California recall: These 4 candidates are leading polls in race to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom

Inside California Politics

California’s recall on Tuesday will be the biggest election since Joe Biden became president, and the unorthodox process has had wild outcomes before, like when actor Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor in 2003.

If a majority of voters want Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom gone, the candidate with the highest vote total becomes governor even if that candidate falls well short of a majority, which is almost a certainty. With 46 candidates, the winner could get 25% or less.

People who vote against recalling Newsom can still choose a replacement option in case he’s recalled. But Newsom can’t run as a candidate, and any write-in votes for the sitting governor won’t count.

The top four candidates to replace him, according to an average of leading polls by FiveThirtyEight as of Friday, are Republicans Larry Elder, Kevin Faulconer and John Cox, and Democrat Kevin Paffrath.

The GOP hasn’t won a statewide race since 2006 and Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by nearly 2 to 1. But the unusual math that underlies the recall election could upend the expected.

However, an exclusive Inside California Politics / Emerson College poll released Monday found Newsom is poised to survive the recall, with around 60% of likely voters in favor of keeping him in office.

Larry Elder

Larry Elder is a conservative talk radio host whom Newsom identifies as his biggest threat.

At 69, Elder is a latecomer as a first-time candidate and he’s far from a household name. However, he’s been a celebrity within conservative circles for years through his provocative radio show. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and counts nearly 2 million followers on social media.

Elder would erase state vaccine and mask mandates, is critical of gun control, disputes the notion of systemic racism in America and opposes the minimum wage because he says it tramples the free market.

Elder is promising to reverse California’s progressive drift that he blames for an unrelenting homeless crisis, high taxes, spiking crime rates and government creep into people’s lives and livelihoods — from coronavirus mandates to regulations he says slow-walk housing construction.

In California “young families are leaving, the taxes are going up on gasoline and this governor is either incompetent or indifferent,” says Elder, who would become the first Black governor of the nation’s most populous state. “He’s got to go.”

The self-styled “Sage of South Central” — a reference to the Los Angeles neighborhood where he grew up — is taut with energy that belies his age. When arguing points, he can talk with the rapid-fire certitude of the lawyer that he is — Elder is a 1977 graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, and received an undergraduate degree from Brown University.

Arguably Elder’s biggest headline since entering the race July 12 was an unwelcome one – a former fiancee, Alexandra Datig, alleged he was emotionally abusive and showed her a gun during an argument in 2015, a claim Elder denies. However, the allegations do not appear to have slowed his campaign’s trajectory.

His political views reflect a libertarian mindset that would elicit cringes among progressive voters — he believes government has grown too big, too intrusive, too costly.

He stands opposed to what he sees as government overreach — hence his opposition to sweeping mask mandates and the minimum wage. He’s been critical of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide, arguing that such restrictions should be left to states.

To Elder, climate change is real but he also warns against a “war on oil and gas” and shifting too quickly into a renewable-energy economy, which he says would cost jobs and fail to keep the lights on.

His views on race often have put him at odds with other Black people. Elder is critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, and he has called racial quotas a “a crutch and a cop-out.” He opposes efforts to “defund” police. In a 1995 interview with The Orange County Register he said, “We have to stop bitching and moaning and whining and crying and blaming the white man for everything.”

The embattled Newsom has called Elder “more extreme than Trump in many respects.”

But Elder rejects the notion that he’s a mirror image of Trump, noting that he’s broken with him on trade — Elder disagreed with tariffs and other restrictions imposed by the former president — and also thought Trump erred by cutting Afghanistan troop levels.

An Elder win would trigger a power struggle with Sacramento’s Democratic state legislative majority over everything from government appointments to how to spend billions of taxpayer dollars.

Kevin Paffrath

Kevin Paffrath, a 29-year-old YouTube star with nearly 1.7 million followers on his financial advice video channel, is among nine Democrats listed on the ballot.

Paffrath lives in Ventura with his wife, Lauren, and two sons, ages 3 and 5. The couple met on a high school trip to Paris, but their relationship quickly hit a snag: Lauren lived in Southern California, and Paffrath in Florida. He eventually moved to California for his senior year and lived with her family, then stayed and got into real estate with the help of his wife’s father. Paffrath says he and his wife have a net worth of at least $15 million.

Father-in-law Bill Stewart said Paffrath learned the ropes of the real estate business then quickly became one of Ventura County’s top agents.

“He combines intelligence with an incredible work ethic,” Stewart said. “He learns things incredibly quickly, and he’s always doing research to get the best results.”

Paffrath now owns many properties in Ventura County. When he started his YouTube channel, he made videos critiquing other people’s real estate advice and quickly started garnering attention.

Paffrath, who is listed on the ballot as a “financial educator/analyst,” posts multiple videos a day on subjects like the stock market and cryptocurrency. And about his campaign.

If elected, he’d focus on homelessness, something that has only worsened since Newsom identified as his No. 1 priority before the pandemic hit.

Paffrath said he’d use his emergency powers to build 80 shelters that would provide substance abuse help, mental health treatment and educational support on site, as well as meals and showers. While they’re under construction, he’d dispatch the National Guard to help homeless people on the streets by passing out supplies and building temporary bathrooms.

Once the shelters are up and running — he says within 60 days — no one would be allowed to sleep on the streets. He envisions ambulances picking up people on the streets at night and bringing them to shelters or helping them get medical care, but said people would not be arrested.

The recall campaign is Paffrath’s first foray into politics. He didn’t even vote in 2018, something he now says was a mistake.

The Democratic field is filled with anonymous political neophytes because of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s successful strategy of discouraging any prominent Democrats from running in the Sept. 14 election. His goal was to make it an all-or-nothing proposition for voters — keep Newsom, or live with the consequences of picking a replacement with a far different policy agenda.

“Social media stardom translates to name recognition, and that’s really what’s going to make a big difference in an election like this with 46 names on the ballot,” said Kim Nalder, a professor of political science at Cal State Sacramento.

John Cox

John Cox, a 65-year-old businessman, lost in a landslide to Newsom in 2018.

Cox won less than 40% of the vote against Newsom in 2018 and has never won elected office despite many attempts. He said that run gives him a statewide base to grow this time around.

He’s pitched himself as a man who knows struggle. He started out poor in a Chicago housing project and at one time made money with child modeling gigs. He paid his way through college to earn two degrees and became a multimillionaire while wearing different professional caps — accountant, lawyer, part-owner of a potato chip company, investment manager and real estate magnate before turning to politics.

His pitch to California voters is centered on using his business acumen to fix the state’s high cost of living, taxes and regulations.

In his 2006 book “Politics, Inc.,” Cox said he was conceived when his father “took advantage” of his mother and “it might have been an easy decision to terminate me” had abortion been legal in the 1950s. That thinking led to his staunch opposition to abortion under any condition, bolstered by a later conversion to Catholicism.

His father married his mother but left shortly after Cox was born, leaving her alone to raise him and his older brother. She later married a postal worker who was, according to Cox, “no help. He was not a very nice person.”

Cox majored in accounting at the University of Illinois at Chicago. After graduation he worked as an accountant during the day and went to law school at night, earning a degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

He worked at a big accounting firm doing taxes for rich people and seeing the tax loopholes secured by lobbyists further soured him on government and regulation. And working with conservative accountants opened his eyes to new views after a childhood surrounded by Democrats.

Cox himself was a Democrat but switched parties and supported Jack Kemp for president in 1988. He likens himself to Kemp, a former NFL quarterback and so-called “bleeding-heart conservative” renowned for his magnanimity.

Cox’s business career started after he spent two years as the “lone conservative” at a prestigious Chicago law firm. He opened a law and accounting firm in 1981 and was hired to do legal and accounting work for the Japp family, owner of Jays Foods and maker of Jays potato chips, a powerhouse Midwestern brand.

In 1986 Cox helped the family sell the company for $30 million. Much of the money was entrusted to Cox to invest. Eight years after the sale, Jays Foods was bleeding money and Cox put together an investment group that included the Japp family to buy it back for $10 million. Cox assembled a management team and within a year the company went from a $17 million loss to a $3 million profit, he said.

However, his relationship with the Japps soured. The family sued him in 1996, alleging he mismanaged their investments and overbilled for legal and accounting work. As he battled the lawsuit, Cox filed for divorce from his wife of 20 years.

The case eventually settled. The terms were not disclosed but records from Cox’s divorce suggest he agreed to pay $1.7 million over seven years to buy out the family’s interests.

Cox later married his current wife, Sarah, bought a house in California in 2007 and moved to the state full time in 2011. They live in Rancho Santa Fe, an upscale community north of San Diego. Cox has three daughters from his first marriage and one from his second.

His income these days is largely passive, much of it from apartment complexes with units in Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.

For all his success in business, Cox has struggled in the political arena, losing every race he’s entered.

Starting in 2000, he ran for the U.S. House and twice for the U.S. Senate in Illinois but fell short in crowded Republican primaries. Illinois political operatives and some of Cox’s rival candidates said he ran energetic campaigns rooted in fiscal and social conservatism.

Kevin Faulconer

Kevin Faulconer, the 36th mayor of San Diego, announced his candidacy earlier in the year.

Faulconer has proposed establishing a new department focused on wildfire prevention, enacting a plan to help restaurants recover from the pandemic, expand access to mental health services and addiction treatment for the homeless and pass a tax cut plan so that everyone in the state making less than $1 million will get relief.

He has encouraged everyone to get vaccinated and during the first debate was critical of state efforts to expand health care for people who entered the country illegally.

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