Republicans are emerging to run for governor should Newsom recall qualify

Composite photo of John Cox(R) and San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer(L) Photos by Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune(left) and Chris Carlson/AP (right)
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Backers of an effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom are still collecting signatures, but rivals are already announcing their intention to run.

Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer plans to challenge the governor if the recall qualifies for the ballot this year, or in 2022 if it does not. In an interview with The Times, the Republican attacked Newsom's handling of the economy, homelessness and the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It is time to be a voice for Californians who are suffering because Sacramento can't do the basics," Faulconer said. "This campaign is going to be about restoring balance and common sense to California, to get people back to work, to get our kids back to school and to get people proud of our state again."

Recall proponents must submit 1.5 million verified signatures by mid-March. If the measure qualifies, voters will be asked two questions in an election later this year: whether they support the recall of Newsom, and which candidate they want to replace him if the recall is successful.

Faulconer would be among the most prominent challengers to Democrat Newsom. He said he has already raised or received pledges for $1 million.

Another Republican who said he will run in a recall election is businessman John Cox, who lost to Newsom in the 2018 gubernatorial race.

Right-wing provocateur Mike Cernovich, who is registered as an independent voter, also said he plans to join the race.

Faulconer, 54, served as San Diego’s mayor from 2014 to 2020. He governed the Democratic city as a moderate, saw a decrease in homelessness during his tenure and was long regarded as one of the few California Republicans with a shot at winning higher office in a state that last elected a Republican to statewide office in 2006.

He complicated his bid by flip-flopping on his views of former President Trump. In 2016, he said he could never support the then-GOP nominee because “his divisive rhetoric is unacceptable.” But he said last month that he voted for Trump in 2020 because he thought the president was best-suited to restore an economy ravaged by the pandemic.

Trump is deeply unpopular in California and lost the state in November by 29 percentage points to Joe Biden.

Faulconer deflected questions about his support for Trump by repeatedly arguing that his campaign will be focused on California, not Washington, D.C. He didn't respond directly when asked whether the former president bore any responsibility for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Faulconer demurred when asked how his pledge to follow the science when it comes to COVID-19 squares with Trump's handling of the pandemic, such as suggesting injecting a disinfectant and his reluctance to wear masks.

"The former president is out of office, and I think it's absolutely time we focus on California issues," Faulconer said. "This is going to be a campaign that looks forward."

Cox and Cernovich also previously backed Trump, a point Newsom's campaign will use against them if the recall qualifies.

"All these Trump supporters will fight it out amongst themselves ... but for now we need them to stop inciting people to shut down our mass-vaccination sites, as they tried to do at Dodger Stadium over the weekend," spokesman Dan Newman said.

Cox said he is running because Newsom has failed to lead.

“The state is in crisis,” Cox told Fox 40 in Sacramento, in a segment that aired over the weekend. He said housing problems and homelessness have gotten worse during Newsom’s tenure, and he pointed to the governor’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The last straw, as far as I’m concerned, is the failure in terms of vaccine distribution,” Cox said. “This is unconscionable. It’s just one in a series of instances of mismanagement the politicians being led by Gavin Newsom have visited upon us, and it's got to change. And I’m just not sitting back and watching this. I’m going to actually do something about it.”

Cox, 65, spent $5.7 million of his own money in the 2018 race, which he lost to Newsom by 24 percentage points. He is one of the major funders of the recall effort.

Cernovich, 43, has pushed false conspiracy theories such as a pedophile ring being run out of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. He said he has no delusions that he could win. He said he wants to pressure Newsom into a debate over pandemic lockdowns, which he likened to war crimes and human rights violations.

“There’s no chance in hell that I can win in California. Zero percent,” Cernovich said in a rambling, conspiracy-laden, 20-minute online video, adding that if he "can get enough of a base of support, then I can force" Newsom to answer for the closures.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.