LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A fading coronavirus crisis and an astounding windfall of tax dollars have reshuffled California's emerging recall election, allowing Democratic Gov. Gavin Newscom to talk about an end to most COVID-19 restrictions and propose billions in new spending as he looks to fend off Republicans who depict him as a foppish failure.
The governor spent much of 2020 on the defensive for whipsaw decisions during the depths of the pandemic that angered many business owners and residents. But more recently he has appeared to steady his stride with the all-but-certain election looming this fall.
The first-term Democrat unleashed a torrent of new spending after the state's budget was blessed with a $76 billion surplus and $27 billion in federal pandemic aid. This week, he crisscrossed the state to unveil a string of proposals sure to bring smiles from many voters: $12 billion to fight homelessness; checks up to $1,100 for millions of low and middle-income earners who struggled during lockdowns; $2.7 billion to pay for all of the state's 4-year-olds to go to kindergarten for free; and hundreds of millions to help small businesses recover from the economic downturn.
His budget released Friday was studded with initiatives favored by his progressive base, including $7.2 billion to pay off people's outstanding rent and utility bills and $300 million to forgive traffic and other fines for lower-income residents. There also was $35 million to encourage local universal basic income programs and money to give Medicaid benefits to people 60 and older living in the country illegally.
As the virus threat diminishes, the economy rebounds and Californians return to familiar routines, Republican candidates will need to emphasize policy differences on issues like taxes and homelessness, rather than banking on lingering resentment from lockdowns and the pandemic, said Tim Rosales, a veteran GOP strategist who is sitting out the recall.
With conditions in the state improving "it's harder and harder to maintain that level of ... anger" during the worst days of the pandemic, he said, conceding Newsom is "on the right trajectory in terms of his approval ratings."
The goal for Newsom's team is not just surviving the recall. They are looking to position the governor for an expected 2022 re-election campaign that will kick off immediately following the recall election and, as importantly, restore his name to the national discussion about potential White House contenders.
Under a best-case scenario for the governor, a comeback story line from the recall might even help Newsom discredit the image popularized by his GOP gubernatorial rivals of a preening lightweight.
Republican businessman John Cox mocks Newsom as a "pretty boy." Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer says the race is about "genuine versus phony."
Faulconer rolled out his own attention-grabbing proposal Wednesday: Ending the state income tax for individuals making up to $50,000 and households up to $100,000, which could find wide appeal with voters in a state where taxes seem to go relentlessly in one direction: higher.
Newsom was elected in a 2018 landslide over Cox, but his popularity tumbled as he contended with public unrest over long-running school and businesses closures during the pandemic, fallout from a multibillion-dollar unemployment benefits scandal and embarrassment over his decision to attend a lavish birthday dinner at an exclusive restaurant in November while lecturing residents to stay home for safety.
Look for the Republicans to continue to attack his image -- he remains shackled to the French Laundry debacle. In one night at that restaurant with lobbyists and friends, he managed to reinforce a trifecta of loathsome stereotypes about politicians - hypocrisy, elitism and the whiff of improper backroom deal-making. He later apologized for what he called a "bad mistake."
While Newsom dominated the narrative of the race all week -- the economy is "roaring back," he told reporters in Los Angeles -- a sudden spike in virus cases or another epic season of wildfires would test him again. And schools could also be a vulnerable flank. California badly trailed other states in getting children back into classrooms, a reality Republicans repeat at every turn.
The leading GOP candidates in the race start at a disadvantage in heavily Democratic California, where registered Democrats outnumber GOP voters by nearly 2-to-1. A Republican candidate hasn't won a statewide race since 2006, when Arnold Schwarzenegger won re-election after gaining office in a recall election.
Newsom's team has worked for months to tie the recall to national Republicans and supporters and operatives of former President Donald Trump, who is broadly unpopular in California outside his GOP base.
For Newsom, one of his advantages as a candidate was on vivid display this week: He used the power of his office to dominate the public stage as he made appearances in San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland and the Central Valley, among other locations.
Cox, meanwhile, has been campaigning with a bear in a bid to attract publicity. He criticized Newsom Friday for the surge in spending: "We should be slashing taxes and making California more affordable and not ballooning the size of our government," he said.
Reality TV personality and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner so far has appeared more curio than contender, barely registering in recent polling. She tweeted Friday that "California should already be fully open!"
Faulconer's biggest challenge is becoming known outside his hometown area in San Diego. He said he intends to take his campaign to communities around the state, where voters are looking for "somebody who actually has the experience ... who can bring positive change and reform."
Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, said a lot will change by the time voters go to the polls. Will the massive investment in homelessness make a change? Will Newsom suffer another self-inflicted wound like his trip to the French Laundry?
"Right now the recall is not in the hands of the governor or its backers. This is all about the direction of the state," he said. "What really matters is where we are in the fall."