Wednesday, September 08, 2021

In the California Recall, Republicans Turn to the Conservative Media for Party Leadership

The field of Republican candidates seeking to replace Democratic governor Gavin Newsom in next Tuesday's recall election in California includes the former mayor of San Diego; a businessman who was the Republican gubernatorial nominee in 2018; a former member of both houses of the state legislature who serves on the elected state tax board; and a current member of the state Assembly. All of these candidates have the kind of background that commonly precedes service as a top statewide elected official.

But none of them have much chance of replacing Newsom if he is recalled. Assuming that the polls are roughly accurate, all of these candidates are stuck in the single digits, while the clear favorite candidate of Republican voters—who will likely lead the overall vote for a successor, since no major Democrat is running—is Larry Elder, a conservative talk show host. A majority "yes" vote on the recall itself would automatically make the plurality winner of the replacement contest the next governor of the state. Even if more Californians oppose recalling Newsom than vote for Elder, all Elder needs is more votes than any other single replacement option, and it seems like he's in position to achieve at least that second goal.

California Republicans do not appear to be bothered by Elder's lack of conventional experience for high executive office. His favorable position in the race has allowed him to pursue a strategy of skipping the major debates where he might face attacks from other candidates or lines of questioning designed to test his grasp of state government. And even the negative publicity that Elder has received in recent weeks has kept the media's attention on him, making it difficult for any single other Republican to break out of the also-ran category in the final stretch of the race.

Elder's success reflects the appeal that a conservative media figure's candidacy can have among Republican voters—and, more generally, the growing influence of the conservative media universe over the direction of the Republican Party. Talk show hosts like Elder boast several potential advantages over more conventional Republican candidates: they are skilled at delivering the red-meat rhetoric that conservative voters reward; they lack a governing record that might contain elements of ideological impurity; and they are "outsiders" who can serve as a personification of resentment towards a class of traditional party leaders who have failed to reverse the growing power of liberalism. Elder's rival Kevin Faulconer is running on his successes in managing the state's second-largest city, promising to bring the same "strong and stable leadership" to the governor's office, but that argument has not caught on among California Republicans like Elder's more provocative style and resolutely pro-Trump message has.

Of course, California has twice elected famous actors to the governorship who sold themselves as anti-politicians. But both Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger were true celebrities, widely known as entertainers before they decided to enter elective politics. Elder, by contrast, is a creature of the conservative media world without any larger notability, and his campaign is strongly ideological rather than merely throw-the-bums-out populist.

To actually become governor, Elder needs independents and some Democrats to vote to recall Newsom, which may well be a tougher sell with a right-wing successor seeming to wait in the wings. Two organizers of the recall even complained recently that Elder was "outspoken to the extreme" and being "very politically naive" by trying to ride culture-war backlash to the governorship of a socially liberal state. Faulconer's moderate policy views and less pugnacious demeanor would seem to better fit the typical profile of a victorious Republican in Blue America. But Republican voters are not really in the mood to value political pragmatism or conventional leadership experience. If they were, conservative media personalities wouldn't have such political power in the first place.