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.
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.
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 radio show, which 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.
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.
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.”
The embattled Newsom has called Elder “more extreme than Trump in many respects.”
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 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.