Steyer polls the Newsom recall — offering himself as an alternative

Tom Steyer is polling the California recall.

And the billionaire environmental activist and erstwhile presidential hopeful has included his own name among the list of possible contenders to succeed Gov. Gavin Newsom, according to three people familiar with the recent survey.

A Steyer entity commissioned the wide-ranging poll on a number of issues impacting the state’s political landscape. Among them was the Covid pandemic, the environment, and other topics close to him. But his group also notably asked Californians whether they were prepared to oust Newsom from office a year before his first term is set to expire. And, the survey included a handful of fallback options for Democrats should Newsom lose enough support to get booted out of office, including Steyer himself.

The poll comes as 58 county registrars in California now work to verify whether the recall of Newsom has the 1.5 million valid voter signatures needed to qualify for a fall recall election. While Steyer opposes the recall, saying in a statement that it was “a clear attempt by the GOP to take back control of the state and squelch the progressive momentum,” he has been relatively quiet on the push. He has not tweeted about the recall and only once this year mentioned Newsom in a tweet: a thread tied to the governor’s State of the State address.

A Steyer spokesperson told a POLITICO reporter seeking to speak with him last week that they should check back in “late April.” The Secretary of State’s office says the deadline for registrars to validate signatures for the recall is April 29.

Steyer declined to comment. But a source close to him said late Tuesday that he would be “very, very surprised if he is looking at the recall ballot.”

Still, Steyer’s decision to poll himself as a possible replacement does suggest he’s entertained the possibility. At a minimum, it is one of the few concrete examples of a Democrat weighing the opportunities and landscape of a post-Newsom California. Antonio Villaraigosa, Newsom’s primary opponent in 2018, sidestepped questions about the recall, and has taken no formal steps to test his viability.

The feeling among political strategists and officials across the state is that many Democrats are waiting to see what Newsom’s political pulse will be by late summer, when they will have to decide whether to enter the race.

There is already speculation that there could be hundreds of candidates in the race because the steps to qualify are so low — only $4,000 or 7,000 signatures in a state with 39 million people. That’s the same threshold as 2003, when then-Gov. Gray Davis was recalled, and Arnold Schwarzenegger emerged from a field that included a child actor and adult film star.

Newsom’s team is warning Democrats not to break ranks with the governor, arguing that having even one serious contender from his party engaged in the election would offer a clear alternative to Newsom and give voters the incentive to vote for the recall.

Sean Clegg, a leading strategist for Newsom, issued a public rebuke of Villaraigosa recently, contending that the former mayor, who was his one-time boss, would “embarrass himself and forever poison his legacy if he runs.” And Clegg had another jab for Democrats taking aim at the governor in public. “No free shots on Gavin Newsom,” Clegg wrote on Twitter.

But that aggressive posture is worrying some Democrats.

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Newsom’s political mentor, said Democrats must “do everything they can to keep a recall from happening.’’ But if they fail, Brown added, the party must “absolutely” offer voters an alternative to Republicans who will stock the recall ballot.

“You can’t take the risk of Democrats losing the governorship,’’ Brown said in a recent interview with POLITICO. “You’ve got to literally protect it … and it may be that the Democrats you put in can announce they are totally opposed to the recall.’’

Steyer has been a prominent presence in top Democratic circles for years now, as he took the fortune he made as a hedge-fund manager and began applying it to progressive causes, chief among them environmental advocacy. He’s spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help elect Democrats, and at one point was hailed as a liberal counterweight to the industrialist Koch brothers. In California, he sunk millions more into successful ballot initiatives.

Steyer and Newsom, while both hailing from San Francisco, are not especially close. But as governor, Newsom appointed Steyer to co-chair on a blue-ribbon business and economic council — a star-studded panel that included business luminaries like Disney’s Bob Iger and Apple CEO Tim Cook.

For Newsom, the move was seen by some as a savvy attempt to keep Steyer and his political ambitions in check. The panel was disbanded and later criticized by business leaders as a toothless effort that produced few, if any, serious policy changes.

This wouldn’t be the first time Steyer has considered offering himself as an alternative to a better-known Democrat in the state. In 2015, a week after now-Vice President Kamala Harris launched her U.S. Senate campaign, Steyer quietly told potential supporters he was considering jumping into the race on an unorthodox pledge to serve only one term if he couldn’t reach unspecified goals dealing with the environment, economy and education within six years.

Two years later, Steyer told close allies he was seriously looking at a campaign against Sen. Dianne Feinstein. At the time, he said he didn’t think Democrats were confronting Donald Trump aggressively enough. “Have they forgotten their moral duty not to allow America to behave in such a way as to imperil every soul on this planet?” he wrote in an email to a friend.

Instead, early in Trump’s presidency, Steyer became one of the most outspoken advocates for impeachment (well before it actually happened). His investments in that campaign helped him build a massive email list of Democratic voters. And though he told a crowd in Des Moines he wouldn’t run, he ended up doing just that. Despite the millions of email addresses and huge amounts of personal wealth to spend, his candidacy didn’t stick. He turned his attention squarely to South Carolina, in hopes that the state’s primary electorate would turn to him as an alternative to Sen. Bernie Sanders. They went with Joe Biden instead.

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