What Heatlie and Netter had, initially, was $500 each in seed money, a network of connections from their participation in the previous recall campaign, Heatlies familiarity, through his law enforcement training, with the National Incident Management System a management tool he said he applied to the recall and a prolific presence on social media.

I belong to 475 Facebook groups, Netter said. Do you have any idea how fucking painful that is?

Over the course of last year, they began circulating petitions while expanding their network, marshalling more than 150 volunteer organizers across the state. Those organizers gathered signatures. They posted relentlessly on social media. They called and emailed conservative talk radio stations. Netter and Heatlie took every media booking they could get. And when it still seemed as though their campaign was going nowhere, they benefited from three strokes of good luck.

First, far short of collecting the required number of signatures last fall, and with a deadline looming on Nov. 17, Heatlie and his group, known officially as the California Patriot Coalition Recall Governor Gavin Newsom, successfully petitioned a Sacramento County superior court judge to extend their 160-day signature-gathering window for an extra 120 days, citing the difficulty of collecting signatures during the pandemic. As of mid-October, the proponents had gathered about 675,000 signatures. The extension, combined with the large number of signatures that the proponents had already gathered, turned what had seemed like a quixotic campaign into a possible one. Big donors got involved.

In retrospect, said Garry South, a Democratic strategist who has previously advised Newsom and was a senior adviser to Davis, The only reason this thing will qualify the only reason is because this idiot judge in Sacramento ruled that these people had another 120 days beyond the original 160 days.

He said, Why Democrats didnt appeal that decision is mystifying to me.

Gov. Gavin Newsom removes his face mask before giving an update during a visit to Pittsburg, Calif., June 30, 2020. | AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Second, Newsom committed self-sabotage with his misadventure at The French Laundry, the world-famous restaurant near Napa whose impossible-to-get dinner reservations start at $350 per person. Newsom would later say I made a bad mistake. But that was a gross understatement. The incident was damaging to Newsom not only because of the rank hypocrisy of dining out in a group while telling Californians to stay isolated in their homes, but because it confirmed for Newsoms critics the elitist label they have always tried to pin on him. And it served as a reminder of his management of a pandemic that, at the time, was burning almost uncontrollably throughout the state.

EXCLUSIVE: We’ve obtained photos of Governor Gavin Newsom at the Napa dinner party he’s in hot water over. The photos call into question just how outdoors the dinner was. A witness who took photos tells us his group was so loud, the sliding doors had to be closed. 10pm on @FOXLApic.twitter.com/gtOVEwa864

— Bill Melugin (@BillFOXLA) November 18, 2020

By early this year, Newsoms approval rating had plummeted to 46 percent in one measure, down from 64 percent in September. Saturday Night Live mocked him. The French Laundry, Economy said, changed his political life forever.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Trump lost the White House while simultaneously persuading a majority of Republicans, falsely, that the election wasnt free or fair. The combination of disappointment and outrage left Trumps supporters in an off-election year to scan the map for other causes to support, none more prominent than Newsoms recall.

The recalls organizers, cognizant of Trumps toxicity in California, have labored to paint their movement as a bipartisan effort, estimating that more than 30 percent of the signatures theyve gathered are from people who are not Republicans. Netter disputes the notion that Trumps loss, and the anger it sparked among Republicans, helped the recall campaigns cause, saying website traffic dropped after the November election in part because people were distracted by the controversy surrounding the elections outcome.

But the atmosphere surrounding the recall campaign at times is indistinguishable from the Trump rallies of 2020 and the effort to overturn his defeat. At a rally at a park in Ventura, on the California oceanfront, one recent Saturday afternoon, Netter took the stage to herald a moment of joy in California a campaign he said was about bringing up the people of California. He introduced Heatlie, who was in the crowd, and, acknowledging the groups humble beginnings, said, Out of small things, big things come! Recall organizers collected signatures.

But the air hanging over the rally was thick with passions broader than that one cause. Vendors sold Trump T-shirts and bejeweled Trump hats from booths across from the stage, while a flag likening Trump to Jesus waved in the breeze. The Right Side Broadcasting Network carried the program live. Judy Mikovits, the discredited scientist elevated by anti-vaccine activists and coronavirus conspiracy theorists, addressed the crowd, followed by Cordie Williams, a young chiropractor in sunglasses and a T-shirt with the name of the group he founded, 1776 Forever Free, printed on the chest. He called the governor Adolf Newsom and asked how many pissed off patriots were on hand.

Williams, who often moderates the recall proponents virtual town hall meetings, suggested the recall was only part of a bigger fight against anti-Americans. Californias the head of the snake, he said. The rest of the tail is Sleepy Joe, and weve got to take back our country.

He added, Ill be damned if Im going to sit back and watch this whole country go to hell.

The rally, and others like it, appeared to support Los Angeles Times reporting in January that found recall campaign leaders, seeking to capitalize on the darkening public mood, allied with radical and extreme elements early on to help collect signatures. And Democrats have seized on those connections as they fight the campaign. Shortly after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January, Rusty Hicks, the chairman of the California Democratic Party, called the recall effort a California coup, for which he was widely criticized. Dan Newman, a senior Newsom adviser, said the origin story of the Republican recall is inexorably intertwined with hateful Trumpian rhetoric that is anathema to fundamental California values.

Heatlie and Netter did vote for Trump, they said; Economy volunteered for his campaign in 2016. And Heatlie has been criticized specifically including by Newsom himself for a 2019 Facebook post in which he suggested that the United States microchip all illegal immigrants, adding, It works! Just ask Animal control! (Heatlie said at the time that it was bait for a larger conversation, and that he does not really advocate microchipping. In an interview last week, he said it was an inflammatory statement, and I regret saying it now.)

But its also true that Heatlie and Netter, when promoting the recall at events organized by other groups, dont choose the speakers, as Heatlie said. He knows people aligned with the campaign have their own agendas, but he said that except for prohibiting posts on the campaigns Facebook pages unrelated to the recall, I dont spend a lot of time vetting them as long as it doesnt spill over into our movement.