Long before Orrin Heatlie filed recall papers, he knew the odds were against unseating Gavin Newsom, the suave ex-mayor of San Francisco who had 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 elected Mr. Newsom in 2018 by a record 24-point margin. As recently as April, he had a 70 percent approval rating. Mr. Heatlie’s recall petition requires about 1.5 million valid voter signatures just to trigger a vote.
Lately, however, he has been feeling lucky.
The coronavirus has upended California. Most of the state is waiting for vaccinations. Schools in big cities have yet to reopen. As much as $30 billion has been looted from the state’s pandemic unemployment insurance program.
And then there was that dinner the governor attended, barefaced, after telling Californians to stay in and wear masks.
“This is an easy sell,” Mr. Heatlie reported last week, saying he had exceeded 1.7 million signatures three weeks before the deadline.
Mr. Newsom is one of many chief executives across the country to become a magnet for the rage and grief of pandemic-weary Americans.
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine, has been assailed for strict enforcement of health precautions. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas was under fire for runaway infection rates in border cities. Crashes of the vaccine system in Massachusetts have eroded the popularity of Gov. Charlie Baker.
And in New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s image as a national leader during the pandemic has suffered over New York’s counting of coronavirus deaths of nursing home residents.
Dane Strother, a Democratic media consultant in California who represents officials across the country, said governors “are in an untenable position.”
As California works the kinks out of its vaccine rollout and starts to reopen classrooms, it is tough to determine whether recall efforts will succeed. If the recall petitions qualify, voters would be asked two questions: Should Mr. Newsom be recalled, and if so, who should complete his term.
For now, fellow Democrats have closed ranks around Mr. Newsom, and the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, emphasized this month that President Biden “clearly opposes any effort” to recall the governor.
When reporters recently asked about the recall effort, the governor said, “I’m focused on the vaccine issue.” His team, however, notes that recall attempts are not unusual in California: recall petitions have been filed against every governor in the last 61 years.
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 — say they would challenge the governor, and Richard Grenell, acting intelligence chief under former President Donald Trump, would not rule it out.
The recall effort has also has tapped into a bipartisan unease as the virus’s death toll in California reached 50,000 lives on Wednesday.
In California, Republican registration has been falling for years. The party now represents less than a quarter of registered voters, but as Mr. Newsom has awkwardly constrained 40 million Californians in the name of safety, Republicans 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, and gun shops. Far-right groups have rallied against masks and business closures, and conservative sheriffs have refused to enforce state health rules.
Mr. Heatlie and the coalition sued to extend the Nov. 17 deadline and got four more months in a court decision on Nov. 6.
That evening, Mr. Newsom and his wife were photographed at the exclusive French Laundry restaurant at a birthday dinner for a lobbyist friend.
At that point, only 55,588 people had signed Mr. Heatlie’s petitions. One month later, he had nearly half a million signatures.
Winning in deep-blue California, however, will not be easy.
“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.”
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