SACRAMENTO — Things have been looking up in California. Vaccines will soon be available to everyone over 16. Los Angeles schools are about to bring hundreds of thousands of students back to classrooms. Disneyland, dark for a year, will throw open its gates in just a few weeks.
At the state capital, however, the coronavirus pandemic still clouds Gov. Gavin Newsom’s horizon. Soon, the secretary of state is expected to announce that a campaign to recall him has officially qualified for a special election.
Led by Trump stalwarts, amplified by Republican National Committee money and fueled during the pandemic by Mr. Newsom’s own political missteps, the recall initiative is widely regarded as a long shot. Putting it on the ballot requires roughly 1.5 million signatures from disgruntled voters, a drop in the Democrat-dominated bucket of 40 million residents.
But even if Mr. Newsom prevails, the pandemic has both tested and tarnished him politically.
The tall, telegenic heir to the “fifth-largest economy in the world,” as his predecessor Jerry Brown routinely boasted, Mr. Newsom has lost some of the benefit of California’s doubt. His approval rating has dropped by more than 10 points since May, when 65 percent of Californians trusted his handling of the pandemic. Critics even within his own party have questioned whether his recent decisions have been motivated by public health or the recall attempt.
The campaign against Mr. Newsom has highlighted the differences between the powerhouse California that elected him and the virus-battered California he now governs. Longtime political analysts see hidden weaknesses in his polling: The state may not want to recall him, they say, but his popularity has suffered, and his political fortunes are linked more closely than ever to the ebb and flow of the virus in his state.
“When you’re evaluating an executive — be it a mayor, a governor, a president, whatever — there are really only a couple of basic questions,” said Mike Madrid, a former political director of the state Republican Party and a co-founder of the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project.
“Are the lights on? Are the trains running on time? And in this case, how have you managed the global pandemic?”
At the moment, Mr. Newsom’s report card is mixed.
California has record budget reserves, one of the nation’s lowest rates of new virus cases and a vaccine rollout that, after a rocky start, has started to gain steam. But the state also has lagged behind the nation in school reopenings and has the third-highest unemployment rate.
Epidemiologists have warned that the virus may return as the state reopens, but right now, cases are at levels not seen since mid-October. More than 30 percent of the population has received at least one vaccine dose and 30 percent have survived an infection and developed some level of natural immunity.
Barring a fresh surge or a runaway variant, the pandemic could soon be in California’s rearview mirror. A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that three-quarters of Californians believe that the worst of the crisis is behind them, and 56 percent of likely voters would oppose a recall if an election were held now.
“In the face of an unprecedented global health crisis, Governor Newsom has followed the science and moved aggressively to keep California safe,” said Nathan Click, one of the governor’s advisers. “His actions saved countless lives and have earned him the trust of Californians.”
Recall attempts are common in California and typically fail. The governor’s defenders say this one would never have met the signature threshold had a judge not granted an extension because of the state’s shutdown, one of many ways the recall and the pandemic are inextricably linked.
On Thursday, Mr. Newsom received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in Los Angeles in a livestreamed event after his administration expanded eligibility to all Californians age 50 and older. Mr. Newsom, 53, showed not one iota of worry about the recall, never mentioning the subject and, after taking off his suit jacket to receive the shot, flexing his muscles in his dark T-shirt.
“It has been an extraordinarily challenging year — so much fear, so much anxiety,” Mr. Newsom told reporters. “But now, growing optimism, not only here in Southern California, but throughout our state.”
Yet critics and political allies alike said the threat of the recall had indeed loomed large, and had appeared to shape the governor’s pandemic response.
He cited the millions of vaccines the state had administered and the billions of dollars in pandemic aid that he was directing to small businesses. But his language channeled the California labor groups and progressives on whom the state’s Democrats rely to mobilize voters.
“When this pandemic ends — and it will end soon — we’re not going back to normal. Normal was never good enough,” the governor said. “Normal accepts inequity.”
Days later, after the recall proponents publicly estimated they would exceed 2 million signatures from voters favoring his ouster, he announced that California would be changing its notoriously complex, color-coded system of health restrictions. When the system was devised, life without the threat of Covid-19 seemed so remote that the state’s least-strict designation was caution-tape yellow. But now, the governor said, he was adding a hopeful new “green tier,” a sudden move his critics tied to the recall effort.
“Before the threat of a recall the governor told us there was no green because we could never be normal again,” tweeted Jon Fleischman, a former executive director of the California Republican Party. “It’s funny how his science turned out to be political science.”
Similar accusations have arisen from some would-be allies.
Dr. Jeffrey V. Smith, the Santa Clara County executive, took issue with the governor’s plan to dedicate 40 percent of first vaccine doses to vulnerable, poorer communities as determined by a state index.
Mr. Newsom presented the plan last month as proof of his determination to ensure that rich Californians did not crowd the poor out of access to scarce vaccinations. But the policy change also helped Mr. Newsom politically.
A new tweak in the system for determining health restrictions let a county move into a lower tier once a critical mass of vaccinations had been administered in disadvantaged ZIP codes. Many of those targeted ZIP codes were in Los Angeles, where teachers’ unions were refusing to return to classrooms until the county was out of the strictest level of health rules. Parent groups, meanwhile, were demanding in-person instruction.
Dr. Smith — whose Bay Area county has plenty of poor people but virtually none of the targeted ZIP codes — said the vaccine targets were part of a “fake equity plan,” based less on fairness than on Mr. Newsom’s desire to open up Los Angeles.
“What’s really going on has nothing to do with distribution,” said Dr. Smith, who serves in a nonpartisan position but said he identifies as a Democrat. “It has to do with the governor’s desire to buy himself out of the recall election by reopening Southern California as fast as he can.”
It is unclear how much voters will care about Mr. Newsom’s mix of motivations. Californians, who overwhelmingly opposed former President Donald J. Trump in the last election, are unlikely to replace a Democratic governor if their main alternatives are limited to the current challengers, who are Republican supporters of Mr. Trump.
If a recall is placed on the ballot in a special election that most likely would be held in the fall, voters will be asked two questions: Whether Mr. Newsom should be recalled, and if so, who should finish the 14 months or so remaining in his term. So far, no Democrats have stepped up as an alternative, and party leaders from progressives such as Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont to centrists such as President Biden have sought to maintain that united front.
The politicking to come is expected to be expensive, national and corrosive. Recall proponents and their allies say they have raised about $4.1 million, including large contributions from major Republican donors, the state Republican Party and potential candidates such as John Cox, a San Diego businessman who lost to Mr. Newsom in 2018.
The governor’s team has reported about $3 million in contributions, including about $400,000 from the state Democratic Party, $250,000 from a union representing state government engineers, $125,000 each from the agricultural magnates Stewart and Lynda Resnick and more than $500,000 in small-dollar online donations in the 48 hours after the governor started a website called Stop the Republican Recall.
Supporters of Mr. Newsom portray the initiative as the work of Republican extremists. The leader, the governor has said, believes that the government should “microchip migrants.”
Orrin Heatlie, the retired Northern California sheriff’s sergeant who is the recall’s lead proponent, wrote a 2019 Facebook post that read: “Microchip all illegal immigrants. It works! Just ask Animal control.”
Mr. Heatlie acknowledged in an interview that he wrote the post, but he said that it was not meant to be taken literally and that he intended it as a “conversation starter.”
He said Mr. Newsom brought the recall on himself by imposing too many restrictions early in the pandemic and dining at an elite wine country restaurant while asking Californians to quarantine last fall.
Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist, predicts that Mr. Newsom will survive the recall. But he added that the governor’s numbers indicate that his troubles with voters are not over.
Last month, pollsters at Emerson College and Nexstar Media Group asked Californians about the 2022 election. If they could, would they vote again for Mr. Newsom?
More than 58 percent of registered voters said they preferred someone new.
Shawn Hubler reported from Sacramento, and Jill Cowan from Los Angeles.