Republicans in California Struggle to Broaden the Appeal of the Recall.
The small group of Californians who continue to refer to themselves as Republicans accomplished the seemingly impossible by forcing Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor of America's largest Democratic state, to face recall voters.
It was an often-overlooked facet of California: the conservative minority that has been at the forefront of the Republican Party's transition into a vehicle for the anti-establishment grievance politics that propelled former President Donald J. Trump to power in 2016. In the 1990s, the California conservative movement spearheaded a nationwide fight against affirmative action, molded the anti-immigration ideas of Trump strategists Stephen Miller and Stephen K. Bannon, and spawned a new generation of media giants such as Breitbart News and Ben Shapiro.
However, with Mr. Newsom topping recent surveys ahead of Tuesday's election, some of those same groups have struggled to garner widespread support for the recall.
California Republicans lack a single uniting figure capable of appealing to voters beyond the extreme right. The defunct state party has left them with limited organizing opportunities in such a broad area. And they have been unable to channel public outrage at the governor's handling of the outbreak into a broad-based pushback from voters on the right, left, and in the middle. What began as a fringe campaign to flip the state's highest office and upend the national political arithmetic appeared to be losing pace as Election Day drew near.
Mr. Newsom's allies bombarded the state with advertisements linking the recall to a far-right coalition of conspiracy theorists, anti-vaccine campaigners, and former President George W. Bush loyalists. And mainstream Republican backers of the recall argued that the effort had gotten burdened by too much baggage from the national party.
“The Republicans, I believe, have failed to articulate clearly that Democrats have been in command out here for 15 years,” said Doug Ose, a Republican and former three-term congressman who recently withdrew from the contest to succeed Mr. Newsom due to a heart attack. Rather than debating whether Californians are better off today than they were 15 years ago, Republicans, he claimed, have been dragged into discussions over abortion and other national issues.
“Stop accepting the bait,” Mr. Ose added, referring to Republicans' focus on Texas' abortion law. “No one is going to vote in this election in Texas. Why are we discussing what is occurring in Texas?”
In a state where Democrats have consistently increased their electorate share in recent years — they now account for 46 percent of all registered voters, according to the Public Policy Institute of California — the Republican Party has continuously lost voters. Republicans make up only 24% of the electorate, down from 35% in 2003, the last time the state's Democratic governor, Gray Davis, was recalled.
That is a far cry from the California that produced two Republican presidents — Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who served as governor twice — and provided a national model for running as a celebrity conservative reformer in a deep-blue state: former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Mr. Schwarzenegger stepped down in 2011, and the state has yet to elect a Republican to a statewide office since. However, if there was ever a time for conservatives in California to score a rare, consequential triumph, this would appear to be it.
Residents have expressed concern about this new round of state-mandated pandemic-related closures, with over half believing California is in a recession, according to a recent study. There are stark reminders of the state's inability to address fundamental, chronic problems everywhere, from the tent cities that lined the Venice boardwalk to the suffocating Lake Tahoe flames.
And voters have recently showed an independent streak, rejecting progressive ideas by sizable percentages at the ballot box. Last year, when the state overwhelmingly voted for President Biden, voters lost a referendum that would have abolished the state's affirmative action ban, 57% to 43%. Simultaneously, Californians decided to keep Uber and other ride-hailing and delivery app drivers as independent contractors, rejecting a push by labor and progressive groups to designate them as employees entitled to salary and benefit protections.
In Orange County and other typically conservative sections of the state, voters who shifted to the Democratic Party in 2018 reversed course in 2020. Four of the fifteen House districts the Republicans flipped in 2020 were in California, including two in Orange County. And, despite his defeat in the state, Mr. Trump earned 1.5 million more votes in 2020 from Californians than he did in 2016.
“You didn't see it in the vote for Biden,” said Charles Kessler, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. However, Mr. Kessler noted that the overall results in California in 2020 appeared to be “the beginnings of a kind of revolution against the Hollywood, high-tech San Francisco-led Democratic Party in the state.”
Mr. Elder, the recall candidate, comes from a lineage of conservatives in California whose appeal is based on their refusal to appeal to liberals. Credit... For The New York Times, Jenna Schoenefeld
The other California — the one of megachurches dotting the expanse of irrigated desert, Trump boat parades, and a would-be separatist enclave near the Oregon border calling itself the "State of Jefferson" — periodically joins forces with moderates and independents to reshape state politics.
However, Mr. Kessler stated that a significant difference between now and 2003, when Mr. Schwarzenegger succeeded Mr. Davis in the last recall, was the Republican Party's lack of a crossover candidate. Success, he stated, would need a candidate who "provides an alternative to the Democrat without necessarily embracing another party."
That is not Larry Elder, the Republican recall candidate who is now leading the polls.
Mr. Elder is a talk radio broadcaster who comes from a line of California conservatives whose attraction was their refusal to appeal to liberals. The list includes Andrew Breitbart, a Los Angeles native and founder of Breitbart News, and Mr. Miller, a former architect of Mr. Trump's anti-immigration agenda who grew up listening to Mr. Elder's show in Santa Monica.
At times, Elder campaign events felt eerily similar to Trump rallies.
Mr. Elder received groans from the crowd during a Labor Day event in Thousand Oaks, some 40 miles outside of downtown Los Angeles in Ventura County, when he cited The Los Angeles Times, and laughing when he claimed he meant to "talk slowly" because CNN was present. He delivered the kind of bombs that established him as a national figure in conservative talk radio, earning him acclaim from his predominantly white audience.
“What they fear,” Mr. Elder said, referring to his Democratic opponents, “is that Larry Elder from the hood who attended a public school will be able to convince Black and brown people that they are being deceived. You are being manipulated. You are being duped.'"
“Racism has never been more marginalized in America,” Mr. Elder, who is Black, added.
Shelley Merrell, who owns a fire safety company in Ventura, nodded in agreement when Mr. Elder referred to systematic racism as a "fiction" and reeled off facts about police officers murdering unarmed white people in greater numbers than they killed Black people. Ms. Merrell, who is Caucasian, stated that she backed the recall because she believed California had become too hostile to business.
“I adore my staff and want to provide them with the best possible lives, but it's becoming increasingly difficult,” she said as she urged passers-by at the event to pick up her pro-recall literature, which included a leaflet that said, "Don't Vote By Mail."
Mr. Elder has benefited from the confrontational, contrarian approach of right-wing talk radio broadcasters who despise the mainstream media and insult liberals, which has helped him establish a weekly national audience of 4.5 million listeners. California, as was the case with other conservative radio stars, was the ideal market in which to establish his brand. Rush Limbaugh began his career at Sacramento's KFBK, and Sean Hannity at Santa Barbara's KCSB.
However, Mr. Elder may discover that what works on talk radio is unsuitable for winning a California statewide race.
“We cannot appeal to ourselves alone,” said Kevin Faulconer, a former San Diego mayor and Republican recall candidate whose centrist campaign was frequently overshadowed by Mr. Elder's far-right rhetoric. “We can become a party that wins in California again if we focus on solutions, on reform, and on inclusion. In California, you cannot win office without attracting Democrats and independents.”
Kevin Kiley, a State Assembly member and one of the other more moderate Republican recall candidates, said he would not name the coalition he seeks to build with conventional political labels such as left, right, or center. Recognizing the stigma attached to having a "R" following his name on the ballot, he has positioned himself as a bridge candidate.
“Part of the recall's uniqueness is the possibility to work across party lines,” Mr. Kiley explained. “They are not committing to four years. They've agreed to a one-year contract.” (If Mr. Newsom is recalled, the winning candidate will serve out the remainder of Mr. Newsom's term until 2022.)
Mr. Elder appeared to recognize at the Thousand Oaks event that his appeal was limited