CALIFORNIA — Leaning back in a teal armchair in the garage studio of Dave Rubin’s digital long-form interview show, Larry Elder educated his host.
The conversation on “The Rubin Report” had drifted to institutional racism. Rubin offhandedly said it was a problem to be solved, and Elder, a quick-witted, longtime conservative radio host, asked him to explain.
Rubin didn’t have an answer. The education continued as Elder explained that institutional racism was not, in fact, a problem, and the term African American made much less sense to him than the term “Black.”
This was in 2016 before the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets on a grand scale, and virtually every media outlet altered its style away from using African American to Black.
In the interview, Elder disagreed with the libertarian foreign policy views of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and said he believes states should decide abortion and same-sex marriage.
Elder, a rapid talking 69-year-old, leads the race to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom in the upcoming Sept. 14 recall election, according to some opinion polls. Conservatives hope his broadcasting bona fides will draw enthusiastic conservatives to the polls, and his skills for persuasion will bring undecided voters to the cause.
For conservatives, it is at the very least a chance to engage with more voters.
“Larry has the ability to get people to listen who wouldn’t otherwise vote for us,” said Fred Whitaker, chair of the Republican Party of Orange County, which will host an event on Aug. 16 at which Elder is expected to speak.
He is, however, unlikely to persuade a large number of Californians who voted out Donald Trump by more than five million votes. Many of his views are deeply conservative, even more than Kevin Faulconer, John Cox, Kevin Kiley and Doug Ose. The four candidates avoided panning vaccine distribution and made it clear they felt vaccinations were important. Elder has not been so straightforward.
During the recent debate at the Richard Nixon Library and Museum, Cox said he disagreed with Elder’s stance that there should be no floor on the minimum wage. Other than that, his name was barely mentioned.
After a series of mailer attacks launched by Cox at Faulconer, criticism among candidates has stopped.
For years, registration numbers have fallen for Republicans, and Democratic advantages in the California State Assembly and Senate have widened to supermajorities.
Now, Republicans have a puncher’s chance, successfully triggering a recall and complicating Newsom’s future in the office.
With Elder’s recent rise in the polls has come more intense media scrutiny. Media outlets have trawled the depths of his radio shows, searching out notable opinions and sound bites. And much of it has been consistent with the views of conservative Republicans and other talk radio opinion journalism.
He is a skeptic of climate change, has criticized former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick for calling police practices “racist,” and has been reluctant to push back on guests who downplay the dangers of COVID-19.
Elder rattles off facts for many of his takes and has cited Harvard researcher Roland Fryer’s 2016 study as evidence that police do not unduly accost Black people.
Sometimes the sturdiness of his facts snaps under rigid scrutiny. In 2020, he said on Fox News, “Last year, there were nine unarmed Black people killed (by law enforcement). Nineteen unarmed white people.”
Politifact, a fact-checking network run by the journalism nonprofit Poynter Institute, found that comment to be mostly false. In 2014, he told CNN that the sum population of Black America would create the 15th wealthiest nation in the world, a comment found to be false by Politifact.
Newsom, by comparison, has, arguably, an even more dismal record with Politifact.
The views Elder has repeatedly expressed are unlikely to gain traction with the majority of registered voters and would appear to seal off the governor’s seat to Elder just as it has for other Republicans since Arnold Schwarzenegger won on a socially liberal and fiscally conservative platform.
These conservative views may not appeal to most voters, but Whitaker said it might not matter with such a short race. Republicans could win based on how many Democrats decide not to show up, he said.
Political pundits have noted that a recall was Republicans’ best chance to take control of the governor’s seat. Turnout is always lower in special and recall elections. State Sen. Josh Newman lost his recall election before winning decisively in the next general election last fall.
The remaining wrinkle in Republicans’ longshot bid is COVID-19, which weakened Newsom enough to help trigger a recall but which also forced every county to send out mail-in ballots. Every registered voter, regardless of interest in the election, will have a chance to vote. All Democrats need to do is get sympathetic voters to fill out ballots at the kitchen counter and drop them in the mailbox.
Conservatives understand the bid remains a long shot. If Elder or someone takes a surprise victory, the party will be hard-pressed to win again in 2022. Elder has said that’s enough time to make a difference. He would start by restructuring the leadership of various state agencies while educating Californians on conservative governing. The supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature would be able to bulldoze his veto pen, and Democrats would spend the year plotting a comeback.
“We want every Republican to show up no matter who they like,” Whitaker said.