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The Morning Dispatch: Knives Out Against Newsom
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The Morning Dispatch: Knives Out Against Newsom

Plus: A deep freeze in Texas and the past and future of the GOP.

Happy Wednesday! We wish all those observing an Ash Wednesday full of peace and introspection.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • A Monday rocket attack on a U.S. airbase in the Kurdish region of Iraq killed one non-American civilian contractor and injured eight others, including a U.S. service member. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed outrage over the attack, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the administration “reserves the right to respond in the time and manner of our choosing,” though they are still determining the source of the attack.

  • The White House on Tuesday announced the extension of the current foreclosure moratorium and mortgage payment forbearance enrollment window through June 30, citing the pandemic-induced “housing affordability crisis.” 

  • Health officials in the West African nation of Guinea confirmed three people have died of Ebola in recent days, declaring it an epidemic as the country experiences the first cases of the deadly disease since 2016.

  • Former President Donald Trump issued an angry statement yesterday trashing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump branded McConnell an “unsmiling political hack,” and threatened to back primary challengers who “espouse Making America Great Again and our policy of America First.”

  • The United States confirmed 60,725 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 5.8 percent of the 1,048,068 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,611 deaths were attributed to the virus on Tuesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 487,927. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 64,533 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control did not update its vaccine data yesterday. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 2,336,008 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered the past two days, bringing the nationwide total to 55,220,364.

Effort to Recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom Gains Steam

California Republicans reached a crucial breakthrough in their ongoing effort to remove Gov. Gavin Newsom from office, saying that they’ve secured the 1.5 million signatures necessary to trigger a recall election later this year. Despite the state’s largely Democratic voter base, Newsom’s stringent coronavirus restrictions—and failure to adhere to them in his personal life—have garnered bipartisan support for the petition to recall.

Gubernatorial recall attempts are nothing new to Californians. Opposition groups have led 55 recall campaigns since 1913, but have only succeeded once: When Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) ousted Gray Davis (D) in 2003. Initiating a recall election requires 12 percent of the total voter turnout from the last election to sign a petition within 160 days, a timeline that was extended in light of the pandemic.

For California, that percentage amounts to just under 1.5 million voters. To account for any potentially invalid signatures, those leading the recall effort are pushing ahead, looking to create a buffer of 300,000 to 500,000 signatures before the March 17 deadline. If the count is confirmed statewide, a special election will be scheduled—likely in the late summer or early fall—and California voters will face two choices on the same ballot: Whether to recall Newsom, and who will replace him if the recall passes.

Republicans have tried—and failed—to recall Newsom before, and for a while, Democrats shrugged off this most recent effort as equally far-fetched. But now, California’s Democratic lawmakers are scrambling to dissuade the state’s progressive and liberal voters from lending their signatures, painting the recall push as purely a partisan ploy from Republicans.

“This recall is a vanity project initiated by Trump Republicans, and if it is to qualify, would be a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars,” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez said this week. “In the middle of this pandemic, our collective efforts should be used to ensure we keep people safe, get them vaccinated and back to normal as soon as possible.”

“Some of the same individuals and groups who were encouraged by California Republican leaders and attacked the people’s house are also engaged in a recall effort against Governor Gavin Newsom right here in California,” California Democratic Party chair Rusty Hicks said after the attack on the U.S. Capitol last month. “This recall effort, which really ought to be called ‘the California coup,’ is being led by right-wing conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, anti-vaxxers and groups who encourage violence on our democratic institutions.”

Conservatives have led the charge, but voters across the political spectrum are helping organizers rack up signatures. Newsom’s approval rating has dropped a whopping 18 percentage points since September, from 64 to 46 percent, as his administration faces backlash and scandal.

Newsom’s opponents point to California’s spikes in violent crime, increased taxes, record homelessness, and mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic as reasons for the recall. The last point of criticism came into clear focus in November, when reports and images surfaced of the governor violating his own COVID-19 restrictions by dining indoors at French Laundry, an upscale restaurant in Napa Valley.

Small business owners, whose livelihoods have been ravaged by some of the strictest lockdown measures in the country, took notice. As did parents of students unable to return to school under Newsom’s guidelines.

“It created a political caricature moment of hypocrisy that defined Newsom in a way differently than how voters had seen him before,” Rob Stutzman, a California Republican consultant who worked with Gov. Schwarzenegger, said of the French Laundry incident. “They break their own rules, they hang out at expensive dinners with lobbyist buddies, and that just put a huge stain on his reputation.”

The Recall Newsom 2020 movement is small but motivated, picking up signatures through locally-hosted signing events across the state. Along with the group Rescue California, its campaign has raised more than $3.5 million, including a $250,000 contribution from the national Republican Party. With a month before the deadline, the GOP plans to initiate a text and digital campaign to sway undecided voters.

“Gov. Newsom’s authoritarian measures, blatant overreach and complete mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic have proven that he is woefully unqualified to lead the state of California,” RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said last week. “At a time when families and small businesses have needed it most, Newsom and California Democrats have been unable to provide meaningful leadership, and the repercussions have been devastating. It is time the people use their Constitutional recourse to remove him from power.”

But Republicans’ path to the governor’s office is a lot more complicated than just reaching the signature threshold. From there, they need a majority vote to recall and a plurality vote to install a Republican candidate.

“They need enough energy behind the recall to get the 50 percent plus one, which is going to take more than just Republicans,” Stutzman told The Dispatch. From there, he said, “You just need a plurality, so if the field winnows in such a way as Democrat votes get divided amongst candidates, a Republican may end up the top vote getter.”

“The problem is, you immediately have to go face the voters again within a year,” Stutzman added. “The timing of this is not ideal for Republicans if they really want to reclaim the governor’s office for a full term.”

Power Outages in Texas

At least 23 people have died and 3.3 million are without power in Texas this week, following record snowfall and frigid temperatures caused by a historic cold snap that has blanketed much of the central United States. Several of the deaths have been attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning after Texans seeking respite from the cold brought their grills, barbecue pits, and generators indoors.

Most of the time, weather-related power issues result from damage to the infrastructure of power delivery, usually in the form of downed electrical poles and lines. But the issues currently plaguing Texas are more fundamental: It’s simply so cold that the infrastructure of power generation can’t work as it should. This fact, coupled with surging power demand also brought about by low temperatures, has sent energy prices in the state skyrocketing in recent days and caused the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to implement rolling blackouts across the state to alleviate stress on the grid.

Why have storms so damaged Texas’s ability to get electricity to its citizens? After all, places with far more frigid climates still generally manage to keep the lights on. Republican leaders in the state hastened to point the finger at frozen wind turbines, but natural gas and coal plants were struggling in the cold as well. The biggest reason seems to be that energy plants in the ordinarily balmy state simply hadn’t ponied up to “weatherize” their facilities with measures like heating elements near pipes that are standard in chillier parts of the country. This helped keep Texas’ energy costs among the lowest in the nation—but has come back to bite them during a historically cold storm.

Gov. Greg Abbott has repeatedly heaped blame for the dire situation on ERCOT, the nonprofit that manages power flow across Texas’s deregulated energy generation market, calling for its leadership to resign and the entity to be restructured. Meanwhile, Texas has called in help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for generators for hard-hit communities and temporary warming shelters.

Is It Time for the Republican Party to Split Apart?

Earlier this week, Gallup released a survey showing that Americans’ desire for a viable third political party reached a two-decade peak in January. The surge was driven almost entirely by GOP voters, but for disparate reasons: 41 percent of Republicans surveyed favored separating to create an even Trumpier third party, while 28 percent backed the idea of a new party less beholden to the former president.

The poll raises an obvious question: Will GOP leaders in the post-Trump era be able to keep the party from breaking up?

Such a dissolution has happened before. The Whig Party of the mid-19th century proved unable to bridge the various divisions within its ranks—chiefly over the expansion of slavery—and ultimately disbanded, giving way to the Know Nothings and, more permanently, the GOP.

Declan asked several Republican officials looking to chart a different path for the party—including Sen. Ben Sasse, Gov. Larry Hogan, and Sen. Pat Toomey—if they ever think about leaving the GOP behind, and talked to dozens of former Republican voters who have done just that.

Check out the full piece here, and an excerpt below.

Longtime observers of Sen. Mitch McConnell know the high regard in which he holds Henry Clay, the 19th-century statesman who represented Kentucky in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. A younger McConnell wrote his college thesis on Clay at the University of Louisville, and a portrait of the “Great Compromiser” still hangs in his Senate office today. “The way Clay operated—a marvelous combination of compromise and principle—is a lesson for the ages if you’re a public official,” McConnell once said.

Clay, a founding member of the Whig Party, was instrumental in brokering a series of grand bargains over the expansion of slavery. The Missouri Compromise of 1820—passed while Clay was speaker of the House—admitted the Show-Me State to the Union as a slave state, while banning the practice above the 36°30’ parallel everywhere else. But the slavery issue became thornier over time, requiring Congress to revisit it three decades later. Clay and Democratic Sen. Stephen Douglas negotiated the aforementioned Compromise of 1850, which was signed into law by President Fillmore.

The latter compromise had its detractors, but Clay brushed them aside. “It is the duty of all who assail this compromise,” he said in a May 1850 Senate speech, “to give us their own and a better project; to tell us how they would reconcile the interests of this country and harmonize its distracted parts.”

Clay went to his death bed two years later believing that his work had warded off a splintering of not only the country, but his own party. But the splintering came nonetheless: The Whigs in 1854 and 1855, the country five years after that. On an issue as consequential as chattel slavery, there ultimately could be no compromise.

McConnell voted on Saturday to acquit President Trump on charges he incited the mob that stormed the Capitol back in January, deferring to a disputed constitutional argument that former officeholders cannot be impeached or convicted. Immediately after the vote concluded, however, McConnell returned to the floor of the Senate to reiterate his belief that Trump was determined to “either overturn the voters’ decision or else torch our institutions on the way out” of office.

Trump did not appreciate the half measure. “Mitch is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack,” the former president said in a statement Tuesday. “If Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again.”

The two-step is indicative of the approach McConnell appears to be taking in charting a course for the post-Trump GOP: Keep the new voters that Trump brought into the tent, without bleeding the ones he drove away. “My goal is, in every way possible, to have nominees representing the Republican Party who can win in November,” McConnell told Politico over the weekend. “Some of them may be people the former president likes. Some of them may not be. The only thing I care about is electability.”

But like his Kentucky idol, the Senate minority leader may be trying to bridge an unbridgeable divide. Voters in a big tent conservative party can disagree—vigorously—on marginal tax rates, the size of the next COVID-19 relief package, how and where to deploy the United States’ military might. Can they disagree on adherence to the democratic process? Loyalty to the truth? Reality itself?

Worth Your Time

  • Stories of vaccine waste and poor distribution logistics have made it all too easy to deride the U.S. government’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout as a failure. But in doing so, we often lose sight of how far we’ve come since the onset of the pandemic. Per Bloomberg columnist (and fellow Substack writer) Noah Smith: “The U.S. vaccine rollout, for all its faults, is ahead of almost every other country in the entire world.” Smith points out that the U.S. is outpacing everyone besides Israel, Seychelles, UAE, and the UK when it comes to the percentage of doses administered. That’s a big deal. Check out Smith’s article for his take on why other countries have fallen behind, why our technology is the best, and who deserves credit for what he calls the “U.S.’ world-beating” vaccine rollout.

  • By now, we’ve endured countless retrospectives on the Trump era and endless lamentations about the grim year that was 2020. This one is different. In the Winter issue of National Affairs, Richard Reinecke looks back and sees strength in a system that survived “mounting crises” that “brought out the worst in our elected officials.” And, looking forward, he wonders whether that same system might constrain the leftist impulses of those newly empowered. “Progressives want to construct a social-justice empire ruled by those the old America victimized while ignoring the giant constitutional and policy steps that have brought much of that victimization to an end. But can they achieve the breakthroughs their ambitions demand and their ideology grandiloquently justifies? Or are the highest ambitions of the left, and therefore the worst fears of the right, bound to be rendered moot by our governing institutions? Did 2020, that annus horribilis, somehow manage to end with a real cause for hope in our constitutional order?”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In recent years, the New York Times and Fox News have grown so institutionally powerful that they now dwarf the readership and viewership of their respective competitors on the left and right. “Their dominant market positions grant Fox and the Times disproportionate influence over public opinion and a disproportionate influence over the rest of the industry,” David writes in his Tuesday French Press (🔒). “Thus it’s vitally important for the body politic that these institutions are healthy. Sadly, they are not.” Read David’s piece to learn more about the blinding partisanship and institutional toxicity that have worked in concert to destroy both media outlets from within.

  • If you’re looking for a slightly more optimistic take on the GOP’s future after reading Declan’s piece, check out Sarah’s latest Sweep newsletter. “Headline after headline suggests that the GOP is in serious trouble post-Trump,” she writes. “And maybe it is. The party’s current coalition isn’t a winning one at the presidential level because it’s bleeding independents. But if the party alienates pro-Trump Republicans to win back independents, it will certainly lose more voters in the short term.” Plus: Chris Stirewalt adds his two cents: “Elected officials are lagging indicators of popular sentiment, not thought leaders.”

Let Us Know

What do you want to hear the gang discuss during Dispatch Live tonight?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).