The small faction of Californians who still call themselves Republicans did something seemingly impossible when they forced Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor of America’s largest Democratic state, to face voters in a recall.
It was a side of California often overlooked: the conservative minority that for decades has been on the leading edge of the Republican Party’s transformation into a vehicle for the anti-establishment grievance politics that swept former President Donald Trump into office in 2016. The California conservative movement led a national campaign against affirmative action in the 1990s, later shaped the anti-immigration views of the Trump strategists Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, and gave rise to a new generation of media heavyweights such as Breitbart News and Ben Shapiro.
But with Newsom leading the latest polls before the election Tuesday, some of those same forces have struggled to gain mainstream support for the recall.
California Republicans lack a single, unifying leader who has the ability to appeal beyond the hard right. The hollowed-out state party has left them with few avenues for organizing in such a vast place. And they have been unable to convert the populist anger at the governor over his handling of the pandemic into a broad-based backlash from voters who are right, left and somewhere in between. What started as a fringe campaign to flip the highest office in liberal California and upend the national political calculus seemed to be losing steam with Election Day approaching.
Newsom’s allies blasted the state with advertising that linked the recall to a far-right coalition of conspiracy theorists, anti-vaccine activists and allies of the former president. And mainstream Republican supporters of the recall said the effort had become saddled with too much of the national party’s baggage.
“The Republicans have struggled, I think, to identify with clarity that Democrats have been in charge out here for 15 years,” said Doug Ose, a Republican and former three-term congressman who recently dropped out of the race to replace Newsom after having a heart attack. Instead of focusing on questions such as whether Californians were better off today than they were 15 years ago, Republicans, he said, were being drawn into debates over abortion and other national issues.
“Quit taking the bait,” Ose said of the Republican attention to the Texas abortion law. “Nobody in Texas is going to vote in this election. Why are we talking about what’s happening in Texas?”
In a state where Democrats have been adding to their share of the electorate in recent years — now accounting for 46% of all registered voters, according to the Public Policy Institute of California — the Republican Party has been steadily shedding voters. Republicans are only 24% of the electorate, compared with 35% in 2003, the last time the state recalled its Democratic governor, Gray Davis.
That is a far cry from the California that produced two Republican presidents — Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who was twice elected governor — and that provided a national model for how to run as a celebrity conservative reformer in a deep-blue state: former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Schwarzenegger left office in 2011, and the state has not elected a Republican for a statewide seat since then. But if ever there was a time for conservatives to notch a rare, consequential victory in California, this would seem to be it.
Residents have been anxious about this latest round of state-mandated, pandemic-related closures, with almost half sharing the mistaken belief that California is in an economic recession, according to one recent study. Jarring reminders of the state’s inability to solve fundamental, perennial problems are everywhere, from the tent cities that lined the Venice boardwalk to wildfires that suffocated Lake Tahoe.
And voters have demonstrated an independent streak lately, rejecting progressive initiatives at the ballot box by large margins. Last year, as the state went for President Joe Biden by a margin of nearly 2-1, voters defeated a referendum that would have repealed the state’s ban on affirmative action, 57% to 43%. At the same time, Californians voted in favor of allowing drivers for Uber and other ride-hailing and delivery apps to remain independent contractors, rebuffing a push from labor and progressive groups to classify them as employees who are entitled to wage protections and benefits.
In Orange County and other traditionally right-leaning parts of the state, voters who had swung toward the Democratic Party in 2018 swung back in 2020. Four of the 15 seats that Republicans flipped in the House of Representatives in 2020 were in California, including two in Orange County. And despite losing the state, Trump still received 1.5 million more votes from Californians in 2020 than he did in 2016.
“You didn’t see it in the vote for Biden,” said Charles Kessler, a professor at Claremont McKenna College who studies the American right. But the results in California in 2020 overall, Kessler said, looked like “the beginnings of a kind of revolt against the Hollywood, high-tech San Francisco-led Democratic Party in the state.”
The other California — the one of megachurches in the sprawl of the irrigated desert, Trump boat parades and a would-be secessionist enclave near the Oregon border that calls itself the “State of Jefferson” — occasionally finds common cause with moderates and independents to shake up state politics.
But Kessler said that a major difference between today and 2003, when Schwarzenegger replaced Davis in the last recall, was that the Republican Party lacked a candidate with crossover appeal. Success, he said, would depend on a candidate “who gives you an alternative to the Democrat without having to embrace another party exactly.”
That is not Larry Elder, the Republican front-runner in the recall race.
A talk radio host, Elder comes from the tradition of California conservatives whose appeal was that they refused to appeal to liberals. The list includes Los Angeles-born Andrew Breitbart, a conservative writer and activist who founded Breitbart News, and Miller, who is the former architect of Trump’s anti-immigration agenda and who grew up in Santa Monica listening to Elder’s show.
At times, Elder campaign events have felt not all that different from Trump rallies.
At a Labor Day rally in the suburb of Thousand Oaks, about 40 miles outside downtown Los Angeles in Ventura County, Elder drew boos from the crowd when he mentioned The Los Angeles Times, and laughter when he said he intended to “speak slowly” because CNN was there. He dropped the kind of bombs that made him a national name in conservative talk radio, winning applause from of his mostly white audience.
“What they’re afraid of,” Elder said, referring to his Democratic opponents, “is Larry Elder from the hood who went to a public school will be able to make the case to Black and brown people: ‘You are being betrayed. You are being used. You are being manipulated.’”
“Racism has never been less significant in America,” added Elder, who is Black.
Shelley Merrell, who runs a fire safety company in Ventura, nodded along as Elder called systemic racism “a lie” and rattled off statistics about police officers killing unarmed white people in larger numbers than they did Black people. Merrell, who is white, said that her support for the recall was rooted in her belief that California had become too inhospitable to businesses.
“I love my employees, and I just want to give them the best life possible, but it’s getting more and more difficult,” she said as she urged passersby at the event to take her pro-recall material, including one flyer that read, “Don’t Vote By Mail.”
The in-your-face, contrarian style of right-wing talk radio hosts who scorn the mainstream media and mock liberals has served Elder well, helping him build a weekly national audience of 4.5 million listeners. California was the ideal market to build out his brand, as it was for other stars of conservative radio. Rush Limbaugh got his start at KFBK in Sacramento, and Sean Hannity started his career at KCSB in Santa Barbara.
But Elder may find that what works on talk radio is ill-suited to win a statewide election in California.
“We cannot simply appeal to ourselves,” said Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego and Republican recall candidate whose centrist campaign was often overshadowed by the far-right rhetoric of Elder. “We can be a party that wins again in California if we focus on solutions, if we focus on reform and if we’re inclusive. You cannot win office in California until you get Democrats and independents.”
Kevin Kiley, a lawmaker in the state Assembly and one of the other more moderate Republican recall candidates, said he would not put a conventional political label of left, right or center on the kind of coalition he hopes to appeal to. Cognizant of what having an “R” after his name on the ballot means to many California voters, he has pitched himself as a bridge candidate.
“Part of the unique opportunity with this recall is it is a chance to cross party lines,” Kiley said. “They’re not signing on for four years. They’re signing on for one year.” (If Newsom is recalled, the winning candidate to replace him would serve out the remainder of his term through 2022.)
At the rally in Thousand Oaks, Elder seemed to acknowledge that his appeal was limited, and pivoted slightly to a more centrist message. He insisted that he was not merely a “Trump supporter” but a Republican through and through — since he cast his last vote for a Democrat in 1976, for former President Jimmy Carter, a decision he said he had regretted ever since.
Kessler, the professor at Claremont McKenna College, said if there was another Republican renaissance coming to California, he doubted that this was the moment. But he also said he doubted that the current state of one-party control was sustainable. “This is a case where I think from the Republican point of view, things have to get worse in the state before they can get better,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.