TODAY, California voters will decide the fate of Governor Gavin Newsom. The ballot presents two questions: 1) Should Newsom be recalled and replaced?, and 2) In the event of his recall, who should replace him? If more than 50% of voters approve the recall, Newsom will be removed from office. 46 candidates are running to be his replacement, and the winner only needs a plurality of votes. You might be wondering, how could this possibly happen in one of the country’s bluest states? Well, not so long ago, in the far away time of 2003, Democratic Governor Gray Davis faced a similar recall attempt. The race to be his replacement quickly devolved into a media circus. Candidates included Davis’ own Lieutenant Governor, a pornstar, and, of course, The Terminator.

Recall History

California is one of nineteen states (plus DC) that permits recall elections. Although some of the original thirteen states included recall procedures in their state constitutions, its popularity truly evolved during the Progressive Era. After being pioneered by Los Angeles in 1903, it was adopted statewide via ballot measure in 1911. Its biggest proponent was Republican Governor Hiram Johnson. At the time, progressives like Johnson believed that procedures such as recall elections, ballot initiatives, and the direct election of senators would give voters more say in governance and reduce corruption. Johnson remained an immensely popular politician. In 1912, he ran for vice president alongside Teddy Roosevelt as the Bull-Moose Party. After two terms as governor, he served in the Senate from 1917 to 1945, where he was known for his isolationist and anti-immigrant views.

1912 Campaign Poster3

California has some of the most lenient recall criteria in the country. Any elected official in the state can be recalled. In order for a recall petition to make it to the ballot, it must receive enough signatures equal to 12% of the number of votes cast in the most recent election for that office. In 2003, recall supporters needed just under 900,000 signatures. In 2021, it was about 1.5 million. There have been 179 attempted recalls of state officials in California. Eleven qualified for a ballot, six of which passed. 55 attempts have specifically targeted the sitting governor – multiple against every governor since 1960. Gray Davis himself had already been the subject of a failed effort in 1999. In 2003, however, his was the first gubernatorial recall in the state to earn a ballot (and only the second in the country, following the successful 1921 recall of North Dakota Governor Lynn Frazier).

Governor Gray Davis

Joseph Graham “Gray” Davis Jr. was born in New York City and raised in Los Angeles. (It’s beyond the scope of this post, but Davis’ grandfather was an oil magnate who sold oil to Nazi Germany and was maybe a secret agent?!) Throughout his political career, he served in the (first) administration of Governor Jerry Brown, as a state assemblyman, and as State Controller (sounds like a cool job, but it’s just a boring financial position). In 1992, Davis lost to Dianne Feinstein in the Democratic primary for US Senate. He gained a reputation for negative campaigning during the race, specifically in response to an ad that compared Feinstein to Leona Helmsley (a notably cruel, wealthy hotel owner that had recently been convicted of tax evasion). Two years later, he became Lieutenant Governor under Republican Pete Wilson.

Davis succeed Wilson in 1998, defeating the Republican nominee, State Attorney General Dan Lungren, in a landslide, 58%-38%. He was initially popular. In his first term, he was known for his focus on education, and for recognizing domestic partnership for gay couples. Unfortunately, the good feelings did not last. The defining issue for Davis’ tenure was the California energy crisis. Shortened supply forced Davis to agree to expensive rates with energy companies. Consumer costs skyrocketed and rolling blackouts became commonplace across the state. Many Californians believed that Davis had been too slow to respond to the crisis. When dealing with the energy companies, he was perceived as weak and ineffective. Critics on the Left also pointed to campaign contributions he received from energy companies as a conflict of interest. Years after the recall, it was discovered that a major factor in the energy crisis was market manipulation by Enron, made possible by recent deregulation.  

Fans trying to cool off the desert4

The high cost of energy in the state also exacerbated growing economic issues. At the turn of the 21st Century, the sudden growth of tech companies in Silicon Valley had earned California a budget surplus. Like most politicians of the era, Davis responded with tax cuts. Just a few years later, however, excessive speculation in tech created the Dot Com Bubble. California was one of the hardest-hit states of the short recession. Its budget deficit exploded, and Davis was forced to raise the costs of government services. The most prominent example was vehicle registration fees. Although Davis argued that he was simply restoring the fees to what they had been at the start of his term, Californians were extremely unhappy with the increase – $158 on average.

Davis ran for re-election in 2002 against Republican businessman Bill Simon Jr. The result was a narrow victory for Davis, who won 47%-42%. He called it “a humbling experience.” Despite this victory, Davis’ popularity began to drop just a few weeks later. Just after the election, the state announced a deficit of $21.1 billion. The following month, it had grown to $34.8 billion.

The Recall Movement

Popular support for recalling Governor Davis first began in early 2003. In March, his approval rating was a dismal 27%-64%. Initially, Davis did not take the threat seriously, calling it, “just a bunch of sour grapes by a bunch of losers.” The petition for recall was first drafted by Ted Costa, head of the anti-tax group “People’s Advocate.” As a relative nonpartisan, Costa later felt that his movement had been overtaken by Republicans trying to increase their political capital, like Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian.

The recall truly gained momentum, however, thanks to funding from San Diego Congressman Darrell Issa. As a successful businessman (he co-founded a car alarm company), Issa was able to donate about $1.5 million to the campaign. With his support, the petition earned more than 1.6 million signatures. It was certified on July 23rd, and election day was set for October 7th, less than one year after Davis’ re-election.

The Campaign

The contest to be Davis’ replacement quickly drew national media attention. 135 candidates earned a spot on the ballot. The best-known political candidates were Republican Congressman Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, and Green Party activist Peter Camejo. Thanks to a low filing fee (which was completely waived with enough signatures), a long list of less-than-serious candidates also joined the race. This group included author and businesswoman Arianna Huffington, former MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, actor Gary Coleman, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, model Angelyne, and porn actress Mary Carey. The amusing nature of the campaign was best exemplified by the Game Show Network’s one-hour special, Who Wants to be Governor of California.


The star of the race, however, was Arnold Schwarzenegger. Born in Austria, Schwarzenegger had moved to the US to pursue bodybuilding, and eventually, acting. As a celebrity, he had previously expressed support for President Ronald Reagan, and even served as the Chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness during the George H.W. Bush Administration. His wife at the time, Maria Shriver, was the niece of President John F. Kennedy, and the daughter of 1972 vice-presidential nominee Sargent Shriver. Schwarzenegger began hinting at a possible gubernatorial run while promoting his latest movie, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. On August 6th, he made his official announcement on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Although many observers believed it to be a publicity stunt, Schwarzenegger’s campaign team worked hard to make him appear as a serious candidate. That said, they were not afraid to use humor to their advantage. Their campaign busses were labeled “Total Recall” and “Running Man.” In one speech, Schwarzenegger used a broom as a prop, indicating that he was going to “clean house” in the government. Other candidates accused Schwarzenegger of lacking substance – he skipped the first debate – but the level of optimism and enthusiasm he brought to the campaign could not be denied. Though he promised to balance the state budget without raising taxes, he was also perceived as a moderate and an outsider. The most damaging criticism of Schwarzenegger were accusations of sexism. In one debate, he clashed heavily with Arianna Huffington. When she referenced crude remarks he had made in prior interviews, he responded by suggesting that she play the villain in the next Terminator movie. More seriously, a Los Angeles Times article alleged that Schwarzenegger had engaged in inappropriate conduct on movie sets, including groping. One woman accused him of lifting up her shirt and taking a picture of her breasts.

Democrats initially vowed to remain loyal to Davis and not endorse a replacement candidate, a strategy led by the powerful San Francisco mayor, Willie Brown. But Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante had concerns about Davis’ chances. He believed that Democrats needed a backup option in the (increasingly likely) event that Davis was removed from office. Bustamante entered the race, though the still insisted that he was opposed to the recall, as indicated by his slogan, “No on the recall. Yes on Bustamante.” Although the Lieutenant Governor may have been correct in his assessment of Davis’ unpopularity, his message was ultimately confusing to voters. As the election neared, polls indicated that most Californians supported the recall, and backed Schwarzenegger.

The Winner


The recall of Gray Davis passed with a vote of 55%-45%. Arnold Schwarzenegger won the election to be his replacement with 48.6%. Following Schwarzenegger was Cruz Bustamante (31.5%), Tom McClintock (13.4%), and Peter Camejo (2.8%). All other candidates received less than 1% of the vote. Schwarzenegger received more votes than the next five candidates combined.

Gray Davis left politics and now works as an attorney. Awkwardly, Cruz Bustamante remained Lieutenant Governor, however, his political future was ruined. He never held public office again.

What Did It Say About California?

Republicans benefitted from the sheer chaos and irreverent nature of the 2003 recall. The whole affair was not a good look for democracy (it clearly inspired the election plotline of the show Parks and Recreation). Whether California’s problems were his fault or not, Davis did not appear to be a strong leader. Worse yet, he was boring. Schwarzenegger offered change and excitement. There’s certainly something to be said for the appeal of a such a masculine figure in the post-9/11 world. He was, quite literally, a muscular action-movie star. Obviously, there are also parallels to the 2016 election. Schwarzenegger benefitted from his prior fame and wealth. He was notably outspoken, and faced accusations of sexual misconduct. But also, he was largely perceived as a moderate, outside of a few key issues. We can only guess at how he would have fared in an actual Republican primary.

Was It The Right Decision?

Nope! I won’t pretend that Davis’ shortened tenure was a huge loss, but California’s problems proved to be just as difficult for Schwarzenegger. His conservative economic policies continued to expand the state’s debt, leading to cuts in vital social programs during the 2008 Recession. Though he won a second term in 2006, he struggled to please his Republican base, while working with the Democratic politicians that controlled the state. When he finally left office in 2011, he had an approval rating of 22% — the same as Davis’ low-point. Voters subsequently turned to a safe, familiar face by electing former Governor Jerry Brown to a third, nonconsecutive term, a similar narrative to today’s presidential politics.

Gavin Newsom is now the fourth governor to be the subject of a recall ballot (the third being the unsuccessful 2012 attempt to unseat Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker). But 2021 isn’t 2003. Although Newsom’s Covid-19 response has been controversial, he has never been quite as unpopular as Davis. Likewise, his competition lacks the enthusiasm of Schwarzenegger. At the time of this writing, 538 gives Newsom a 57.3% chance to stay in office.

I’ll leave you with Gray Davis’ official state portrait7

1. Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor, 2003 — State of California / Wikimedia Commons
2. Gray Davis — State of California / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
3. Poster of Theodore Roosevelt and Hiram Johnson, 1912 — Theodore Roosevelt 1912 Presidential Campaign / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
4. San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm, 2006 — Matthew Hickey / Wikimedia Commons
5. Briefing, Greeting, and Remarks to Firefighters, 2003 — Office of White House Management / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
6. Results of the 2003 California Gubernatorial Recall Election, 2018 — Inqvisitor / Wikimedia Commons
7. Official State Portrait of Governor Gray Davis — Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Cohn, Gary, et al. “Women Say Schwarzenegger Groped, Humiliated Them.” Los Angeles Times, October 2, 2003.
Curwen, Thomas. “Has California’s Unique Brand of Direct Democracy Gone Too Far? Recall is Ultimate Test.” Los Angeles Times, September 5, 2021.
Hoover, Ken. “Feinstein Endorses Gray Davis, Ending Long-Standing Antipathy.” SFGATE, October 15, 1998.
Finnegan, Michael. “Davis Recall Qualifies for Fall Ballot.” Los Angeles Times, July 24, 2003.
Karlamangla, Soumya. “Why Do We Have Recalls? Thank Los Angeles.” The New York Times, September 8, 2021.
Karlamangla, Soumya. “Why Does California Have Recall Elections?” The New York Times, September 13, 2021.
Kreutz, Liz. Total Recalled: The story of America’s largest, wildest governor recall election. ABC 7 News, April 7, 2021.
Kurtz, Howard. “California Attack Ads Adopt East Coast Villain.” The Washington Post, May 30, 1992.
Leibowitz, Ed. “The Man Who Tried to Make California Great Again.” Los Angeles Magazine, January 1, 2011.
Mathews, Joe. “Little-Known Activist is Recall Powerhouse.” Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2003.
Susman, Gary. “Schwarzenegger Spars with Huffington in Debate.” Entertainment Weekly, September 25, 2003.