In ordinary times, it would be fairly ridiculous to fret about Larry Elder becoming California’s next governor.
Elder is a longtime conservative talk radio host from Los Angeles, a fixture of right-wing punditry in the mold of Rush Limbaugh. His schtick is offense and outrage, and over nearly three decades in the business, he has minted an opposition research gold mine of misogynistic and racially inflammatory sound bites that would seem to doom his prospects in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2 to 1.
But California sometimes feels as prone to political earthquakes as geological ones; every once in a while, voters here throw a tantrum, and the seemingly unthinkable becomes sudden reality. This state’s voters have passed Proposition 13, a revolt against property taxes; Proposition 187, which denied public services to immigrants living in the country illegally; Proposition 209, which prohibited affirmative action in the public sector; and Proposition 8, the 2008 ban on same-sex marriage whose reversal by the Supreme Court paved the way for marriage equality in the land.
You can also thank us for the Reagan era. And the last time we recalled a not particularly likable Democratic governor, we ended up with the Terminator as our chief executive.
So when I received my mail ballot this month asking whether our current governor, Gavin Newsom, should be booted from office, my heart sank. For weeks, the Newsom recall has felt like a meaningless political circus. The effort was prompted by a right-wing group that has criticized Newsom’s positions on immigration and taxes. The petition for Newsom’s recall went viral in November after he was photographed dining at the French Laundry in violation of his own COVID-19 guidelines.
Still, the recall seemed like a comic long shot. Reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner is among the high-profile candidates. Last week, another Republican in the race, John Cox, was served with a subpoena during a televised debate.
But Elder’s candidacy makes the race as serious as a heart attack, especially because the rules governing California’s recall election, which will take place Sept. 14, are unfair to the point of plausible unconstitutionality. For Newsom to prevail, a majority of voters must oppose his recall; if he were to fall even just barely short of that majority, the rival who gets the most votes becomes our next governor, even if that candidate wins far fewer votes than Newsom.
Because California’s Democrats appear deeply apathetic about the race, current polls show likely voters to be roughly tied on the question of Newsom’s recall. Elder, meanwhile, is far ahead of his fellow challengers in the race to replace Newsom — even though he is supported by only about 20% of voters.
The stark upshot: Newsom’s recall is no longer a sideshow. With Elder as a front-runner, it’s one more looming disaster for our beleaguered state. On top of everything else — on top of the pandemic, droughts, the wildfires and unbreathable air — this state has a new emergency to worry about. Unless California’s Democrats wake up, in three weeks’ time, a Trumpian provocateur could well be chosen to run one of the nation’s bluest states.
If Elder’s victory is a liberal nightmare, though, it is just the nightmare Newsom needs us to be thinking about. Elder’s record is so far beyond the California mainstream that he functions as a one-man cattle prod for energizing the Democratic base. No wonder Newsom has made Elder the star of his recent ads. “Some say he’s the most Trump of the candidates,” Newsom said of Elder recently. “I say he’s even more extreme than Trump in many respects.”
He could be. Elder opposes the minimum wage, abortion rights, and vaccine and mask mandates, and in 2008 called climate change a “crock.” (He now says climate change is real, but he’s not sure if it’s playing a role in California’s wildfires — given the scientific evidence, that’s little different from denying climate change altogether.) He has a long history of breathtaking misogyny. In 2000, he argued that women tend to vote for Democrats over Republicans because, bless their hearts, they’re just not as well-informed as men.
“Women know less than men about political issues, economics and current events,” he wrote. “Good news for Democrats, bad news for Republicans. For the less one knows, the easier the manipulation.”
In the 1990s, Elder, who is Black and grew up in South Central Los Angeles, rose to national prominence largely for his paternalistic attitudes on race. He has called Blacks “victicrats” for painting themselves as victims of racism. “In the year 2001, racism is not our major problem,” he once said. “Personal responsibility is.”
An audio clip recently surfaced of Elder performing a political stand-up act in an Los Angeles comedy club in the mid-1990s. He is heard doing an apparent impression of F. Lee Bailey, one of O.J. Simpson’s defense attorneys, practicing saying the N-word — a slur Elder repeats several times with cringey, theatrical gusto.
It’s possible the attention Newsom and the news media are now heaping on Elder will burn up his budding candidacy. Last week, Elder’s former fiancée, Alexandra Datig, told Politico that during an argument in 2015, Elder waved a gun at her while he was high on cannabis. This week, Jenner and another Republican vying to replace Newsom, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, called on Elder to drop out. Elder has denied Datig’s claim and rejected his opponents’ counsel; late last week, he shook up his campaign staff.
But anyone who was alive in 2016 ought to appreciate the danger of Newsom’s focus on Elder’s extremism. Like Donald Trump, Elder has a keen understanding of the utility of outrage; when the left attacks him, he goes on Fox News and wears the criticism as a badge of purity, helping him further stand out from the Republican pack. Perhaps that’s why Elder’s standing in the polls has only gone up amid the onslaught of criticism. By making him the face of the recall, Newsom is cementing Elder’s lead, all but guaranteeing him as a successor should Newsom fail to win a majority. It’s a frightening strategy, even if it’s Newsom’s best play.
And whether Newsom prevails, the fact that we are wasting any energy on this nonsense recall vote only emphasizes the underlying political dysfunction plaguing this state. As I have ranted about before, because the Senate and Electoral College render populous states essentially meaningless, California’s 40 million people are all but shut out of determining the direction of America’s national government. Now it’s clear our state government, too, is rudderless.
Newsom, who has been in office for just 2 1/2 years, has a lot on his plate. In addition to the pandemic and climate disasters, there’s a housing affordability and homelessness crisis battering the state; and according to some measures, our poverty rate is the highest in the nation. I don’t think Newsom has any silver bullets to solve these problems, but I can promise you that he’ll make little progress on any of it if he has to spend all his time running to keep his job.
In 2018, nearly 62% of voters chose Newsom to lead the state. The least we could do is give him the chance to do the job.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.