The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Recanting nothing, Larry Elder becomes the likeliest candidate to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom — and the likeliest to let him hold on to his job

A pro-recall supporter holds a poster backing Larry Elder as he delivers a speech at a rally at a mall in Thousand Oaks, Calif., on Sept. 6, 2021. (Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

SAN DIEGO — Larry Elder took his campaign for governor to Rudford's Restaurant a few days ago, highlighting last year's pandemic lockdowns at a '50s-style diner that had resisted them. He looked on as Nick Kacha, the diner's owner, described how a rising minimum wage had slashed his profits.

“What I won’t do is incentivize people into not working,” Elder said. “I won’t be signing any more minimum wage hikes.” A local Republican city council candidate asked whether Elder was worried about “cheating” in the Sept. 14 recall election. Elder had lawyers ready, he said: “We know about all the shenanigans that took place in the 2020 election.”

Elder, 69, never sought office before this year, telling fans of his radio show and books that someone with his libertarian views was simply not electable. Yet with days to go before the Sept. 14 vote, he has emerged in a dual role: the likeliest candidate to replace California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) — and the crucial figure in the governor’s effort to hold on to his job.

The Republican is convinced that voters are frustrated enough with Newsom that they will abandon their liberal views on climate, crime and education — and their support for many of Newsom’s efforts to quell the pandemic — to hire someone who would handle things more like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). Democrats are convinced that the governor will survive the recall as long as Elder keeps talking.

“Gavin Newsom and his allies have painted me as some kind of an extremist,” Elder told The Washington Post after the San Diego stop. He answered questions via email, with the campaign citing his busy media schedule, including interviews with conservative commentators Candace Owens and Dinesh D’Souza. “They can’t defend his abysmal record, so the next best thing they can do is to attack and slander me.”

Elder entered the field just before the July 16 filing deadline, announcing on the Fox News show “Hannity,” an apt marker for how he would position himself. No other Republican in the recall had captivated conservatives. Suddenly, there was a chance to replace Newsom with one of the movement’s most prominent Black figures, who had appeared on the network hundreds of times.

“We have rising crime, rising homelessness, a rising cost of living,” Elder told Hannity. “The more I looked at it, the more I saw how arrogantly this governor has handled the pandemic.”

While campaigning for California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Sept. 8, Vice President Harris warned voters about the danger of the Republican-led effort. (Video: The Washington Post)

To stay in office, Newsom needs 50 percent or more of voters to reject the recall. To replace him, Elder needs Newsom to fall below 50 percent, but after that he needs only to win more votes than any of the other 45 replacement candidates on the second recall question. So far, polls have found him doing the latter easily, by consolidating the conservative vote.

“I don’t know if he has any appeal whatsoever to any Democrat, and that’s concerning to me,” said Randy Economy, a former spokesman for Recall Gavin, one of the main groups that collected signatures to force the election. “But at this point in the game, he’s the guy.”

Elder’s campaign is highly reminiscent of Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign, driven by the strength of a long-tended media persona and, he hopes, fueled by a similar outburst of voter anger.

His campaign also would be nowhere without Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party, even in this blue state. Candidates who represent what used to be the party’s rank and file, such as former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, have barely registered in polls, trailing far behind Elder.

He has quickly raised nearly $8 million — a small fraction of what Democrats are spending to buck up Newsom but more than any other Republican besides self-funding businessman John Cox.

Elder has spent much of the campaign defending positions that are popular with the conservative base and unpopular outside of it. He told the McClatchy editorial board that “the ideal minimum wage is $0.00,” a libertarian argument rarely tested in an election, and he vehemently opposed vaccine mandates for some California workers. Polling found a 2-to-1 majority in favor of the policy.

“To the extent that there are mandates for state workers to be tested once a week, and to wear face masks at work, they’re going to be repealed before I have my first cup of tea,” Elder promised. At a Saturday rally, Newsom quoted Elder word for word to hundreds of jeering Democrats.

“I guess he doesn’t drink coffee,” Newsom joked.

Newsom and the Democrats have worked particularly hard to make Elder unacceptable to women. In 2000, Elder cited male and female answers to a questionnaire to argue that “women know less than men about political issues, economics, and current events.” In a 2002 book, he laid out “legitimate business reasons” for employers to ask if potential employees planned to get pregnant.

Elder has recanted none of it, telling reporters that “government should not be intruding into the relationship between employer and employee.” At campaign appearances, he has chalked up criticism of him to Newsom’s desperation, as he did when Elder’s ex-fiancee accused him of brandishing a gun at her during an argument. (“I have never brandished a gun at anyone,” he tweeted.)

“The reason he doesn’t want to debate probably has something to do with that expression, ‘Why doesn’t the bologna want to meet the grinder?’ ” Elder told The Post in an email.

His campaign has a scrappy feel; he has not won the endorsement of most prominent Republicans, including Trump, who have generally stayed out of the contest, and his campaign manager has been on the job only two weeks. Elder campaigns in churches, celebrating their successful legal fight to stay open during the pandemic, and in shopping centers, which provide both space for crowds and locals angry about mask and vaccine mandates.

Polling has found support for a “no” vote growing in the past two weeks, as criticism of Elder escalated, and of the first 6 million ballots received by the state, 53 percent have come from Democrats. Notwithstanding prominent Democratic visits — Vice President Harris appeared with him Wednesday, and President Biden arrives next week — supporters of the recall have been far more visible, and they hope that the electorate has moved under the pollsters’ noses.

“People want somebody who doesn’t put his finger in the wind and decide what’s popular,” said Teresa Hernandez, 63, the president of the conservative Lincoln Club of Orange County. When Elder jumped into the race, the club’s members moved fast to endorse him; since mid-July, they’ve had 10 fundraisers for his campaign. “For 30 years, Larry has been telling us: Less regulation, pro-business. It’s not like something he just made up.”

Born in Los Angeles, Elder had a difficult relationship with his father and a distant relationship with the Republican Party. In his books, and now as he campaigns, he tells of Randolph Elder leaving segregated Georgia for the more equal opportunities of California, where he worked as a janitor before opening a restaurant.

Elder graduated from Crenshaw High School — featured in “Boyz n the Hood,” he reminds voters — and earned degrees from Brown University and the University of Michigan. In 1994, he took over a four-hour drive-time block on Los Angeles’s ABC radio affiliate, and embraced as a nickname “the sage of South Central,” a freethinking Black man who was sick of hearing people blame their problems on racism.

“The playing field is more level now than it’s ever been, and the biggest factor in determining whether or not you’re going to be successful is your willingness to work hard,” Elder told “60 Minutes” in 1997. “That is my credo, and for that reason, I am called an Uncle Tom.”

By 2000, Elder was hosting a syndicated game show, “Moral Court,” where he doled out $2,000 each to contestants who made ethical decisions, and touring a best-selling book, “The Ten Things You Can’t Say in America.” Fans would ask when he’d run for governor, and he’d dismiss the question without saying no.

“With these views?” Elder told one fan in 2001. “Legalizing drugs, ending the IRS, privatizing Social Security, getting the government out of health care?” He could make converts on the radio, he explained, but could not imagine a party embracing him.

Elder did not join the Republican Party until 2003, writing in his syndicated column that libertarians had lost him with their “naive and simplistic” opposition to “the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.” When Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger jumped into the 2003 recall election, and needed to reach a conservative audience while explaining his liberal views on issues like abortion rights, Elder was one of the first hosts he talked to.

“He has shifted his positioning over time to align himself to his base,” said Nicholas Sarwark, the former chairman of the Libertarian Party, which invited Elder to moderate its 2016 presidential debate. “In the Trump era, Larry really leaned into it.”

Elder entered the recall with a similar anti-Newsom case as the other Republicans, saying in his TV ads that the race was “not about political parties.” But unlike Schwarzenegger, Elder was largely unknown to most voters.

For the first time since 2003, voters in California have the chance to recall a governor. Democratic leaders see it as a Republican coup. (Video: James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

Newsom at first lumped all the alternative candidates together as he castigated the “Republican recall” (no well-known Democrat is running). But as the more extreme elements of Elder’s 35 years of commentary gained attention, he has become the face of the Newsom opposition.

The governor has, however, declined to debate any of the recall candidates, and Elder has declined any debate without Newsom. The result has been a series of August debates in which Faulconer amplified the questions about Elder’s views and the allegations, with the candidate unable to answer.

“I’m going to make sure that our California daughters have every opportunity given to our California sons,” Faulconer told reporters after a debate in Sacramento last month, calling Elder “unfit” to be governor. “If you’re going to take those positions, stand up and defend them.”

Elder has denied or ignored most of the criticism, and none of it has had an impact on his support. An average of polls by FiveThirtyEight shows Elder at 24 percent, 14 points higher than the next candidate. He is relentlessly on message, wrapping the same facts into every speech, like the average price of a home in the state ($800,000) and the proportion of jobs recovered from the pandemic (one-half) — all reversible, he insists, if Newsom goes.

A campaign tailored to conservative voters has, in a few ways, moved Elder to the right. In a taped interview with the Sacramento Bee, Elder said that Biden had won the 2020 election “fair and square.” Within a day, he had asked conservative interviewers for a “mulligan,” saying falsely that there were valid questions about the result.

Last week, when the Supreme Court allowed a strict Texas abortion law to go into effect, Elder told reporters that with the Democratic supermajority in Sacramento, “there is zero possibility that all of a sudden those two-thirds [majorities] are going to suddenly become pro-life like Larry Elder.” Hours later, antiabortion activist Lila Rose tweeted that Elder had pledged to act on the issue, vetoing any abortion funding and appointing judges who shared his view. Elder’s campaign denounced the “scaremongering” but did not deny Rose’s specifics.

The next day, Elder told radio host Mark Levin that 88-year old Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was in a “worse mental condition than even Joe Biden,” and he would replace her with a Republican should she die or resign when he was governor. Democrats pounced again.

“People spoke in the last election, and they said they wanted to send Democrats to the United States Senate,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said at the Saturday rally with Newsom. “And Larry Elder says, just give me the chance and I’m going to turn all of that upside down.”

The Republican candidate had said what he thought, as usual. Liberals who didn’t like it were outraged, as usual. And he had a few more days to change a million or so minds. That, he argued, was why Democrats spent so much time attacking him, not because they saw him as a foil for Newsom.

“They are afraid that I’m going to break the stranglehold that they’ve had over Black and Brown people here in California,” Elder said in San Diego. “I’m going to get a lot of people to rethink their allegiance to the Democratic Party.”

What to know about the California recall election

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has defeated the recall effort to remove him from office. The Republican front-runner, conservative radio talk show host Larry Elder, conceded more than two hours after the polls closed on Tuesday.

See full results here.