On Tuesday, voters in the most populous US state will decide whether to retain their governor or oust him in favour of one of his 46 challengers.
Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has cemented California’s status as America’s progressive and free-spending state since taking office in 2019.
However, dissatisfaction with his handling of the pandemic has fueled a Republican-led effort to replace him before his term expires.
The last time California held a “recall election”, 18 years ago, voters booted an unpopular Democratic governor and replaced him with bodybuilder-cum-movie-star Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Summer polls showed voter apathy, which had Team Newsom worried about a repeat in the face of significant Republican enthusiasm. Recall rules allow a successor to be elected with only a plurality of votes, potentially earning the governorship without the support of the majority of voters.
However, if early voting is any indication, Mr. Newsom appears to be on track to defeat the effort, thanks to a recent surge in awareness and fundraising. But his ordeal will not be over until all of the votes are counted.
Whoever wins the election will have the opportunity to lead the world’s fifth largest economy – California’s GDP is higher than that of the United Kingdom – for at least the next year.
The ragtag group of candidates on the ballot now includes an incumbent, a conservative talk radio host, and Hollywood’s most famous trans woman.
Prince or public servant?
Critics assail him as an “aristocrat” and “pretty boy” who has too-freely spent taxpayer dollars.
Supporters tout him as “an eager nerd who presents as a slick jock” – more substance than style.
Gavin Newsom, a San Francisco Democrat with an estimated personal wealth of $20 million (£14.5 million), rose steadily through the ranks of California politics, serving as mayor from 2004 to 2011 and lieutenant governor from 2011 to 2019.
Good looks and a tabloid-worthy personal life aided him along the way. (San Franciscans dubbed him “Mayor McHottie,” and he was previously married to Kimberly Guilfoyle, a now-conservative TV personality and Donald Trump Jr.’s partner.)
Mr. Newsom cruised into the governor’s office two years ago, declaring, “The arc of history is bending in our direction,” thanks to a long list of donors that included the Getty family, Silicon Valley billionaires, labour unions, and Native American groups.
In two years, he has increased spending on education and healthcare, expanded the social safety net, halted executions, and banned fracking.
However, his tenure has also been marked by back-to-back record wildfire seasons and the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as widespread criticism of his handling of the latter.
He was chastised for keeping public schools closed while his children resumed in-person learning at their prestigious private school. Conservatives filed a lawsuit against him for closing their churches.
But perhaps nothing has harmed the governor’s image more than the viral photo of him dining indoors at a lobbyist’s birthday party, blatantly violating his own administration’s rules.
California is now in its fourth wave of the virus, but new infections are only about a third of what they were in the winter, as vaccination rates have steadily increased, and Mr. Newsom’s overall approval ratings remain high.
In a state where there are two registered Democrats for every Republican and ballots are automatically mailed to every voter, Mr. Newsom is betting that enough people will oppose what he calls a “power grab” by “Trump Republicans” to allow him to finish his term.
‘The sage from South Central’
None of the 46 recall candidates on the ballot have jolted the race as much as Larry Elder.
The 69-year-old Los Angeles native has never run for public office, but after 28 years on talk radio, he may be the state’s most well-known conservative voice.
Mr Elder, the son of World War II veterans, has frequently described how his “gruff and blunt” father’s tough love instilled in him a strong sense of self-reliance.
He is a best-selling author and the host of a nationally syndicated radio show with nearly one million weekly listeners. He was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2015.
Despite entering the recall race late and then suing to be included, Mr Elder quickly rose to the top of polls, speaking out against Mr Newsom and about California’s crime rates, homelessness, and rolling blackouts.
His libertarian ideology has earned him top endorsements from leading Californian and national-level Republicans. One opponent even complained Fox News was ignoring him “because they’re supporting Larry”.
But his presence in the race has also galvanised Democrats, who have taken Mr Elder to task over past comments that the coronavirus is no worse than the flu, the gender pay gap is a lie and the minimum wage should be $0.
He has earned particular fury for his views on race; he reportedly describes himself as “an American who is black”, not an African American, and has claimed systemic racism does not exist.
His ex-fiancée accused him of threatening her with a gun and demanding she tattoo the words “Larry’s Girl” on her body during an argument last month. Mr Elder vehemently denied the allegations.
The self-styled “sage from South Central” – a reference to the Los Angeles neighbourhood where he was born and raised – has promised that if elected, he will repeal mask and vaccine mandates on his first day in office.
The celebrity flop
Caitlyn Jenner, 71, has modelled, starred in her own reality show, and spoken out on behalf of trans visibility in the six years since she publicly announced her sexual orientation to the world.
However, her splashy debut in the California recall election, which she aided with former Donald Trump acolytes, has been off-key from the start.
In April, she launched her campaign on Twitter, directing supporters to a website that included donation links and merchandise but no policy proposals.
In an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, she made mention of her support for a border wall, but more memorably, told the crowd that a man who parked his private plane next door to hers was moving to Arizona because he “can’t take” seeing homeless people anymore.
Ms Jenner has refused to show up to debates, piled up debt and even jetted off to Australia to film “Celebrity Big Brother” during the campaign, leading to speculation that she is not a serious candidate.
She has barely registered in recent polls.
Who else is running?
Despite rumours that singer (and 2020 presidential candidate) Kanye West would run, former Playboy model Mary Carey, 41, and well-known billboard model Angelyne (real name Ronia Tamar Goldberg), 70, are on the ballot.
By campaigning with a 1,000lb (71 stone) Kodiak bear, John Cox, 66, a perennial Republican candidate, positioned himself as a “beastly” challenger to “The Beauty” Mr Newsom. He abandoned the stunt after the media ignored him in favour of the bear.
Former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, an early establishment favourite offering tax cuts and credible economic policy, and Kevin Kiley, the only current elected official challenging Mr. Newsom, are two other serious candidates.
While no prominent Democrats are running, Kevin Paffrath, a realtor and YouTube star, is offering himself as “a backup Democrat” in the event that Mr. Newsom is defeated.
Although Mr Elder has largely consolidated the anti-Newsom vote, his socially conservative views and previous statements are likely to have increased voter turnout and effectively stifled the recall effort.
Mr. Newsom told Politico that the last few months have been “sobering,” but he is confident he will prevail.