‘A complete shock’: the rightwing contrarian leading the California recall race

<span>Photograph: Marcio José Sánchez/AP</span>
Photograph: Marcio José Sánchez/AP

Larry Elder is a confounding frontrunner in the Republican race to replace Gavin Newsom as California governor.

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The outspoken libertarian radio talkshow host entered the recall campaign just days before the filing deadline. He has zoomed to the top of a long list of candidates running against the state’s Democratic governor – perhaps both despite and because of his divisive, contrarian politics.

Elder opposes the minimum wage and gun control. He’s said he doesn’t believe that a gender wage gap exists, and has called the climate crisis a “crock”. He has suggested that fatherless families drive up crime rates in Black communities. In three decades on air, Elder has made a name disseminating controversy.

His most extreme views are not only out of line with those of the majority of voters – but also with the views of many of the state’s Republicans. And yet it’s not impossible the self-proclaimed “sage from South Central” will become the next governor of one of America’s bluest states.

A reputation as rightwing contrarian

Elder, 69, was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles. After graduating from Brown University and the University of Michigan, he practiced law for a decade before transitioning to political punditry – landing his own show on local station KABC in Los Angeles in the early 90s.

In response to his inveighing against affirmative action, denials of systemic racism and claims that Black leaders exaggerate discrimination, a group of LA residents in the 1990s organized a two-and-a-half-year boycott of the radio show’s sponsors.

Flyers circulating at the time called him a “White Man’s Poster Boy”. Some advertisers did drop Elder, but he ultimately prevailed. His show was syndicated, and he started building a huge national radio audience, making frequent appearances on Fox News and cultivating his brand of contrarian libertarianism.

“He’s been on the radio for 27 years, down in LA, talking man-bites-dog politics that are ironic and contradictory,” said James Lance Taylor, a political scientist at the University of San Francisco. “And in some ways, the only reason why he’s able to say much of what he says is because he’s Black … he uses his race as a weapon.”

Earlier this year, Elder blamed Barack Obama for the deaths of George Floyd and other Black men, writing that the former president should have encouraged citizens to better “comply with the police” to avoid being shot.

During the coronavirus crisis, he has given a platform to Covid-19 conspiracy theorists, including a self-identified physician who promoted the false claim that coronavirus vaccines were being pushed in minority communities as “population control”. Elder has said he has been vaccinated but has vowed to repeal California’s mask and vaccine requirements if he wins the governorship.

“Larry Elder is not to be taken seriously,” Taylor said. “But because he has some recognition and a large microphone, he’s been thrust upon us.”

Surprising polls

An electoral face-off between Elder and Newsom would be highly improbable, were it not for California’s idiosyncratic recall laws. There are few requirements to get on the recall ballot, other than a $4,200 filing fee. But if more than half of California voters say they want to remove Newsom from office, the remaining candidate with a plurality of votes becomes governor.

That means Elder doesn’t need to win over the majority of voters – just enough to beat out Newsom’s other opponents. In a recent poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, 47% of likely voters supported recalling the governor, compared with 50% who opposed removing Newsom from office.

Gavin Newsom, who won the 2018 election with a greater share of the vote than any other Democrat in state history, remains largely popular in California.
Gavin Newsom, who won the 2018 election with a greater share of the vote than any other Democrat in state history, remains largely popular in California. Photograph: Santiago Mejia/AP

In response to the second question on the recall ballot – who should replace the governor if more than half of voters choose to remove him from office – most said they would avoid answering, or were undecided. Eighteen per cent said they would pick Elder – more than businessman John Cox, former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer and state assemblyman Kevin Kiley.

If the recall is successful, Newsom, a largely popular governor who won office by capturing a greater share of the vote than any other Democrat in state history, would be replaced by a fringe candidate whose extreme views don’t even capture most of the state’s Republican base. It would be “a complete shock” to California politics, Taylor said.

A familiar voice on the right

For many Californians, the recall has triggered flashbacks to the 2016 presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Many of Elder’s views and policy platforms fall in line with those of Trump. He has backed Trump’s migrant family separation policy and become a mentor to the architect of the previous administration’s harshest anti-immigrant policies, Stephen Miller. He has repeatedly claimed that Black people are more prone to crime and violence than other demographic groups, and echoed Trumpian lines that characterized Latino immigrants as criminals.

Although he initially said that Biden had won the election “fairly and squarely”, he has taken to repeating election fraud conspiracy theories. And taking cues from the former president, Elder has begun to sow mistrust in the recall election system.

The radio host’s rightwing views and his repeated, deliberate bending of truth and statistics to support his views on crime and policing “are particularly problematic given the racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd”, Erika D Smith wrote in a column for the Los Angeles Times.

“His policies are so opposite of what the majority of Californians believe,” Smith told the Guardian.

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The celebrity pundit’s politics and policies are “in a lot of ways more consistent with the views of national Republicans” than California Republicans, said Corrin Rankin, the California GOP Central Valley vice-chair. The state party decided not to endorse any of Newsom’s opponents, and Rankin said she herself was staying neutral.

But, she noted, many of Elder’s views – including his opposition to a minimum wage – are less aligned with the state’s more moderate Republican base. “I was surprised when I heard that Elder announced he was running for governor,” she said, especially since he had in the past insisted he had no interest in running. “I think everybody was surprised.”

And yet, said Dan Schnur, a politics professor at three California universities who has advised Republican candidates including John McCain, Elder’s candidacy makes sense in the post-Donald Trump era – his celebrity and convention-bending persona appeals to a certain type of conservative.

“Especially among the types of conservative voters who are fueling the recall, he’s a very familiar face and very familiar voice,” he said. “He’s someone they know and trust.”

If 50% of voters choose to recall the governor, “Elder is very well positioned to be the state’s next governor,” Schnur said, though Newsom is still “the odds-on favourite to survive this election.” The radio host has raised $4.5m in campaign funds – more than other Republican challengers – but just a tenth of Newsom’s $45m trove.

Elder’s campaign did not respond to the Guardian’s request for an interview.

‘Even more extreme than Trump’

Newsom, who throughout the year has tried to characterize the recall election as a rightwing effort, has found an easy foil in Elder. “Some say he’s the most Trump of the candidates,” Newsom told supporters at a campaign event last week. “I say he’s even more extreme than Trump in many respects.”

Even if victory remains unlikely for Elder, the momentum Elder has gained has worried many Democratic voters and lawmakers.

“You have somebody here who has absolutely no idea how government runs,” said Sydney Kamlager, a California state senator and vice-chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, “someone who does not care about people’s due process, about their reproductive rights, about their civil rights.”

California state senator Sydney Kamlager: if Elder becomes governor it will be ‘a fail of epic proportions’.
California state senator Sydney Kamlager: if Elder becomes governor it will be ‘a fail of epic proportions’. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

“The way Larry Elder has lived his life is is sketchy, to say the least,” said Kamlager. “If he gets the governorship, it would be a fail of epic proportions.”

California’s Democratic supermajority in the legislature could block or override many of the actions taken by a Governor Elder. But as California responds to the pandemic, a deep economic crisis, raging wildfires and drought, the idea that “unprepared and untested” Elder might lead the most populous US state “is unconscionable”, she said.

“I really am opposed, and I am deeply offended by someone who thinks that the governorship is the next iteration of a reality talkshow,” she added.

In a state that positioned itself as a foil to Donald Trump’s vision of America, seeing a rightwing, Trumpian candidate rising to head of one of the most progressive states in the country would amount to “complete abandonment of what makes California California”, Taylor said.