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Some Silicon Valley donors’ next political fight? Trying to oust California’s governor.

Tech money could turn a quixotic recall attempt into a real threat to Gavin Newsom.

Gavin Newsom stands at a podium in Dodger Stadium.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, historically a favorite of the tech industry, holds a press conference about Covid-19 vaccinations at Dodger Stadium on January 15.
Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Some major Silicon Valley donors are mobilizing behind a plan to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom, using their money to turn what was a quixotic attempt into a looming political threat to Newsom’s career.

In recent weeks, leading tech figures have started flexing their political muscle by funding Rescue California, a group financing the effort to collect enough signatures to force a recall vote later this year. The stature of Newsom, once a mayor of San Francisco and a favorite of the tech industry, has fallen in the eyes of some as California’s vaccine rollout has lagged the rest of the nation. And the recall appears increasingly likely to at least qualify for the ballot, though Newsom’s opponents aren’t yet known.

To be sure, Newsom remains liked by many tech industry leaders. But now, some people from that same industry are proving to be a political thorn — with some supporters even turning on him.

Some of the money is coming from conservative tech leaders: Famed tech investor Doug Leone, one of the few major Silicon Valley supporters of Trump during his presidency, and his wife donated about $100,000 to the recall effort late last month, according to state records. Another $100,000 came from venture capitalist Dixon Doll, a longtime GOP donor, and his wife.

Other money has come from Newsom’s earlier supporters: David Sacks, a prominent tech executive, donated about $60,000 when Newsom first ran for governor a few years ago. Now he’s supporting a recall, and his wife, Jacqueline, contributed $25,000 to the recall effort last week. Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive and a major Democratic donor, has said publicly that he is a supporter of the effort, although the billionaire has yet to make a donation to it.

The other tech leaders, though, rank among the biggest overall donors to the recall effort, which has raised about $1.5 million to date. That could all presage real money in a recall campaign that would likely cost more than $100 million in total.

“Certainly they wouldn’t be upset to have some buy-in from Silicon Valley, but I don’t know if I’d say that their involvement would be ‘crucial’ during this initial qualifying stage,” said Rob Pyers, research director for California Target Book, which analyzes money in California politics. “Once it’s at that point, then just by virtue of their deep pockets, Silicon Valley becomes an important player.”

The moves come as some leading tech industry figures — especially those with a conservative bent — are rebelling against a tax system, Covid-related policies, and a broader culture that they see as repressive. Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of Tesla, has been sharply critical of California’s policies on the coronavirus and how the state treats the tech industry, so much so that he moved last year to Texas. Some other tech leaders have flocked to Miami, where leaders have tried to capitalize on the disgust and recreate Silicon Valley’s magic.

Anne Dunsmore, a Republican fundraiser who is leading the recall effort, said that is precisely the type of Silicon Valley donor she is pursuing to finance her effort.

“It’s a cautious industry. And historically, it’s been very Democratic,” she said. “Now, when you start talking about lost business in the state of California and facing the idea that you might have to move out and move your entire business, people start taking a different view of where they stand.”

Dunsmore said the fundraising effort in Silicon Valley consisted largely of “major donors reaching out to other major donors.”

A Newsom recall effort seemed like a fool’s errand until recently. California has been one of the most aggressive states in seeking to limit the spread of the coronavirus, implementing one of the country’s first stay-at-home orders. Some business leaders bristled at that crackdown, but experts say it contributed to California’s relative success at mitigating the pandemic.

The logic of that trade-off, though, has been tested in recent months by the rampant spread of the disease in the state, especially in the Los Angeles area. California has also had one of the country’s worst records when it comes to distributing the vaccine at a time when experts say too many states are moving too slowly. Newsom’s credibility was also damaged by a visit to an exclusive Napa Valley restaurant in November that undercut his own rhetoric about staying at home.

“We have now created an inhospitable culture for innovation,” Palihapitiya said on his podcast last week. “I think he should get recalled. He’s trash.”

The real test will be whether these leaders dig deep rather than merely use their platforms to speak out. Palihapitiya, the former Facebook executive, has tweeted a link to the Rescue California committee but didn’t return requests for comment about whether he planned to pledge money to the effort. Dunsmore said she hadn’t heard from Palihapitiya — or even of him, despite him being a major Democratic donor, which speaks to the recall’s uphill climb. Palihapitiya contributed more than $1 million to back Democrats during the 2020 campaign.

Newsom rose to prominence alongside many of today’s tech leaders, and his political base remains San Francisco. Major donors to his last campaign included former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, billionaire philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, and even Trump ally and venture capitalist Peter Thiel.

Josh Felser, a tech investor who has been close to Newsom since he met the then-lieutenant governor in a gym and became a workout partner, argued that Newsom is quite simpatico with the tech industry, pointing to his record on issues like gay marriage, gun control, and climate change.

“He stands up for the things he believes in, even when it’s unpopular. In tech, we all think of ourselves as pioneers. And I think that’s what the governor has been,” said Felser, who is part of a pandemic advisory group to Newsom composed of business leaders. “There’s a strong libertarian vein in tech. That group — which is a minority of tech folks — they’re wealthy and activists. And then there’s the majority of the folks in tech — and they’re not funding this recall and they’re looking for ways to help.”

Some tech leaders — even those who are critical of Newsom — told Recode that they have concerns that the replacement for Newsom could be worse. Dunsmore said that comes up often in her conversation with possible Democratic supporters.

If organizers collect the required 1.5 million signatures by the mid-March deadline, which observers say is likely, the recall would be triggered, with the vote happening sometime late in 2021 or early in 2022. A number of prominent California Republicans, including former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, have expressed interest in challenging Newsom.

While that might ordinarily sound like a long shot in the heavily Democratic state, there is a precedent: the 2003 recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and the subsequent election of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.