Gov. Gavin Newsom Triumphs in California Recall, Thanks Voters: 'l'm Humble, Grateful'

California Gov. Gavin Newsom
California Gov. Gavin Newsom

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/Shutterstock California Gov. Gavin Newsom

The votes are in and California Gov. Gavin Newsom is staying in his job — with an overwhelming victory in his recall election.

After weeks of mail-in voting, months of campaigning and a Republican-led push to oust him dating back to 2019, Election Day arrived Tuesday and Newsom emerged the winner with the support of a huge majority.

Of the 68 percent of votes reported so far, Newsom was winning 64 percent to 36.

"No is not the only thing that was expressed tonight," he said after the election was called Tuesday at 8:46 p.m. local time. "We said yes to science. We said yes to vaccines. We said yes to ending this pandemic."

For more on Gavin Newsom winning California's recall election and other top stories, listen below to our daily podcast PEOPLE Every Day.

"Tonight I'm humble, grateful, but resolved in the spirit of my political hero Robert Kennedy to make more gentle the light of this world," he later added, thanking the 40 million Californians for rejecting the recall.

Newsom's leading GOP opponent, conservative radio host and media personality Larry Elder, had declined to say whether he would accept the results of the election — instead alluding to evidence-free claims of fraud, echoing former President Donald Trump.

On Tuesday night, though, Elder struck a different tone. "Let's be gracious in defeat," he said.

Republican conservative radio show host Larry Elder
Republican conservative radio show host Larry Elder

Ashley Landis/AP/Shutterstock

While polls had fluctuated over the summer leading up to election, Newsom's favorability rating rose in the race's final days as it increasingly appeared his chief vulnerability (lack of enthusiasm from the state's millions of Democrats) was fading.

California is faced with several major challenges, from COVID-19 to wildfires to drought, as well as other issues like housing, and Newsom's many opponents — more than 45 candidates, including politicians, celebrities and media personalities — hoped to persuade enough people to pick an alternative.

Newsom framed the efforts to remove him from office as a "life and death" situation. He had repeatedly invoked Trump in urging voters not to replace him with Elder.

"I am not going to take this recall attempt lying down," Newsom said earlier this year. "I'm going to fight because there's too much at stake in this moment."

After conservatives succeeded in calling the recall election, he also acknowledged being "worried" by it. He had faced criticism over his behavior during the pandemic, including being photographed flouting his own public health guidelines, as well as problems in his administration related to $10 billion in unemployment fraud.

Governor Gavin Newsom
Governor Gavin Newsom

AGUSTIN PAULLIER/AFP via Getty California Gov. Gavin Newsom

How We Got Here

Newsom was first elected governor in 2018 with nearly 62 percent of the vote in one of the country's bluest states: Democrats make up 46 percent of voters in California while Republicans represent 24 of the electorate.

Even before he became governor, Newsom was a favorite target of conservatives across the country because of actions he took as mayor of San Francisco — the youngest person ever elected to that office. And while several past efforts to get a recall vote on the ballot failed, the one launched in 2019 got enough signatures to put the issue to a vote.

California election laws make it relatively easy to recall elected officials and since 1913, there have been 179 recall attempts, including 55 for governor. But only one has ever succeeded: the 2003 effort to oust Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, when Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, replaced him.

The ballot asks voters just two questions: should Newsom be recalled from office and, if he is recalled, who should replace him?

Voters who answer no to the first question don't have to choose a potential replacement, but for those who do have a preference, the ballot lists 46 candidates.

Ballots went out to California voters in August and the volume of mail voting meant Tuesday's Election Day was more of a deadline. (By Sept. 1, nearly 3.5 million votes had already been cast in the state's universal vote-by-mail system.)

Newsom's national profile rose when he was elected mayor of San Francisco in 2004. One of his first official acts was to legalize same-sex marriage in the city, years before it became legal nationwide.

At the time, he was married to Kimberly Guilfoyle, who was an assistant state attorney in San Francisco. Newspaper columnists anointed them as California's "power couple" and, of their nuptials, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote in 2001: "A royal wedding. Social event of the year. The two hottest public servants in San Francisco get hitched." A photo spread in Harper's Bazaar went further, declaring them "the new Kennedys."

Gavin Newsom
Gavin Newsom

Justin Sullivan/Getty Gavin Newsom (left)

The couple divorced in 2006. Guilfoyle, 52, went on to be a Fox News host and is currently dating Donald Trump Jr.

In 2007, Newsom declared San Francisco a so-called "sanctuary city," saying officials would not help federal immigration officers arrest immigrants.

"I will not allow any of my department heads or anyone associated with this city to cooperate in any way shape or form with these raids," Newsom said at the time. "We are a sanctuary city, make no mistake about it."

Conservative voters in the state, who have long been in the minority, hoped to make him a tempting target for recall as a liberal politician run amok. But voters have widely backed Newsom when given the chance.

He won the governor's office three years ago by a landslide, with 62 percent of the vote. He defeated Republican businessman John Cox of San Diego.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, Caitlyn Jenner, Angelyne and Mary Carey
Gov. Gavin Newsom, Caitlyn Jenner, Angelyne and Mary Carey

Getty (2); Splash News Online; Getty From left: California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Caitlyn Jenner, Angelyne and Mary Carey

Cox ran in the recall against Newsom, touring the state with a Kodiak bear as a prop during campaign stops. But the leader among Newsom's GOP opponents became Elder, a popular radio talk show host. (Caitlyn Jenner also launched a much discussed campaign but failed to find traction.)

Newsom focused on Elder's history of conservative provocation and libertarian politics in his own campaigning.

"We said the most important election in our lifetime was defeating Donald Trump," Newsom said at a stop in Bakersfield. "And we did that, but we didn't defeat Trumpism."

Newsom will be up for re-election in November 2022.