LOS ANGELES – California’s next governor could be a Black conservative who would erase state vaccine and mask mandates, is critical of gun control, disputes the notion of systemic racism in America and opposes the minimum wage because he says it tramples the free market.
The rapid ascent of Republican Larry Elder in the Sept. 14 recall election that could remove Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is a striking turn in a state regarded as a Democratic fortress and national showcase for liberal policies on climate change, immigration and health care.
Elder is a talk radio host who Newsom identifies as his biggest threat in an election widely acknowledged as tight. Elder is promising to reverse California's progressive drift that he blames for an unrelenting homeless crisis, high taxes, spiking crime rates and government creep into people’s lives and livelihoods — from “anti-science” coronavirus mandates to regulations he says slow-walk housing construction.
There is a saying that the future happens first in California, and Elder's potentially historic victory could have broad implications, coming on the threshold of 2022 elections that will decide control of Congress.
An Elder win would also trigger a power struggle with Sacramento's Democratic state legislative majority over everything from government appointments to how to spend billions of taxpayer dollars.
In California “young families are leaving, the taxes are going up on gasoline and this governor is either incompetent or indifferent,” says Elder, who would become the first Black governor of the nation's most populous state. “He’s got to go.”
In another year, the charismatic Elder’s candidacy in heavily Democratic California might be a footnote — the GOP hasn't won a statewide race since 2006 and Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by nearly 2-to-1. Former President Donald Trump lost the state to Joe Biden last year by more than 5 million votes.
But the unusual math that underlies the rare, late-summer recall election could upend the expected.
For years, Republicans have envisioned that a confluence of crises might result in a pendulum swing in leadership in a state that was home to — and voted for — Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Mail-in ballots went out in mid-August. They are being returned at a time when COVID again is spiking and many voters are angry and looking for someone to blame.
The recall was driven by weariness over Newsom's whipsaw pandemic rules that closed businesses and schools, but it's buttressed by grievances that range from frustration with sprawling homeless encampments to soaring housing costs.
The GOP's chances rest in the atypical rules of the recall election.
There are two questions on the ballot: First, should Newsom be removed, yes or no? If a majority agrees to oust him, his successor is whoever gets the most votes on the second question. With 46 candidates, the winner could get 25% or less.
It's a rare opportunity for the GOP in a state where Democrats hold every statewide office and dominate the Legislature and congressional delegation. Republicans account for only 24% of registered voters, but the dynamics of the recall have allowed Elder and other conservative candidates to target their campaigns at right-leaning voters who could provide a sufficient winning edge.
Elder quickly overshadowed a field of GOP rivals that include businessman John Cox, state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer and former Olympian and reality TV personality Caitlyn Jenner.
Newsom was successful in keeping prominent Democrats off the ballot, though YouTube personality Kevin Paffrath has emerged as a potential contender within Newsom's party.
At 69, Elder is a latecomer as a first-time candidate and he’s far from a household name. However, he’s been a celebrity within conservative circles for years through his provocative radio show that for many stations is part of lineup of conservative voices that includes Elder's mentor, Dennis Prager. Elder has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and counts nearly 2 million followers on social media.
The self-styled “Sage of South Central” –- a reference to the rough Los Angeles neighborhood where he grew up -- is taut with energy that belies his age. When arguing points, he can talk with the rapid-fire certitude of the lawyer that he is — Elder is a 1977 graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, and received an undergraduate degree from Brown University.
Arguably Elder’s biggest headline since entering the race July 12 was an unwelcome one – a former fiancee, Alexandra Datig, alleged he was emotionally abusive and showed her a gun during an argument in 2015, a claim Elder denies.
However, the allegations do not appear to have slowed his campaign’s trajectory. He rolled out endorsements last week that included GOP national Committeeman Shawn Steel and former Democratic state Senate leader Gloria Romero, who favors charter schools, as does Elder.
His political views reflect a libertarian mindset that would elicit cringes among progressive voters — he believes government has grown too big, too intrusive, too costly.
He stands opposed to what he sees as government overreach, hence his opposition to sweeping mask mandates and the minimum wage. He’s been critical of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide, arguing that such restrictions should be left to states.
To Elder, climate change is real but he also warns against a “war on oil and gas” and shifting too quickly into a renewable-energy economy, which he says would cost jobs and fail to keep the lights on.
His views on race often have put him at odds with other Blacks. Elder is critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, and he has called racial quotas a “a crutch and a cop-out.” He opposes efforts to “defund” police. In a 1995 interview with The Orange County Register he said, “We have to stop bitching and moaning and whining and crying and blaming the white man for everything.”
Black Democratic leaders recently held an event to denounce his views on race.
“He may look like us, he may talk like us, but he is not one of us,” said Malia Cohen, a member of the California State Board of Equalization, which oversees collection of state taxes.
The embattled Newsom has called Elder “more extreme than Trump in many respects.”
From the start, Democrats have sought to link the recall effort to the former president, who is widely unpopular in the state outside his conservative base.
Elder rejects the notion that he’s a mirror image of Trump, noting that he's broken with him on trade — Elder disagreed with tariffs and other restrictions imposed by the former president — and also thought Trump erred by cutting Afghanistan troop levels.
Newsom’s steady focus on Elder isn’t a surprise, says Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin. It allowed the governor to recast the race from a referendum on his own tenure by “putting a face on the alternative.”
“Without a clear alternative, it was hard for Gavin and the Democrats to say, ’Oppose the recall,' because it’s such an amorphous thing,” Tulchin said. “Now, he can hold up Elder to define the race on partisan terms.”
With mail-in ballots already being returned, the contest remains heavy with unknowns, including who will bother to vote in an election scheduled in what is normally an off-election year.
Elder might benefit from little-noticed wrinkles in state voting patterns. California has a liberal tilt, but not always.
Voters in 2020 rejected an organized labor-backed attempt to partially dismantle the state’s decades-old cap on property taxes, as well as reinstate affirmative action, while Republicans ousted Democrats in four U.S. House seats.
Elder says he considers the race a longshot, given Newsom’s ability to raise unlimited funds. But he believes he’s the only Republican likely to deliver a stunning surprise next month.
“I don’t think anybody can win except for me,” he says.