Covid ‘Culture War’ Fuels Long-shot Governor Recall Campaigns

Long-shot attempts to throw out a handful of governors are underway in five states, spurred by frustration with the steps taken to combat the spread of Covid-19.

Organizers of the recall petitions are accusing the governors of Arizona, California, Idaho, Michigan, and Oregon of exceeding their authority, needlessly hurting state economies, and infringing upon personal liberties with executive orders aimed at mitigating the pandemic’s spread.

“Recall is basically the politics of anger,” Shaun Bowler, a University of California, Riverside, professor, said in an interview. “This is the culture war, and a small number of people are really angry about masks and Covid.”

Three of the targeted governors are Democrats. Two are Republicans, including Arizona’s Doug Ducey.

“I’m not paying attention at all to politics or these groups that want to say that a governor doesn’t have the legal rights that I have been granted in a public health emergency,” Ducey said. “I can’t wait to have government restored to how it was before the pandemic, but that’s not where we are today.”

The Ducey recall effort is a response to executive orders that are similar to many others across the country. Over the course of the pandemic, Ducey ordered limits on private gatherings, told Arizonans to shelter-in-place other than for essential activities, and closed all but “essential businesses.”

Requirements for putting recalls on the ballot vary by state and can be steep, based on the percentage of voters in the last statewide election.

Only two governors—North Dakota’s Lynn Frazier in 1921 and California’s Gray Davis in 2003—have been recalled in the past 100 years.

Michigan presents the toughest odds for any recall.

To force a special election there, opponents of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) must collect valid signatures from more than 1 million registered voters. That’s more than 10% of the state’s population (not just registered voters), and it must happen inside a 60-day window.

The bid to oust Whitme was triggered by a backlash to executive orders—closing garden centers, prohibiting motorized boating, forbidding people to travel to vacation homes—widely criticized by Republicans as going too far.

Read the petitions: Arizona, California, Idaho, Michigan, Oregon

“If this doesn’t go through, and we don’t turn anything in this time, it’s still going to happen,” David Blair, campaign manager for the Whitmer recall effort, said in an interview. “If anything, it will be a building opportunity for the next step, which will continue.”

Michigan has seen days of protests against Whitmer’s actions, with some attendees carrying guns into the General Assembly. Blair attended a protest in Lansing, but said that the recall effort was only tangentially related to those events.

So far, polls indicate voters support Whitmer’s handling of the coronavirus.

“I’m not going to be bullied, I’m not going to be threatened and I’m not going to go into the politics as I make decisions,” she said in a statement.

Though the Oregon Republican Party started its recall effort against Gov. Kate Brown (D) because of clashes over energy and environmental policy, “the governor’s handling of the coronavirus situation has energized the campaign, even though everyone has recognized the virus has presented greater difficulties of gathering signatures,” party spokesman Kevin Hoar said in an interview.

That effort is more than 120,000 signatures toward its goal, he said.

Even if recalls don’t end with a change at the top, they can cause the targeted politician to shift stances or messaging, University of Denver Professor Seth Masket said in an interview.

The dynamics of 2020 may be different, though, given the stakes of coronavirus.

“If you’re going to be blamed for anything, it’s likely going to be a lot of deaths,” Masket said. “If there’s a lot of political mistakes to make, the potential would be to do the mistakes in the way that saves the most lives in the long run.”

With assistance from Brenna Goth and Jodie Morris

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ebert in Columbus, Ohio, at aebert@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com

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