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California Politics: The recall’s focused on Gov. Gavin Newsom and Larry Elder

Radio talk show host Larry Elder, left, and Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, right.
Radio talk show host Larry Elder, left, is the leading GOP candidate seeking to unseat Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in the recall election.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Few political candidates crank out as many social media posts as Larry Elder, the longtime talk radio show host who sprinted off the starting line and past the other 45 candidates seeking to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom in California’s recall election.

Most of Elder’s posts promote articles on conservative websites. But rarely do his followers see a reaction to something happening at that moment.

That changed abruptly Thursday when Elder lashed out at a series of serious allegations made against him by a former fiancee, the first of two articles that called into question his past behavior or statements.

“People do not get into public life precisely because of this type of politics of personal destruction,” he wrote in one post. “I am not going to dignify this with a response — it’s beneath me.”

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The allegations surfaced hours before a statewide televised debate between every top Republican recall candidate except for Elder and near the end of the first week of balloting in the monthlong election. And while the topic did not come up in the debate, it offered clear evidence of a major trend in the race: an intense focus no longer just on Newsom but also on the Los Angeles native who calls himself “the sage from South Central.”

And this is just the beginning of a double-header political season in California. There will be scarcely more than a year between the end of this historic recall and the election of a governor to a full four-year term the following November. And most — maybe all — of the top candidates could decide to stick around for the second contest.

Elder’s air attack, Faulconer’s punches

For much of the last week, the recall has felt like a two-man election with Elder and Newsom taking aim at one another and largely ignoring everyone else.

And there are plenty of reasons for that. Elder‘s candidacy has always been based on public outrage over Newsom’s actions. He’s not alone in that regard among GOP recall candidates, but Elder has succeeded in gaining the national attention the others surely crave, accepting multiple invitations in recent weeks from conservative-friendly TV and radio programs — an attack over the airwaves and laden with assertions that went largely unchallenged by his fellow, friendly broadcasters.

But the high-flying campaign relies more on attacking Newsom than explaining Elder. In a Q&A session over Zoom with reporters on Wednesday to discuss wildfires and forest management, Elder mostly left the policy details to his guest, Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale), chiming in to say he would implement “commonsensical” wildfire mitigation plans if elected.

And when he’s not offering broad promises of change, Elder has been attacking the press. That’s a strategy that might continue in the wake of Thursday’s revelations: first, allegations from a former romantic partner who told Politico she feared for her safety, then in a San Francisco Chronicle article that detailed Elder’s writings that “smart women” should overlook “boorish” workplace behavior by men.

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The criticisms left the other prominent Republican candidates struggling with what’s often called the party’s “11th Commandment,” first embraced by the late President Reagan in the 1966 governor’s race and an adage he borrowed from Gaylord Parkinson, a San Diego doctor who then served as chairman of the California GOP: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.”

Kiley and Faulconer issued statements — Kiley, a mild insistence that “any woman who comes forward deserves to be heard” and a much more strident critique from Faulconer.

“Larry Elder doesn’t have the judgment or character to lead our state,” Faulconer said in his statement. “His writings and statements are attacks on working women and every family in California.”

It was the second time this week that Faulconer called out Elder. In Tuesday’s debate, he criticized the premise of an article written by Elder in 2000 that insisted research showed that “women know less than men about political issues, economics, and current events.”

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“That’s bullshit. And we ought to call it that,” Faulconer said.

The change in rhetoric could be significant. It is the first real hint of anyone rethinking the talking point by GOP candidates that they’re only running against Newsom, not one another. And should the recall fail and Newsom remains in office, Faulconer’s move seems to anticipate that Elder would pose a significant threat in the statewide “top-two” primary next June.

Kiley, who has won over a number of people in the GOP base and possibly the recall’s original proponents, has largely held his fire on Elder. His position in the race may have improved this week when former Rep. Doug Ose, another Sacramento area conservative, bowed out after experiencing a heart attack.

And it was probably not a great week for businessman John Cox, who dutifully showed up for both debates but made news during Tuesday’s event for the wrong reason.

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As he began to make his opening remarks, a man approached the stage and threw what looked to be a subpoena onto the stage, part of a lawsuit claiming Cox owes almost $55,000 for political ads and about $43,000 in attorney’s costs, interest and other fees from his unsuccessful 2018 gubernatorial bid.

Newsom zeroes in on Elder

While Newsom has continued his strategy to paint the recall as a Republican power grab, he’s started to shift his focus a bit to Elder.

The latest TV ad from the governor’s campaign highlights his work on the state’s response to the Delta variant of COVID-19 but then pivots to a photo of Elder with former President Trump as the narrator says that Elder “peddled deadly conspiracy theories and would eliminate vaccine mandates on Day One.”

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The campaign strategies of both men were on the minds of all the political consultants I checked in with this week, whose candid assessments of the race were offered through a series of calls and texts that weren’t for attribution. While some wondered whether Newsom is inadvertently helping Elder by singling him out of the crowd, others said it’s a smart play to make the GOP candidate the face of every far-right position imaginable, in hopes of motivating the still slow-to-move base of Democratic voters to show up.

As for the Republicans, some strategists believe the GOP candidates are overdoing their appeals to the base voters they already have — Elder, in particular, could instead try to present himself as a political outsider to appeal to the same kinds of voters as Arnold Schwarzenegger did in the 2003 recall. After all, even a low turnout election could still slightly favor Democrats.

For now, the GOP candidates seem more similar than different. That’s especially true in their views on rolling back Newsom’s rules on COVID-19 vaccines and masks.

But voters will ultimately need to see differences. And should the intraparty wrangling get nasty, some strategists said, it could disrupt GOP politics in California in a variety of races come 2022 — not just the contest for governor.

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Voting begins, fire zone worries

We’re inching up on the end of the first full week of voting in the monthlong recall election. And, as discussed in last week’s newsletter, the determining factor in this race will be whether the voters who show up will reflect California’s registered electorate — almost twice as many Democrats as Republicans and almost 30% unaffiliated independents or third-party members.

Paul Mitchell, a longtime political consultant and redistricting analyst, tracks the return of ballots in semi-real time as they are reported by counties across the state. As of Thursday night, about 9% of ballots had been returned. So far, Democratic enthusiasm has surpassed the party’s share of the electorate. And voters age 50 and older have cast 71% of the ballots already reported by local elections offices. These numbers are too small and the election is too early to draw any real conclusions, but that’s likely to change quickly in the next seven to 10 days.

Meanwhile, a few readers have asked what provisions are being made for voting in the Northern California counties where devastating wildfires have broken out in the last few weeks. A spokesman for Secretary of State Shirley Weber said Thursday that officials in four counties — Alpine, El Dorado, Lassen and Plumas — are implementing natural disaster plans. Voters in those regions can designate a one-time address to receive a mailed ballot. Or they can vote now at a county elections office or in person up to election day.

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It’s important to note that ballots can’t be forwarded, so voters need to contact their local elections office in the event they’ve had to evacuate the residence listed on their registration.

The fail-safe in California elections is always a provisional ballot, cast in person at a voting location. Those ballots are set aside until a review of the voter’s registration and eligibility is completed and, if everything checks out, counted.

California politics lightning round

— Nearly a year after a “strike team” appointed by Newsom recommended an overhaul of California’s unemployment benefits system, hundreds of thousands of jobless residents continue to experience delays in getting payments and the state is still grappling with the loss of billions of dollars to fraud.

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— In the jockeying among California political donors to support Newsom’s fight against the recall, Netflix co-Chief Executive Reed Hastings is near the top of the leader board — with one expensive mea culpa.

— Legislation that would allow new multifamily housing developments in some California communities is shaping up to be the most significant housing bill in Sacramento this year, even though its effect on the state’s housing crunch would likely be limited.

— As public health officials continue their push to vaccinate millions of hard-to-reach Californians against COVID-19, they are doing so largely without the help of Blue Shield of California, the company whose oversight Newsom sought earlier this year.

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