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Editorial: Would Gov. Larry Elder turn out to be a gift to Democrats?

Larry Elder in a Zoom discussion with Los Angeles Times opinion editors
Recall candidate Larry Elder in a Zoom discussion with Los Angeles Times opinion editors and writers on Aug. 13.
(Los Angeles Times)
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NOV. 9, 2022

SACRAMENTO — California voters soundly rejected Republican Gov. Larry Elder’s bid for reelection Tuesday and handed leadership of the state back to former Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who was ejected from office last year in a recall election.

Preliminary returns showed Newsom garnering nearly 80% of votes, but Elder has yet to concede, claiming without evidence that the election was rigged and rife with massive voter fraud.

Newsom’s victory came as a relief to jubilant Democrats after 14 months of gridlock, in which Elder, a Black talk-show host who spreads white supremacist falsehoods, locked horns with the Democratic supermajority in the Legislature.

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The state government ground nearly to a halt after top bureaucrats were summarily dismissed and not replaced. Among Elder’s first actions as governor was suspending the state’s pandemic orders and abandoning COVID-19 vaccination programs, prompting last winter’s surge of the coronavirus’ newest, deadliest variant. Though no lockdowns were issued, businesses suffered when Californians chose to stay home to avoid infection.

Despite the drubbing, it is not the last California will hear of Larry Elder. The talk radio host was able to grow his celebrity in far-right circles outside Californian during his short turn as governor and is now considering his political options, including seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. Conservatives thrilled to Elder after he chose Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Bonsall) to replace Dianne Feinstein after the Democratic senator’s unexpected retirement. Former President Trump proclaimed that Elder had “made California great again.”

The California Republican Party had hoped that Elder would replicate the success they had with the actor-turned-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who replaced Gov. Gray Davis in a 2003 recall election. But Republicans appear to have paid a heavy price by supporting Elder’s inflammatory rhetoric. Party registration has dropped to new lows and two Republican-held congressional seats appear to have swung to Democrats.

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This is not a real news story. But Californians could very well read something like this in the future if they foolishly toss out Newsom on Sept. 14 and replace him with the incendiary radio host.

If Newsom is recalled — a possibility that once seemed remote — polls suggest it will be Elder who takes over, despite his lack of government experience and his extremist views. In a regular election, this couldn’t happen. But the curious rules of the recall election, in which the second question acts like a primary without a runoff, makes it not just possible, but likely, as other Republican candidates — former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley and businessman John Cox — split the votes of more reasonable conservatives.

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The many ways in which Elder is unfit to lead California have been covered by the Los Angeles Times and other news outlets, so we won’t belabor them here other than to hit the highlights: He wants to stop public health efforts that have kept California from being hit by the Delta variant of the coronavirus as hard as Texas and Florida. He wants to suspend California’s environmental protection regulations and double down on oil drilling and fracking. He apparently believes sexual harassment isn’t a problem for women in the workplace.

He thinks welfare is responsible for the dissolution of Black families. He thinks that racial profiling isn’t real and that if only unarmed Black men would just “be polite” and comply with police orders, they wouldn’t be killed by officers. He refuses to engage with people who push him for answers or criticize him. He thinks women know less than men about politics and are therefore less fit to govern.

In short, Elder is a despot/crackpot in the making, taking cues directly from the Trump disruption playbook. If this is the man that California Republicans designate as their standard bearer, as opposed to a more moderate Republican like Faulconer, their Sept. 15 victory party isn’t going to last very long.

Some Republican voters might relish the thought of a Gov. Elder sticking it to the Democratic Party, which currently controls all the power at the state level. (By the way, that was no accident or trick. Democrats ascended over the course of decades because they adapted their positions to serve a diversifying state, while Republicans did not.)

But what they may not realize is that while Elder may be able to do some short-term damage to the state, it will be limited by his inexperience — and by a Democratic supermajority in the Legislature that can continue passing new climate change or sanctuary laws without fear of a gubernatorial veto. They can drag out confirmation of his Cabinet and commission appointees knowing that ultimately, such a polarizing Republican is unlikely to win reelection in a regular election in this deeply blue state.

You know which Republican recall candidate probably does concern the Democratic establishment because he might be able to hang on to the job? Faulconer. The moderate, pro-choice, experienced Republican got elected mayor twice in San Diego, where Republicans are just about a quarter of registered voters. While we oppose the recall, we think Faulconer is the only responsible vote on Question 2 of the recall ballot.

So what will it be, California Republicans? A vote for the race-baiting demagogue on the ballot, or a vote for a candidate who cares to actually try to govern?

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