The California dream turned into a nightmare for Republicans on Tuesday night after a blowout victory saved the formerly embattled Gov. Gavin Newsom. Instead of licking their wounds in silence, however, Republicans are eating their own.
From the day he took office in 2018, conservatives were seeking to oust Newsom. The former mayor of San Francisco’s lockdown orders gave life to their efforts. Out of all the scandals in which elected officials broke their own quarantine mandates, Newsom’s power meal at the French Laundry restaurant with state lobbyists in Napa Valley was by far the most infamous. It gave Republicans enough ammo to push the recall over the 1.5 million signature requirement, thanks also in part to a four-month extension to the deadline.
But it was Newsom who had the last laugh.
On the question of whether to recall Newsom, ‘no’ won by a two-to-one margin with over 60 percent of ballots counted. Votes cast by mail assured Newsom a comfortable victory that proved insurmountable before Californians even hit the ballot boxes in person. Newsom hailed the landslide as a victory for science, vaccines and women’s rights, and said it ensured the Golden State would remain a stronghold for the nation’s most progressive policies.
Larry Elder, who won nearly 50 percent on the second ballot question with over two million votes, appears to be the new boogeyman for California Republican leaders desperately in need of a scapegoat. The radio host entered the race late and quickly pushed aside establishment favorite Kevin Faulconer, the former GOP mayor of San Diego. Faulconer, the once self-declared frontrunner of the recall ticket, ended up snagging only 8 percent. In terms of policy, Faulconer is seen as a moderate because he’s pro-choice, opposed Trump’s border wall along with his immigration policies and is for gun control measures. John Cox, a former Democrat and Republican challenger who got beaten by Newsom in the 2018 gubernatorial match-up, captured 3 percent of the vote on the second ballot.
‘The recall was close until Elder became a candidate and dominated the field,’ Rob Stutzman, a GOP political consultant and former spokesperson for former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, told The Spectator. ‘He gave Newsom exactly what he needed, a Trump-like Republican to contrast himself to. Elder was a disastrous candidate for this mission. Newsom should be eternally grateful.’
Former California GOP chairman Ron Nehring concurred, tweeting on election night, ‘Larry Elder was Gavin Newsom’s life preserver.’
Elder’s campaign was rocked by high-profile controversies. The first scandal stemmed from a column he’d written for Capitalism magazine two decades ago where he’d said, ‘Women know less than men about political issues, economics, and current events. Good news for Democrats, bad news for Republicans. For the less one knows, the easier the manipulation.’ Newsom highlighted those comments while campaigning in Democratic strongholds.
Elder’s ex-fiancée Alexandra Datig also claimed she’d broken off their engagement in 2015 after he’d waved a gun in her face while stoned on marijuana. Elder denied the allegations. Datig is a conservative commentator who actively promoted Faulconer’s campaign throughout the election. Faulconer, joined by his fellow Republican candidate Caitlyn Jenner, then demanded Elder suspend his campaign. Elder instead adopted Trumpian tactics, denying Datig’s allegations and doubling down on his old column.
Ultimately, the culmination of these scandals saw the race shift in Newsom’s favor. GOP California insiders and consultants cited these events to The Spectator as evidence that Elder had saved Newsom’s political career.
The devil is in the details. Although Newsom did see a boost in the polls after he made Elder the face of the recall, before Elder had entered the race, Newsom was already enjoying a comfortable double-digit lead, according to polls archived by RealClearPolitics. Moreover, the election only appeared to be ‘close’ after Elder became the Republican favorite during a short stretch in August. What difference the absence of his candidacy may have had on the results is unknowable. Still, it certainly motivated the Democratic party to mobilize resources upwards of $100 million and forced President Biden to stump for Newsom in the nation’s deepest blue state.
While some California GOP bigwigs pointed the finger at Elder, other grassroots activists blamed the state party’s refusal to endorse Elder and unite behind his campaign early on. Last month, the California Republican party voted not to endorse any of the candidates running in the state’s upcoming recall during an online convention. Sources told The Spectator that party leaders had favored Faulconer but did not want to divide the convention by angering delegates who supported Elder.
The California College Republicans, who did endorse Elder in August, criticized Faulconer for breaking ‘Reagan’s 11th Commandment’ never to speak ill of a fellow Republican.
‘Ultimately, this recall failed because Republicans once again couldn’t unify and get behind a candidate,’ CCR chairman Will Donahue told The Spectator. ‘These vocal, anti-Elder RINOs and grifters need to get behind the grassroots. We don’t have room for bruised egos and power trips from the political elite and splinter groups.’
It’s easy to see how the grassroots fell in love with Elder. Faulconer, a noted friend of Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy, was hesitant to say whether he would support Trump in a potential 2024 presidential run and actively dodged any questions about Trump. Elder, however, wore his support for the exiled commander-in-chief as a badge of honor, which may or may not have derailed the recall effort but certainly shifted the ideological groundwork of the California GOP.
State GOP chairwoman Jessica Patterson will now, like McCarthy, have to cede to the pro-Trump wing or face another annihilation at the ballot box and a potential revolt from her party. California is a microcosm of what awaits the rest of the country. The more traditional Republicans lose, the more Trump’s ideology thrives, cementing the 45th president’s legacy as a pain in the ass for GOP leaders regardless of whether he reenters the arena in 2024.
As for Elder, the right-wing firebrand has no intention of disappearing. Addressing supporters at his Costa Mesa watch party, the former radio host ended his concession speech with a smile and a message that will give California GOP powerbrokers night sweats — ‘Stay tuned!’