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The left wants more from Newsom, but recall shadow looms large

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The left wants more from Newsom, but recall shadow looms large

The Democratic governor has an unexpected balancing act in his third year in office. Doubling down on progressive priorities could energize his party’s base, but he has to avoid alienating centrists and giving fodder to opponents eager to portray him as an overreaching liberal.

Newsom has already moved to quell progressive unrest by securing endorsements from Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Still, some liberal Democrats see this as a ripe opportunity to push Newsom further, especially with California’s budget coffers reaching record heights.

“I always tell progressives our support isn’t free. We should hold accountable our elected officials who say they support health care for all,” said freshman Assemblymember Alex Lee (D-Milpitas), who’s sponsoring both a universal health care bill and the wealth tax proposal. “I think [Newsom] has a duty to energize his progressive base.”

The threat of a recall is likely to overshadow Sacramento policymaking all year, and a fall recall election would come shortly after Newsom signs or vetoes a flurry of bills. His choices could reverberate at the ballot box.

Progressives are renewing their pushes to create a single-payer health care system, extend Medicaid coverage to undocumented immigrants and rein in oil and gas drilling. They also argue the pandemic has strengthened the case for more worker protections and a wealth tax. And some aren’t pulling punches for fear of giving recall proponents more ammunition to use against Newsom.

“We can’t step back from this important agenda item just because it might be politically inconvenient,” said Joe Sanberg, an investor and activist campaigning for the wealth tax. “If the governor delivers for those people living on the knife edge, the chances he’ll be rehired go up.”

Newsom has called the recall a distraction and said he remains single-mindedly focused on defeating the coronavirus and reinvigorating California’s economy. But state Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose) said he expects the governor’s advisers to carefully weigh what policy achievements to tout as they make a case to voters.

“A lot of that has to be decided in the context of surviving another day as governor,” he said. “You’re going to look at polling and see if Republican votes really matter.”

But there is some disagreement among progressives who are weighing how to wield the recall. While some on the left dream of an opportunity to replace Newsom with a more liberal alternative, elected Democrats have warned such a gamble could backfire drastically.

“I would say to those that see this as some kind of opportunity to sneak in a progressive in the governor’s mansion, that’s part of the trap Republicans are hoping we’ll fall into, quite frankly,” said Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), co-author of the health care bill.

Environmentalists are already fuming this year after a priority bill that would have banned fracking in California died this week in the Legislature. Moderate Democrats joined with Republicans in blocking the measure in a Senate committee, and some environmentalists have already begun blaming Newsom.

The governor last fall asked state lawmakers to send him a fracking ban, but that was well before the recall became a real possibility. Newsom said this year he still supported the idea; environmentalists, however, say he did nothing to muscle it through the Capitol, and some suspect he preferred to avoid having to deal with a matter opposed by major business interests — and by his allies in labor.

“Governor Newsom got exactly what he wanted with the outcome of this vote,” Food & Water Watch California director Alexandra Nagy said in a statement. “He sent a fracking ban to the legislature knowing that the oil lobby would easily kill it. He was counting on it. If Newsom wants to be a real climate leader, he needs to take the mantle up himself and enact 2,500 foot setbacks and ban fracking immediately.”

Environmentalists and labor unions represent key bastions of support for Newsom, but they have increasingly been at odds over California’s climate agenda, forcing the governor to balance his commitment to phasing out fossil fuels with preserving unionized jobs in the energy industry.

“I expect that my labor clients will be all in to defeat the recall,” said Scott Wetch, a lobbyist representing pipefitters and plumbers that opposed the oil drilling bill. “We’re going to talk to our members, we’re going to knock on hundreds and thousands of doors, we’re going to be there reminding people what’s at stake.”

Green groups are still hoping to resurrect the fracking ban and keeping pressure on the governor to put limits on how close drilling can occur to schools, homes and other sensitive sites.

“This is where his values and ethics are going to be shown,” said Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment community organizer Juan Flores. If Newsom distances himself from policies to limit fossil fuels, “then he is automatically recalling himself, because the remainder of his term, we already know what he’s going to do, which is trying to save his political career.”

During the state’s only gubernatorial recall election year in 2003, liberal Democrats succeeded in winning Gov. Gray Davis’ support for policies the centrist state executive previously rejected. That included driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, financial privacy requirements and additional rights for gay and lesbian partners.

Those moves, however, did not save Davis in the end. He was toppled by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action movie star who went on to serve two terms as governor — the last Republican to hold that office in California.

Democratic allies are hoping they can defend Newsom while still advancing their priorities. Last year, the governor vetoed a labor priority bill that would have compelled hospitality businesses to prioritize rehiring workers who lost work due to the coronavirus. A Southern California hospitality workers union excoriated Newsom at the time, saying “the most powerful elected Democrat in the state sided with the wealthy hotel owners” over “hardworking hotel workers.”

The Newsom administration has negotiated a narrower version of that measure that’s speeding through the legislative process.

“We’re not for [the] recall because it’s a terrible distraction,” said UNITE HERE Local 11 co-president Susan Minato said that “we’re going to do our part with making sure California stays with a Democratic governor.”

Single-payer health care will pose another test. Newsom entered office in 2019 on a pledge to pursue the health system overhaul, but settled for setting up a task force that year to examine the issue. During the 2020 pandemic, the Capitol went into a holding pattern and the budget looked gloomy, giving further reason to avoid discussing major changes.

This year, the first official committee opposing the recall was formed by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, a group that has focused on achieving single-payer. NUHW president Sal Rosselli said the effort served to both protect Newsom and to prod him on an unfulfilled campaign promise. “That’s the whole point, organizing progressive voters and donors in California in opposition to the recall and in support of our number one focus: Medicare for All,” Rosselli said.

While the left has been deliberate about telegraphing unity behind Newsom, lingering frustrations among some legislators have fueled questions about how vigorously allies will campaign for Newsom with efforts like union-driven voter turnout drives. Sen. María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), a stalwart union ally, argued labor would rally behind the governor while continuing to push for policies in Sacramento.

“Some people said the enthusiasm wasn’t going to be there for Biden. Some people said the enthusiasm wasn’t there for Jerry Brown,” Durazo said. “I’m not ignoring it, and when we get down into the campaign of course we have to think about enthusiasm, but I don’t think that’s the primary issue. The primary issue is what has the governor done in his two years with the pandemic.”

The recall’s effect might be felt long before bills get to Newsom’s desk, though, as lawmakers could save Newsom from having to make a tough choice.

Moderate Democrats have publicly opposed the wealth tax proposals, just as they did against the fracking ban. Skilled governors are able to stop bills from reaching their desk through legislative negotiations — and with support from Democratic legislative leaders playing the long game.

“I think it would be hard to be a Democratic politician in this state and not feel conscious of the recall in everything you’re doing,” said Kathryn Phillips, former director of Sierra Club California. “Not because you’re worried about yourself, but because you don’t want to put the governor in a position that will make him make somebody mad.”

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Opinion | The Real Reason Republicans Want to Oust Liz Cheney

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Opinion | The Real Reason Republicans Want to Oust Liz Cheney

But Republican lawmakers and GOP operatives alike are frustrated that, after standing by her, Cheney has repaid the favor by continuing to draw attention to an issue that divides Republicans, rather than training her fire on the Biden administration. And while, yes, it is possible to do both, take a look at the headlines and see which message is getting more traction.

Cheney’s allies say that allowing Trump to promulgate lies about the election, as he has done since November, risks another insurrection. She has every right to make that her focus. But it’s one thing to do that as a rank-and-file member; her job as conference chairwoman is to help the party regain a House majority next year by rallying Republicans around a message that unites them and damages Democrats’ prospects.

The divide is deeper than pro- or anti-Trump. Rather, it’s a disagreement about how influential an out-of-office Trump continues to be on the party and whether, politically speaking, GOP energy is best spent fighting him or President Joe Biden. Cheney and her allies say Trump is an electoral loser for the GOP and won’t fade on his own; others argue his influence is diminishing and it’s disastrous to keep fighting the last war.

That sentiment is behind the exasperation with Cheney that extends even to some of the Republicans who joined her in voting for Trump’s second impeachment, according to two GOP lawmakers. They say Cheney is hurting the electoral prospects of the anti-Trumpers in the conference, who are being asked about her, rather than Biden, when they return home to their districts.

“People who voted to impeach stand by their decision, but they don’t want to be litigating that,” a top Republican operative told me. “We should be litigating why the Democrats suck and how Republicans are going to win the majority.”

Yet, in the immediate aftermath of the January 6 attack, Cheney told donors she wanted to make her forthcoming primary battle a referendum on the attacks, according to people on the call. It is not a message that resonates particularly well with a group that struggled with how to approach the Trump era altogether, and is eager to put the divisions of the past four years behind them.

Cheney might have understood her colleagues’ thinking better if she spent some more time hearing them out. POLITICO’s John Harris made the point in a column in March that asked, pointedly, why some politicians are such a–holes. He contrasted the friendless and scandal-plagued New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, with the late presidential adviser Vernon Jordan, a man of a thousand close friends. At the time, I wrote Harris telling him that Cheney was another example of the former, and the retired Gen. David Petraeus, who survived a public scandal mostly intact, of the latter.

Cuomo and Cheney don’t have much else in common, but both are second-generation politicos whose rise in public life was propelled in large part by their father’s networks. As a result, they seem to have learned less about what it takes to develop and maintain professional friendships and alliances.

Since Cheney’s arrival in Congress in 2017, I’ve heard complaints from operatives, donors and fellow reporters about Cheney’s political operation, which has been described as difficult, brittle, unresponsive and tone deaf. To wit, she is not working her colleagues to hold onto her leadership role. As repellent as it might seem, the cultivation of allies and the trading of favors is essential to political survival, a lesson Cheney seems to be learning the hard way.

As a counterexample to Cheney’s persistent focus on Trump, take Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose distaste for the former president is hardly a state secret and who has demonstrated that it’s possible to stand on principle without belaboring it. It wasn’t so long ago that McConnell, a ruthless political operative, called his vote to affirm the results of the November election the most important he had cast in his political career. The former president has responded by calling McConnell a “dumb son of a bitch.”

But asked about a recent Trump broadside, McConnell told Fox News last week: “We’re looking to the future, not the past. And if you want to see the future of the Republican Party, watch [Sen.] Tim Scott’s response to President Biden last night. … We’re not preoccupied with the past but looking forward.”

Or, as a second GOP operative put it: “She is choosing not to pivot. Mitch McConnell is no fan of Donald Trump, but he doesn’t say a goddamned word.”

Team Cheney argues that Trump remains a threat even if he is tapping out inanities from a beach chair at Mar-a-Lago, rather than from the Oval Office, and that Cheney’s silence would be a concession to Trump’s version of events.

But Cheney’s ideological allies are now left wondering: What is her end game?

The irony of the situation is that Cheney has rightfully derided some of her colleagues for using their positions to peacock for the most pathetic pro-Trump grifters and media outlets. Cheney’s audience is different, and her cause more righteous, but that’s where she is headed.

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Trump backs Stefanik to replace Cheney

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Trump backs Stefanik to replace Cheney

Trump’s endorsement of Stefanik (R-N.Y.) comes after House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said on Wednesday morning that she should serve as the House GOP conference chair instead of Cheney (R-Wyo.).

“Thank you President Trump for your 100% support for House GOP Conference Chair. We are unified and focused on FIRING PELOSI & WINNING in 2022!” Stefanik wrote on Twitter.

Trump had already attacked Cheney in an earlier statement on Wednesday for continuing “to unknowingly and foolishly say that there was no Election Fraud in the 2020 Presidential Election.”

A spokesperson for Cheney’s office did not immediately return a request for comment on either of the former president’s statements.

Cheney, who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, has feuded in recent weeks with fellow House Republican leaders over Trump’s role in the future of the GOP, as well as his for perpetuating the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen.

The Republican infighting escalated significantly this week, after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said on Tuesday that his members had voiced concerns about Cheney’s “ability to carry out” her job duties.

Trump’s initial statement on Wednesday, however, undercut those remarks by McCarthy, making clear that his qualms with Cheney were rooted in her refusal to echo his false election claims — not concerns with her messaging or on-the-job performance.

Cheney, for her part, is not actively rallying support from colleagues to maintain her position.

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Trump attorney, other allies launch voter fraud organization

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton

“The Election Integrity Alliance’s National Board is comprised of individuals who have fought for election integrity at great personal risk and who are champions for free and fair elections,” the organization said in a statement.

People familiar with the project say it is intended to be a centralized hub for providing information on issues related to ballot fraud and election security. It is also aimed at coordinating with other organizations that are focused on election integrity.

American Greatness Fund, which was founded by former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, is part of an ever-expanding web of Trump-aligned advocacy groups that have popped up since the 2020 election. Former Trump senior advisers Brooke Rollins and Larry Kudlow have started the America First Policy Institute; Ben Carson, who served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Trump administration, has launched the American Cornerstone Institute; Russ Vought, who oversaw Trump’s Office of Management and Budget, has unveiled the Center for American Restoration.

Another recent entrant is former Trump speechwriter Stephen Miller, who has formed America First Legal, an outfit aimed at combating the Biden White House.

Conservatives say they view the groups as key in a broader effort to match a formidable liberal “dark money” machine. The Conservative Policy Institute, an organization overseen by Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and ex-South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint which provides support to non-profit groups, convened a group of major donors at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate last month to discuss a path forward.

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