Larry Elder
Republican conservative radio show host Larry Elder speaks to supporters after losing the California gubernatorial recall election Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, in Costa Mesa, California. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

It’s not that Gavin Newsom won on Tuesday night, it’s who he beat. 

The recall effort against the California governor was always a long shot. It only qualified for the ballot because of a pandemic court order that gave organizers an extra four months to collect signatures. Even then, it was going to be an uphill battle for Republicans in a deep blue state that Joe Biden won by nearly 30 percent in 2020. But for whatever concerns Democrats had about Newsom and his governance, they were still Democrats. They may have had discontents about income inequality, pandemic restrictions, homelessness, and crime, but they would have needed a much better reason to abandon their party allegiance only months after January 6. Instead, Republicans chose to rally around Larry Elder.

A longtime talk radio host and right-wing personality, Elder was a last-minute entry in the recall election. The frequent Fox News guest, however, through appearance after appearance in conservative media, soon became the front-runner to replace Newsom under California’s convoluted ballot rules. 

California voters faced a two-part question. The first was a yes/no option to recall Newsom. The second gave them a long list of candidates to support as a replacement if Newsom was recalled. The list of Republican hopefuls besides Elder was diverse. It included Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympic gold medalist and reality-TV star; John Cox, the party’s 2018 gubernatorial nominee; Kevin Kiley, an Ivy League–educated state legislator who has been an ardent Newsom critic; and Kevin Faulconer, the moderate former mayor of San Diego. 

These candidates spanned every aspect of the Republican coalition, from a libertarian conservative in Kiley to Faulconer, the archetype of the socially moderate conservative who had long been the base of the California GOP. And in a state where Republicans have nominated celebrities going back to George Murphy, it even had Jenner. But they all got killed.

Elder consolidated Republican voters behind him. With 68 percent of the vote reported, as of this writing, he was at 47 percent with Californians who answered the second question, well over 30 percent ahead of his nearest competitor. In contrast, Faulconer, who was his closest Republican competition, couldn’t even break 10 percent and, according to exit polls, did better with Biden voters than Trump voters. 

Elder became the dominant figure not by appealing to swing voters. Rather, his MAGA-style extremism only reinforced Newsom’s strengths in the eyes of voters. He repeatedly proclaimed his opposition to vaccine and mask mandates when nearly two-thirds of California’s voters say getting vaccinated is a public health responsibility. And, in a state where 47 percent of voters are registered Democrats, he repeatedly tacked to the right. Elder expressed his support for overturning Roe v. Wade in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision on the Texas abortion law, pledged to appoint a Republican for a U.S. Senate vacancy, and refused to acknowledge that the 2020 presidential election was free and fair. Harping on national issues was, perhaps, an approach better suited to an aspiring Fox News pundit than a wannabe blue-state governor. It was a trend Elder continued even in his concession speech Tuesday night, when he railed against Barack Obama’s behavior leading to the 2009 “beer summit” after the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates had a confrontation with a policeman on the porch of his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home. 

It helped that Democrats had tried to delegitimize the process by discouraging any legitimate candidate from their side from filing. The top Democrat on the replacement ballot was Kevin Paffrath, a Millennial YouTuber whose platform included a pipeline to carry water to the Golden State from the Mississippi River. As the top Democratic vote getter, Paffrath was at 10 percent on the replacement ballot.

The key, though, was that the only viable alternative to Newsom was Elder. Republican voters rallied around the Trumpiest candidate, and it became a purely partisan exercise. And purely partisan exercises are not the kinds of elections that Republicans win in California.

Ben Jacobs

Follow Ben on Twitter @bencjacobs. Ben Jacobs is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. His work has been published in New York, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and numerous other publications.