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Trump falsely calls recall ‘rigged’ on election day. Why did he stay out of Newsom race?

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 14, 2021

Gillian Brassil and David Lightman The Sacramento Bee

WASHINGTON — Former President Donald Trump mostly held his tongue on the California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recall election, but he had a last-minute complaint.

The former president said the election was “probably rigged” in an interview on conservative television news outlet Newsmax last week and added that Democrats were good at rigging elections that used mail-in ballots.

Trump doubled down on those claims the day before the recall election — and again on the day of — saying, “it all doesn’t matter because the California Election is totally Rigged” in a memo released by his “Save America PAC” on Tuesday.

California has been using mail-in ballots for years, relying on them more during the coronavirus pandemic, without evidence of widespread voter fraud.

Californians have not elected a Republican in a statewide election since 2006, when former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won reelection. Now, nearly half of the state’s 22 million voters are registered Democrats. Less than a quarter are Republicans. The rest either decline to state a party preference, 23.3%, or are members of another party, 6.2%.

Trump has largely avoided the California recall election until now for two reasons, said analysts: He doesn’t like being associated with losses and he’s more focused on regaining power in Washington.

“Trump doesn’t like losers, and the recall campaign is a loser,” said John Pitney, professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.

Donald Trump’s 2022 election endorsements

So far in the 2022 election cycle, Trump has endorsed 32 candidates, according to Ballotpedia. He also endorsed Glenn Youngkin, the Republican nominee for governor in Virginia’s November election.

Three of Trump’s preferred 2022 candidates are running for governor, and are favorites to win: Greg Abbott of Texas, Bill Lee of Tennessee and Henry McMaster of South Carolina. Trump is also backing Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his former White House press secretary, who’s seeking to become governor of Arkansas.

In Congress, he’s generally backing incumbents. But he’s also behind Kelly Tshibaka of Alaska, a Republican trying to oust fellow Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Harriet Hageman, who’s seeking to defeat fellow Republican Liz Cheney of Wyoming.

Republicans need a net gain of five House seats and one Senate seat to win control of Congress.

“Mr. Trump is focusing on the swing states as he charts his path to return to the presidency in 2025,” said Chris Mathys, who is running for Congress in California’s 21st district against incumbent Republican Rep. David Valadao in 2022 and went to the Trump National Doral resort in Florida in April.

Dan Schnur, a former chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, said that Trump benefits from reminding his base that he feels that the 2020 election was stolen from him, and said that the former president is less concerned on whether or not Newsom is recalled.

He added the distance Trump kept from the recall was in line with most high-profile Republican politicians.

“Where are the 2024 candidates?” Schnur asked of potential GOP presidential candidates, such as former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Tom Cotton. “We were assuming we would have been seeing all sorts of presidential candidates, but they have kept a distance.”

Why 3-inch fish and ‘double votes’ came into this

Part of Trump’s argument on the recall on Tuesday returned to an old shtick regarding endangered fish and water access, issues highly contested in the Central Valley.

“The place is so Rigged, however, that a guy who can’t even bring water into their State, which I got federal approval to do (that is the hard part), will probably win,” he said of Newsom. “Billions of gallons of water coming to California from the North is being sent out to sea, rather than being spread throughout the State. This is to protect the tiny delta smelt, which is doing far worse now without the water.”

Delta smelt are small fish that are on the verge of going extinct. Some water pumps are often throttled or shut off to prevent smelt from getting sucked in. In these cases, water set for central and southern areas flows out to the Pacific Ocean.

That makes farmers, some of whom are in Central Valley Republican districts, unhappy.

Like his ally near Fresno, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, Trump campaigned on water. Under Trump, rules on water pumping were loosened to try to lessen water flow into the ocean. It’s not clear that this succeeded in improving farmers’ water deliveries —which, due to drought, have been cut to almost zero for many of those farmers this year anyway.

Trump on Tuesday also claimed that voters are being told that they already voted when they appear at the ballot box. It is unclear whether his claims might be about people who forgot that they had voted, people who wanted to change their vote or people who thought another individual had illegally voted under their name.

It is also unclear where he has gathered that reporting, though a Media Matters report published on Tuesday said right-wing news outlets built off of a report by KTLA about a computer error that affected early voting locations in a Los Angeles neighborhood.

Trump’s team did not respond to a request for comment.

But, timing-wise, why did Trump say the California election was rigged, especially on election day after all most of the ballots have been cast, and bring fish into it?

“He’s someone who’s increasingly desperate for media attention,” said Alex Conant, a Washington-based Republican consultant.

By saying the election is rigged — a charge he keeps making about the 2020 presidential election — he promotes his brand, said Sacramento-based Republican strategist Rob Stutzman.

It assures him, Stutzman said, “everyone’s talking about him.”

“It was very, very savvy,” he said of Trump’s reclusiveness. “He knew this would be a loser,” he said of the recall election.

The Sacramento Bee’s Ryan Sabalow, Dale Kasler and Lara Korte contributed to the story.

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