By Alexandra Ulmer
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) -A Republican-led drive to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, will go to a special vote on Sept. 14, the lieutenant governor declared on Thursday, shortly after the state's top election official certified the recall petition.
The race to oust Newsom 2-1/2 years into his four-year term is shaping up to be chaotic, as several high-profile Republicans - including transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner - have said they will run to replace him.
Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis said in a statement that a special election would be held on Sept. 14 to determine "whether Gavin Newsom, Governor of the State of California, shall be recalled, and if the majority vote on the question is to recall, to elect a successor."
In California, a recall - a process by which elected officials or judges can be removed from office before the end of their terms - entails a two-part ballot. Voters decide whether they want to remove the sitting governor and then on the same ballot choose a replacement.
If more than 50% choose to end Newsom's term, then the replacement candidate with the most votes to succeed him, even if les than a majority, wins and becomes the new governor.
California law does not limit how many candidates can run in a recall. According to CalMatters, a public interest journalism nonprofit, 55 individuals have already filed a statement of intention to run.
Newsom has framed the recall effort as a power grab by Republicans who have little other chance at gaining statewide office in California, where the party only represents about a quarter of registered voters.
The campaign against him picked up some steam amid frustration with the state's COVID-19 vaccine rollout, closed schools and complex panoply of shifting public health rules imposed to confront the pandemic.
"I am ready to lead this recall and begin the California comeback to clean up our streets, cut taxes on the middle class, and reopen our schools," former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, who is among the Republicans in the running, said on Twitter.
But the governor's approval ratings have climbed as the state recovers from the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly six in 10 likely voters said in a Public Policy Institute of California poll in May that they would vote to keep Newsom in office in a recall.
Newsom, a former lieutenant governor and San Francisco mayor, was elected governor in 2018 with almost 62% of the vote. He would be up for re-election in 2022.
The recall effort targeting Newsom began in February 2020, led by a group called the California Patriot Coalition that opposed Newsom's liberal politics. The recall has become a cause celebre among Republicans nationwide and in the heavily Democratic state.
The only other recall attempt to have qualified for the ballot in California was in 2003, when then Governor Gray Davis, a Democrat who was just a few months into his second term, was replaced by Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Christopher Cushing, Robert Birsel)