(Adds details from Biden rally)
By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif., Sept 14 (Reuters) - California voters will decide on Tuesday whether to recall Governor Gavin Newsom in a special election that will test the power of a Republican Party still dominated by former President Donald Trump in a deeply Democratic state.
Newsom, a first-term governor and former lieutenant governor and San Francisco mayor, is fighting for his political future in only the second recall election for governor in state history despite 55 attempts.
The campaign to oust the Democratic governor began with a conservative Republican group https://www.reuters.com/world/us/what-you-need-know-about-californias-recall-election-2021-09-14 and gained steam during the pandemic. Conservatives, angered by Newsom's liberal policies on LGBTQ rights, immigration and crime, also became infuriated by his decision to close schools and require masks and vaccinations against COVID-19.
The removal of Newsom, a popular figure in one of the most liberal U.S. states, would likely embolden Republicans and set off alarms among Democrats, coming just over a year before the 2022 elections that will decide control of Congress.
Recall also could mean the end of Newsom's political ambitions, widely believed to include possible runs for the U.S. Senate or the presidency.
The latest public opinion polls showed Newsom with strong support. In a survey released on Friday https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1g8696rv by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, 60.1% of likely voters said they favored retaining the governor and 38.5% opposed him staying in office.
Democrats have returned twice as many ballots as Republicans so far in a four-week early voting period, state data showed. About 38% of voters have already submitted their ballots.
That is a dramatic turnaround from earlier this summer, when polls showed so few Democrats were planning to vote that Newsom's job was in jeopardy in a state where Republicans make up less than a quarter of the electorate.
The polls "changed Democrats' mindset from sitting back on the couch to saying, 'This is something we've got to do,'" said Paul Mitchell, whose firm Political Data Intelligence analyzed state ballot return information.
Under California's recall system, voters are asked to vote "yes" or "no" on whether to recall Newsom. If more than 50% of voters say Newsom should be recalled, then the candidate with the most votes on the second question - even if less than a majority - automatically replaces him for the remainder of his four-year term.
Republican radio host and Trump supporter Larry Elder https://www.reuters.com/world/us/larry-elder-right-wing-radio-host-seeks-governorship-california-recall-2021-09-14 leads the slate of 46 replacement candidates. Elder has vowed to remove requirements for vaccines and mask wearing.
In the Berkeley poll, he was supported by about 38% of those likely to vote on a replacement. Kevin Paffrath, a Democrat and YouTube host, received 10% support, followed by former Republican San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer at 8%.
Former gubernatorial nominee John Cox and Republican reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner also are on the ballot.
TURNOUT BEING WATCHED
Results from the recall may not be immediately known. Mail-in ballots can be postmarked as late as Tuesday.
Many Republicans are expected to vote in person on Tuesday, fueled by Trump's false claims that Democrats stole the 2020 presidential election with fraudulent mail-in voting. For days leading up to California's recall election, Trump said it also would be "rigged" against Republicans.
Elder made such claims as well. He told reporters in Los Angeles last week, "There may well be shenanigans," according to CNN and other media.
Mitchell said Republicans would need overwhelming turnout for in-person voting on Tuesday, and Democratic participation would need to slow way down, for Newsom to be recalled.
The last time a Republican took the helm of the overwhelmingly Democratic state was in 2003, when actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was chosen in a recall to replace Democrat Gray Davis.
If Newsom wins, he will enter next year's re-election campaign in a particularly strong position, with the most likely Republican opposition weakened from the recall race, said California State University political scientist Raphael Sonenshein.
Newsom ramped up his outreach to Democrats in recent weeks, including appearing with President Joe Biden at a rally https://www.reuters.com/world/us/biden-campaign-with-california-governor-eve-republican-backed-recall-election-2021-09-13 on Monday night. Newsom has tied the recall effort to Trump and said Elder would impose conservative policies on abortion, immigration, gun rights and other issues.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Cynthia Osterman and Jonathan Oatis)
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