SACRAMENTO — Long before Orrin Heatlie filed papers to recall Gavin Newsom, he knew the odds were against unseating the suave ex-mayor of San Francisco who ascended to become California’s governor.
“Democrats have a supermajority here — it’s one-party rule,” said Mr. Heatlie, a Republican and retired Yolo County sheriff’s sergeant. Voters had elected Mr. Newsom in 2018 by a record 24-point margin. As recently as April, 70 percent still approved of his performance. Plus, just to trigger a recall election, Mr. Heatlie’s petition would require about 1.5 million valid voter signatures.
Lately, however, Mr. Heatlie has been feeling lucky.
California has been upended by the coronavirus. Most of the state is waiting — impatiently — for vaccinations. Schools in big cities have yet to reopen their classrooms. Prison inmates and international fraud rings may have looted as much as $30 billion from the state’s pandemic unemployment insurance program.
And then there was that dinner at the French Laundry restaurant that the governor attended, barefaced, after telling Californians to stay in and wear masks to avoid spreading the virus.
“This is an easy sell,” reported Mr. Heatlie last week, speaking by phone from rural San Joaquin County, where he was delivering petitions that he said pushed his haul over the 1.7 million-signature mark with three weeks to go before the deadline.
“I like to say we have nobody to thank but him,” he said, “and he has nobody to blame but himself.”
A year into the coronavirus crisis, Mr. Newsom is not the only governor who has hit a political rough patch. Across the country, pandemic-weary Americans are taking their rage and grief out on chief executives.
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine, whose voter approval soared at the start of the pandemic, has been assailed for his strict enforcement of health precautions. Gov. Greg Abbott was under fire for runaway infection rates in Texas border cities even before winter storms collapsed the power grid. Crashes of the vaccine appointment system in Massachusetts have eaten away at the once unassailable popularity of Gov. Charlie Baker. “For the first time, he has a true political opponent — and it’s Covid-19,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston political strategist.
And in New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s national image as a leader during the pandemic has suffered amid questions around New York’s incomplete count of coronavirus-related deaths of nursing home residents.
Dane Strother, a Democratic media consultant in California whose clients include governors and mayors across the country, said governors “are in an untenable position.”
“The Trump administration gave them no guidance for the most part, but then threw them the responsibility,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say there’s not a governor in this country right now whose approval ratings are not taking a dip.”
As California works the kinks out of its vaccine rollout and starts to reopen classrooms, it is tough to determine whether Mr. Heatlie’s effort will pan out. A recent poll by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, showed Mr. Newsom’s approval rates plunging, but only to 46 percent.
For the recall to move forward, proponents must gather 1,495,809 valid signatures from registered voters by March 17 — enough to equal 12 percent of the votes cast in the most recent election for governor. Counties must then verify them by April 29.
About 1.1 million signatures have been filed so far, and of the nearly 800,000 that have been vetted, nearly 670,000 have been deemed valid. If the measure qualifies, the campaign figures that the election would be in August or September; independent political analysts say November or December.
Voters would be asked two questions: Should Mr. Newsom be recalled, and if the recall passes, who should complete his remaining year or so as governor.
For now, fellow Democrats have closed ranks around Mr. Newsom, flanking him at appearances and lavishly praising his handling of the pandemic. The Biden administration, too, has come to the governor’s aid, with the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, emphasizing this month that President Biden “clearly opposes any effort” to recall the governor.
The governor himself has avoided the “R” word. “I’m focused on the vaccine issue,” he recently told reporters who asked about the recall effort. Mr. Newsom’s team, however, has noted that recall attempts are not unusual in California: petitions for removal from office have been filed against every governor in the last 61 years.
Only one recall has succeeded — in 2003, when post-9/11 fears and rolling blackouts stemming from energy deregulation helped Republicans persuade voters to fire Gray Davis and hire Arnold Schwarzenegger, who subsequently faced his own blitz of attempted recalls.
Dan Newman, a political adviser to Mr. Newsom, pointed out that after the 2003 petition qualified for the ballot, 135 candidates ran, including Arianna Huffington, the former child star Gary Coleman and Mary Carey, then an actress in pornographic films. “Some people estimate we could have 10 times as many candidates as in 2003,” he said, noting that such a special election would cost an estimated $100 million.
Already three Republicans — Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego; the conservative activist Mike Cernovich; and John Cox, who lost to Mr. Newsom in 2018 — have announced plans to challenge the governor, and Richard Grenell, who was former President Donald J. Trump’s acting intelligence chief, would not rule it out in a recent appearance on Newsmax.
But the recall effort also has tapped into a broad, bipartisan unease as the virus has claimed some 50,000 lives in the state. Through the pandemic, Californians have glimpsed their governor not just as the fortunate son of their state at the top of its game, as he was when he was elected, but also as a pale-faced, all-too-human guy trying to remain calm on a livestream.
His daily updates, for hundreds of days, in a circular patter prone to talk of “iterative” and “determinative” efforts to “meet the moment,” have invited uncomfortable comparisons to Jerry Brown, his terse predecessor.
In California, Republican registration has been falling for years. The party now represents less than a quarter of registered voters. But a vein of deep red conservatism still threads through the state, from the rural Far North, through the Sierra Nevada foothills, down the Central Valley and into the suburbs of the Inland Empire and Orange and San Diego Counties. As Mr. Newsom has awkwardly constrained 40 million Californians in the name of safety, Republican activists have sought to energize their base.
Harmeet Dhillon, a Republican national committeewoman and San Francisco lawyer, has peppered Mr. Newsom with pandemic-related lawsuits, filing on behalf of churches, protesters and gun shop owners. Far-right groups have rallied against masks and business closures, their ranks buttressed by antivaccination protesters, QAnon conspiracy theorists and Proud Boys. Conservative sheriffs have announced they would not enforce the governor’s health rules.
The protesters have overlapped with Mr. Heatlie’s coalition. But deprived of crowds at grocery stores and farmers’ markets, his volunteers have had few places to preach to anyone but the choir, or to pass petitions.
That evening, as Californians braced for a grim, isolated holiday season, Mr. Newsom and his wife were photographed at the exclusive French Laundry, at a 50th birthday dinner for a Sacramento lobbyist friend.
Since then, records show, the recall attempt has acquired significant backing from Rescue California, a parallel organization built during the Gray Davis recall and revived by the state’s former Republican Party chairman, Tom Del Beccaro, among others. Together, the two groups have raised about $2.5 million, with major donations from an Orange County charter school advocate, John Kruger; a few Silicon Valley executives; the Beverly Hills developer Geoffrey Palmer; a political action committee for Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas; and the Republican National Committee.
That money — modest for a statewide campaign — is paying for professional signature gatherers and a campaign to solicit signatures via direct mail, said Dave Gilliard, a Sacramento political consultant who worked on the Davis recall and is now advising Rescue California. Of the “10 reasons to recall Gavin Newsom” listed on Rescue California’s website, seven are pandemic-related.
On a recent Saturday, Ruth Carter had a petition in the waiting room of her real estate brokerage near Sacramento. “I’m a small business — obviously it has affected us,” she said. “Never before have I been politically active, but this has been a combination of things from the very start of the lockdowns.”
At a nearby strip mall, Lisa Matta stood with her four children, waving down motorists with hand-lettered “Recall Gov. Newsom Here” signs.
“He’s closing businesses, he’s lessened pedophilia to a misdemeanor and he’s outlawed gas-powered vehicles and I don’t think people even realize,” she said, reciting three false assertions that nonetheless have become gospel among some recall proponents. Mr. Newsom, she said, “has got to go or California is going to be run into the ground.”
Mike Madrid, a former state Republican Party political director who co-founded the Lincoln Project, said that even if the pandemic ebbs, that partisan zeal could propel the recall onto a ballot.
“Right now, we are so polarized that you could basically sell a Republican voter anything you want as long as it takes down a Democrat,” he said, “and vice versa.”
Winning in deep-blue California, however, would be another matter.
“Look, Newsom came into office dealing with wildfires and spent the past year trying to handle a pandemic — he’s basically trying to govern in the Book of Revelation,” said David Townsend, a Democratic consultant who specializes in ballot measures. “I think voters will see that.”