the health care and reproductive budgets in this state.”

“All of that could be impacted by someone like a Larry Elder who has been devoutly for decades opposed to (Roe v. Wade), who doesn’t believe in a glass ceiling, doesn’t believe that women are as smart as men,” Newsom said, referring to Elder’s comment in a 2000 column that “women know less than men about political issues, economics, and current events.”

“I’m proud of being a sanctuary state. I’m proud of being a universal state” when it comes to reproductive rights, Newsom added. “I’m proud of being a state that offers refuge to so many, particularly in the world we’re living in today. And all those values and principles — this notion of a universal state — that, God forbid, if Roe is overturned, will be even more consequential.”

Newsom and his allies have also alluded on the campaign trail to a broad array of Elder’s other past comments regarding women, which were chronicled by CNN’s KFile. In 1996, Elder said “women exaggerate the problem of sexism.” He has ridiculed premenstrual syndrome, known as PMS, calling it “Punish My Spouse (or Significant Other).” In January 2017, he mocked the women who attended the Women’s March as “obese.”

Elder’s campaign did not respond to CNN’s request to discuss how the controversy over his past comments has affected female voters, and he has declined CNN’s queries about most of his past remarks regarding women.

In a memo to reporters on Wednesday, the campaign noted that Elder’s 2000 assertion that women know less than men about political issues, economic issues and current events stemmed from his interpretation of a study at that time by the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania. The study asked both men and women 25 questions about policy related to the political primaries at the time, the Elder campaign said. “Men knew more than women in 15 categories. Women outperformed men on only one question,” Elder’s communications director Ying Ma said in the memo. “The study concluded that women knew less because they got their information from local news.”

It is not only Democrats who are expressing dismay with that record as they appeal to California’s female voters. Faulconer, who became mayor of San Diego in part by building a bipartisan coalition in that city, cited Elder’s comments about women as evidence that Elder “is unfit to serve as governor of California” and called on him to drop out of the race.

“Elder’s backwards positions harm women’s rights and the livelihoods of California families,” Faulconer, who supports abortion rights, said in a statement. “Elder’s lack of judgment and character flaws threaten the success and credibility of this historic recall movement — Californians will not vote to recall one dysfunctional Governor if it means replacing him with another.”

Jenner tweeted last week that Elder should drop out of the race, quoting Elder’s statement about women’s awareness of political issues from his 2000 column. “You are not what CA wants let alone what we need. I am the proud father of very powerful, intelligent, successful women. You’re as bad as @GavinNewsom towards women,” the reality television star said.

In a state where Democrats still outnumber Republicans by nearly two-to-one, Newsom has had the support of a majority of women, according to recent polling. In an August CBS News/YouGov poll, 44% of female likely voters said they would vote to recall Newsom while 56% said they would vote to keep Newsom in office. Among male likely voters, 52% said they would vote to oust the Democratic governor while 48% said they would vote to keep Newsom in office.

In a May survey of California likely voters by the Public Policy Institute of California, 62% of women approved of the way Newsom was handling his job, while 34% disapproved. (Only 45% of likely male voters approved, compared with 50% who disapproved of how Newsom was doing his job.)

A potentially powerful counter narrative for Democrats

For Newsom’s allies, the contrast with Elder — particularly on women’s issues and the GOP candidate’s controversial stances like his opposition to the minimum wage — has become a powerful weapon in attempting to counter the apathy among Democratic voters that has emerged.

That may be especially the case among women. As the Covid-19 pandemic has continued to disrupt daily life, the burdens of child care and homeschooling have often disproportionately fallen on women. Many have dropped out of the workforce — or lost jobs — as a result of the pandemic at alarming rates. Their exasperation has often been directed at their leaders, and some of them joined in the grassroots effort collecting the signature petitions that led the Newsom recall to qualify for the ballot.

In a conversation with CNN’s Kyung Lah, a group of Democratic women from Los Angeles who supported Newsom when he won with more than 60% of the vote in 2018, explained those frustrations with the Democratic governor as they fail to see measurable progress on some of the most difficult problems in California like the skyrocketing cost of living, wildfires, drought and homelessness, which has exploded in the state with tents blanketing the corridors of many middle class neighborhoods.

When asked whether she blames Newsom, Los Angeles voter Alisa Sandoval told Lah: “He’s the leader, everything starts from the top and it goes down.” But she also said she would feel “sick” if a Republican were elected as a result of Newsom being recalled.

Cherryl Weaver, also a registered Democrat, said she too is leaning toward voting to recall Newsom and is “disappointed by the Democratic Party in general” at a time when Republicans do not hold any statewide office.

“In my mind, when he was running, there was nobody else in the world that would have been better,” Weaver said, “and instead it’s become politics.”

The continuing problem of homelessness in Los Angeles — despite Newsom’s significant investment in housing programs — has been both heartbreaking and scary for Democratic voters like Michelle Helseth: “It’s like: let me work, let me pay my taxes, but provide me with safety…and not be accosted by two homeless people within a matter of 15 minutes.”

California GOP Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson said the aggravations felt by many women during the pandemic — and the perception that Newsom was driven by politics as he changed Covid-19 rules and regulations — has created a real opportunity for Republicans during the recall.

Many mothers paid attention, she noted, to the fact that Newsom’s own children were back in the classroom during the fall of 2020, and that he attended a dinner party unmasked at an expensive Napa Valley restaurant at a time when he was telling Californians to stay home and avoid large gatherings with families outside their households.

“Let’s be real, moms are pissed off,” Millan Patterson said in an interview. “Parents are just so fed up with the ‘Do as I say, but not as I do’ rhetoric that we get from this governor,” Millan Patterson said. “Every single day — every single decision that he makes — makes it easier for us to make the case to women that Republicans are going to do what’s best for our children, and not the teachers’ union.”

But In Elder, Democrats see their own potentially powerful contrast.

Jodi Hicks, president/CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, said the contrast between Newsom and Elder on policy issues has increasingly crystallized the stakes of the recall for many Democratic voters. She acknowledged that there was apathy about the race among some progressive voters, even as recently as a few weeks ago, but said she has noticed that is changing.

Hicks noted, for example, that she has seen a rapid uptick among supporters of Planned Parenthood who are volunteering to phone bank and text on Newsom’s behalf in these final weeks.

“We really believed we needed to sound the alarm and do some of the events that we’ve done, and I do think that in having those conversations, it has definitely moved the needle in talking about what’s at stake in this election,” she said.

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