image source, Getty Imagesimage captionGovernor Gavin Newsom (left) faces a challenge from Larry Elder (centre), Caitlyn Jenner (right) and 44 other candidates

On Tuesday, voters in the most populous US state will decide whether to retain their governor or oust him in favour of one of his 46 challengers.

Since he took office in 2019, Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has cemented California's status as America's progressive and free-spending state.

But frustration over his handling of the pandemic has fuelled a Republican-led effort to supplant him before his term ends.

  • California's governor faces recall election

The last time California held a "recall election", 18 years ago, voters booted an unpopular Democratic governor and replaced him with bodybuilder-cum-movie-star Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Summer polls indicating voter apathy had earlier had Team Newsom sweating over a possible repeat, in the face of significant Republican enthusiasm. Recall rules allow for a successor to win by a mere plurality of votes, potentially earning the governorship without the support of most voters.

If early voting is any indication, however, Mr Newsom now looks poised to defeat the effort, thanks to a recent surge in awareness and fundraising. But his ordeal will not end until all the votes are in.

Whoever wins the election, they will have the chance to run the world's fifth largest economy – California's GDP is higher than the UK's – for at least the next year.

The ragtag bunch appearing on ballots now includes an incumbent, a conservative talk radio host and the most famous trans woman in Hollywood.

Prince or public servant?image source, Getty Imagesimage captionGovernor Gavin Newsom

Critics assail him as an "aristocrat" and "pretty boy" who has too-freely spent taxpayer dollars.

Supporters tout him as "an eager nerd who presents as a slick jock" – more substance than style.

A San Francisco Democrat with an estimated personal wealth of $20m (£14.5m), Gavin Newsom, 53, rose assuredly through the ranks of California politics, serving as mayor of San Francisco from 2004 to 2011 and lieutenant governor from 2011 to 2019.

He was helped along the way by good looks and a tabloid-worthy personal life. (San Franciscans nicknamed him "Mayor McHottie" and he was once married to Kimberly Guilfoyle, a now-conservative TV personality and partner to Donald Trump Jr.)

With an expansive donors list including the Getty family, Silicon Valley billionaires, labour unions and Native American groups, Mr Newsom cruised into the governor's office two years ago, declaring: "The arc of history is bending in our direction."

In two years, he has expanded education and healthcare spending, widening the social safety net, halted executions and banned fracking.

But his tenure has also been marked by back-to-back record wildfire seasons and the Covid-19 pandemic – and plenty of criticism over his handling of the latter.

He was berated for keeping public schools closed while his children returned to in-person learning at their elite private institution. Conservatives sued him for shuttering their churches.

But perhaps nothing has been as damaging to the governor's image as the viral photo of him dining indoors at a lobbyist's birthday party, blatantly breaching his own administration's rules.

California is now in its fourth wave of the virus, but new infections are at about a third of their winter peak as vaccination rates have steadily risen, and Mr Newsom's overall approval ratings remain strong.

In a state with two registered Democrats for every Republican, and ballots automatically mailed to every voter, Mr Newsom is betting enough people will rebuke what he calls an attempted "power grab" by "Trump Republicans" so he can finish out his term.

'The sage from South Central'image source, Getty Imagesimage captionLarry Elder

Of the 46 contenders on the recall ballot, none have jolted the race quite like Larry Elder.

The Los Angeles native, 69, has never run for public office before, but after 28 years on talk radio, he might be the state's best-known conservative voice.

The son of World War II veterans, Mr Elder has often described how his "gruff and blunt" father's tough love instilled a strong sense of self-reliance within him.

He has been a best-selling author and nationally syndicated radio show host with nearly one million weekly listeners. In 2015, he was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Despite joining the recall race late and then suing to be included, Mr Elder quickly shot to the top of polls, speaking out against Mr Newsom, as well as about California's crime rates, homelessness and rolling blackouts.

His libertarian ideology has earned him top endorsements from leading Californian and national-level Republicans. One opponent even complained Fox News was ignoring him "because they're supporting Larry".

But his presence in the race has also galvanised Democrats, who have taken Mr Elder to task over past comments that the coronavirus is no worse than the flu, the gender pay gap is a lie and the minimum wage should be $0.

He has earned particular fury for his views on race; he reportedly describes himself as "an American who is black", not an African American, and has claimed systemic racism does not exist.

Last month, his ex-fiancée accused him of demanding she tattoo the words "Larry's Girl" on her body and threatening her with a gun during an argument. Mr Elder denied the allegations.

The so-called "sage from South Central" – a reference to the Los Angeles neighbourhood he was born and raised in – has pledged that, if he wins, he will repeal mask and vaccine mandates on his first day in charge.

The celebrity flopimage source, Getty Imagesimage captionCaitlyn Jenner

In the six years since former Olympic gold medallist turned reality star Caitlyn Jenner, 71, publicly came out to the world, she has modelled, starred in her own reality show and spoken out on behalf of trans visibility.

But her splashy debut in the California recall, with the help of former Donald Trump acolytes, has been off-key from the outset.

She launched her campaign on Twitter in April, directing supporters to a website with donation links and merchandise but no policy proposals.

In an interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity, she made mention of her support for a border wall, but more memorably, told the crowd that a man who parked his private plane next door to hers was moving to Arizona because he "can't take" seeing homeless people anymore.

Ms Jenner has refused to show up to debates, piled up debt and even jetted off to Australia to film "Celebrity Big Brother" during the campaign, leading to speculation that she is not a serious candidate.

She has barely registered in recent polls.

Who else is running?image source, Getty Imagesimage captionJohn Cox and Tag the Bear

Rumours that singer (and 2020 presidential candidate) Kanye West would enter the race never materialised, but former Playboy model Mary Carey, 41, and well-known billboard model Angelyne (whose real name is Ronia Tamar Goldberg), 70, are on the ballot.

John Cox, 66, a perennial Republican candidate, positioned himself as a "beastly" challenger to "The Beauty" Mr Newsom by campaigning with a 1,000lb (71 stone) Kodiak bear. He dropped the stunt when the media ignored him and focused on the bear instead.

Two other serious candidates are former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, an early establishment favourite offering tax cuts and credible economic policy, and Kevin Kiley, the only current elected official challenging Mr Newsom.

While no prominent Democrats are in the race, Kevin Paffrath, a realtor and YouTube star, is offering himself up as "a backup Democrat" in case Mr Newsom is voted out.

Although Mr Elder has largely consolidated the anti-Newsom vote, his socially conservative views and past statements have likely boosted voter turnout and effectively curbed the recall effort.

Speaking to Politico, Mr Newsom said the past few months had been "sobering", but he is confident he will prevail.