OAKLAND — Gov. Gavin Newsom for months refused to acknowledge the Republican recall candidates. Then Larry Elder came along.
A conservative media fixture after decades on the air, Elder used his fame to springboard to the front of the pack of Republicans vying to replace Newsom. The Democratic governor has responded by making Elder the face of recall Republicans, portraying him as an extremist whose views are drastically mismatched with the average California voter.
Newsom's message: It's either him or me.
Elder opposes gun control and any minimum wage, believes climate change policies are not worth the cost, has assailed Roe v. Wade, dismisses gender wage gaps as a myth and maintains that welfare and fatherless families pose far greater threats to society than systemic racism. Those views make him an easy target for Newsom and Democratic allies.
Despite that disjuncture, the libertarian Elder could well ride soaring conservative enthusiasm to become the first Black governor of deeply Democratic California, thanks to an unusual recall system that enables a candidate with a small plurality to become the state's chief executive if voters decide they've had enough of their current leader.
The race’s final weeks may come down to Elder’s appeal among conservatives versus Newsom’s success in rallying Democrats against Elder’s candidacy.
“Why is it important to focus on Larry? Well, to put in perspective what’s at stake here,” Newsom told supporters this week on a get-out-the-vote call with Reps. Barbara Lee and Karen Bass. Newsom spent minutes recounting Elder’s statements to argue “he’s even more extreme than Trump in many respects.”
Elder, 69, has vaulted ahead of other Republican contenders thanks to the years he spent familiarizing himself to the public as a Los Angeles-based radio host, a prolific author of columns and books and a regular Fox News commentator. He has endeared himself to conservatives with a contrarian and combative outlook that rejects the prevailing wisdom in liberal Los Angeles and among many fellow African Americans — so much so that local groups unsuccessfully organized to push him off the air in the 1990s.
Elder regularly shares video messages to supporters in which he wears a white bathrobe monogrammed with “RR” for “robe rage.” He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
He has consistently espoused a libertarian philosophy that frames an overgenerous welfare state as the fundamental shortcoming of American politics and driver of disintegrating families. He is fond of saying that women have been incentivized to “marry the government” and that Black Americans have been crippled by a “victicrat” mentality, a term he says he invented to describe “those who whine, bitch, moan that outside forces hold them back and hold them down.”
Those stances have largely aligned Elder with the Republican Party. Elder said he has voted for Republican presidential candidates through former President Donald Trump, although he was lukewarm on Trump’s candidacy. But he has also broken with the party by advocating the legalization of drugs, backing same-sex marriage long before it was mainstream and writing in one of his books that “both Democrats and Republicans have blood on their hands” for supporting government programs like Medicare, Social Security, farm subsidies and public spending on education.
Despite his sometimes idiosyncratic beliefs, Elder immediately distinguished himself as the Republican frontrunner. He managed in weeks to outraise Republicans who have been running for months. He has piled up endorsements from California conservative groups like the august Lincoln Club of Orange County, an early recall supporter that has sunk $180,000 into recalling Newsom.
“We could just sense a real excitement behind him. He has excellent name ID in the state, especially for people who are politically savvy and listened to his radio over the years,” said Teresa Hernandez, president of the Lincoln Club of Orange County. “It wasn’t like some guy who just came on the scene and stuck his finger in the air and did his talking points based on the latest poll.”
Elder is a political neophyte compared to the current and former Republican officeholders in the race. But his lack of elected office is an asset to supporters who said long exposure to Elder helped build familiarity and trust. They described him as more authentic than Republicans who have spent years in politics, speaking to anti-establishment skepticism that has pervaded California’s Republican base.
“Especially in California, the establishment has earned a reputation of being what we would describe as RINOs [Republicans In Name Only]. They’re weak on some of the issues and in a lot of ways they’ve sold their souls out to donors and lobby groups and folks who just don’t resonate with the people,” California College Republicans Chair Will Donahue said after his board unanimously endorsed Elder. “I think a lot of people were excited for the first time about Larry running.”
Elder grew up in South Central Los Angeles and graduated from Crenshaw High School before heading east to Brown University and the University of Michigan Law School. He was once a registered Democrat in Ohio, but became an independent voter when he moved to California in 1994 and switched to the Republican Party in 2003, according to Los Angeles County records.
Controversy and backlash have followed Elder from the start of his media career. In the 1990s — when Elder was on KABC’s afternoon drive-time airwaves downplaying racism, inveighing against affirmative action, excoriating Jesse Jackson and proclaiming O.J. Simpsons’s guilt — Angelenos organized an attempted boycott of what they called Elder’s hate speech and circulated fliers deriding Elder as the “White Man's Poster Boy.” The station halved Elder’s airtime and some advertisers fled.
“I think he was one to easily offend by virtue of seeking to make caricatures of those of us who were fighting for the basic rights and liberties that are associated with the struggle for social justice on behalf of African Americans and others. I think he built a career on that,” said Los Angeles City Councilor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was then starting his political career. “His politics have not substantially changed. He perhaps has gotten more slick about it, or attempted to, but we see him for who or what he is.”
Elder’s allies rallied. Conservative talk show host Dennis Prager, who had recruited Elder to radio, championed his cause. Neoconservative author David Horowitz raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for a “Keep Larry Elder on the Air” television advertising blitz. Elder’s blooming notoriety led to television commentator appearances and a profile on “60 Minutes,” and he secured national syndication. In the early 2000s, he even ventured into short-lived television ventures such as “Moral Court” and “The Larry Elder Show.”
Some of Elder's fans are now eager to vote for him. But his surge hasn’t just energized conservatives. It has reoriented Newsom’s campaign by providing a useful foil to rally Democrats.
California recall ballots ask two questions: whether to retain Newsom and with whom to replace him. If a majority votes to recall Newsom, the replacement candidate with the most votes would become the next governor. That means Elder could claim the governorship with a plurality — a potential outcome Newsom has highlighted again and again.
The governor has largely hewed to a two-step strategy of touting his record while dismissing the recall as a Trump-aligned distraction that could derail California’s progress. That effort to project gubernatorial competency has failed to galvanize Democrats. By contrast, Republicans are highly motivated to vote.
Newsom has recently sought to correct that imbalance and boost Democratic turnout by constantly invoking Elder. Whenever Newsom is asked about the tightening race, he warns about the potentially dire consequences of defeat by outlining Elder’s beliefs.
His campaign has highlighted Elder in 2008 calling climate change “a crock” (Elder now says he believes human-caused climate change is real but has assailed “alarmism” and renewable energy mandates) and equating Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election with Democrats saying Russian interference cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 contest.
Coronavirus management has also taken center stage. Newsom is facing a recall in large part because of a backlash to restrictions and shutdown, but the governor has leaned lately into an assertive government role that includes requiring vaccines for state workers, teachers and health care workers. Newsom has warned Elder’s opposition to mask and vaccine mandates would undo California’s progress in subduing the pandemic, and his campaign has circulated a recent clip of Elder giving airtime to a vaccine skeptic.
“Larry Elder is an anti-vax conspiracy spreader — not the guy you want in office while Delta rages,” Newsom wrote in a recent fundraising email entitled “Larry Elder.” “Now hear this: Larry Elder is just 2 points from being our next governor. Sorry to scare you, but it’s true.”
While Elder earlier told The Sacramento Bee that he believes President Joe Biden won the 2020 election “fairly and squarely,” in recent days he has said he thinks there were “shenanigans” involved in the contest after facing a backlash from conservatives on social media.
As he comes under greater scrutiny, Elder seems to have more tightly controlled his access in recent days. He agreed to an interview with POLITICO, then rescheduled and then canceled this week. During his first press conference Friday, he only took questions from Chinese-language media.
Elder has focused his attacks on Newsom and largely ignored other Republicans, saying he would debate the governor one-on-one but declining to join GOP debates. He launched a new round of ads this week in which he speaks directly to the camera, telling voters that Newsom is an “elite dictator” who “abused power” during the pandemic.
His campaign is the first one to really catch fire this year among Republicans, and other candidates are now struggling to find traction or money in the homestretch. Major GOP donor Geoff Palmer gave Elder a $1 million check this week, adding to his financial advantage over other Republicans, though Newsom still has raised multitudes more.
“California Republicans are so hungry for someone who's a great communicator,” said Jennifer Kerns, a former California Republican Party spokesperson and a national radio host based in Southern California, who also praised Elder's ability to connect. “That's why I think they've fallen in love with Larry Elder.”
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