What Is Larry Elder Running For?

The brief, strange political career of the man who leads the Republican pack in the California recall election.

black-and-white photo of Larry Elder in a small crowd
Sarah Reingewirtz / MediaNews Group / Los Angeles Daily News / Getty

About the author: Annie Lowrey is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers economic policy.

Larry Elder becoming governor of California would be a little like Bernie Sanders winning a Senate seat in Kansas, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez representing suburban Mississippi in the House, or Mike Pence ending his career as the mayor of Portland, Oregon. Yet in less than a week’s time, there’s some chance, albeit a diminishing one, that it might happen.

Elder, a conservative talk-radio host from Los Angeles, is dominating polling among the candidates vying to replace Gavin Newsom in the state’s September 14 gubernatorial recall election, just the fourth in American history. The race, at this point, seems to be breaking hard for the seated governor. Still, 42 percent of poll respondents support the recall, meaning that just enough enthusiasm on the right and just enough apathy on the left could put a Trumpish Republican in the governor’s mansion of one of the most liberal states in the country. Although Newsom has regained momentum in the past couple weeks, he is taking the recall threat seriously enough to call in help from Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Barack Obama.

You could argue that this is democracy working as democracy should. Recall elections give voters control over their representatives, and provide a strong check on executive incompetence. But it is also democracy through a fun-house mirror, an object lesson in how highly motivated partisans can use democratic processes to put wildly unrepresentative ideologues in charge.

Elder, for his part, has never quite seemed like he really wants to be in charge. On the campaign trail this past weekend, he represented himself as a reasonable alternative to a failing executive—blasting Newsom for presiding over a homelessness and cost-of-living crisis, for wasting taxpayer money, for driving away manufacturers and Big Tech, and for dining unmasked at a swanky Napa restaurant in contravention of COVID-19 safety protocols. “People are leaving!” Elder told an overflowing crowd of maskless parishioners at the Destiny Christian Church in Rocklin, near Sacramento. “The rate at which people are leaving California in the first six months of this year is twice the rate that they’ve been leaving the previous three years!”

That kind of message has broad appeal. It’s expensive here. Businesses are leaving. The housing market is a catastrophe. But those were the least controversial things the candidate said. Quizzed by Pastor Greg Fairrington—who has passed out thousands of religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine and held indoor services in defiance of public-health guidelines last year—Elder went on to articulate a series of political opinions ranging from the far-out to the radically unpopular.

His anti-abortion stance, for one. “No one ever asks Gavin Newsom, at what point has pregnancy gone on too far?” he asked at the church in Rocklin. “Are third-trimester abortions okay?” (California permits abortions past the point of fetal viability only to save the life or preserve the health of the birth parent.) Elder said he supports a total ban on abortions; 84 percent of Californians support access to them.

He called the kind of sex education taught in California elementary schools “pornographic,” and said he supported banning any kind of sex ed at all, though parents overwhelmingly support it.

Elder waded into culture-war issues, railing against critical race theory and transgender athletes. A Black man himself, he disputed the idea that Black men are targeted by the police. He also posited that John McCain faced more headwinds from age discrimination than Barack Obama did from racism in the 2008 presidential campaign. “Obama had a lower hurdle than these white politicians,” he said, to applause from the crowd.

At other points in the race, the libertarian Elder has pushed other unloved ideas. He has not just advocated against minimum-wage increases, but for getting rid of the minimum wage entirely. Most notable, though vaccinated himself, he has campaigned against the state’s popular coronavirus public-health restrictions. “Thomas Jefferson warned about trading freedom for public safety,” he said at Destiny. “We still have freedom here in this country. So to the extent that there are any statewide mandates, when I become governor, I will repeal them before I have my first cup of tea.”

This guy might end up in charge of deep-blue California? It remains possible, thanks to the particular alchemy of this election and the peculiar way that motivated minorities can trounce unmotivated majorities in democratic systems.

Elder would likely never have been competitive in a normal election cycle. Newsom won in a landslide in 2018, after all, and Republican John Cox garnered just one-third of the state’s votes. More broadly, the GOP is struggling to gain any kind of toehold in California; not a single Republican currently holds statewide office.

Nor is it likely that the recall would have happened in the first place if activists had tried it a year before or a year after they did. Recall proponents managed to pull together enough signatures to trigger it only after a judge gave them additional time to canvass last year, because of the coronavirus pandemic. A flush of public anger over Newsom’s gaffes and the state’s handling of unemployment-insurance claims helped the effort succeed.

Yet, with the election set for Tuesday, four dozen candidates—self-promoting weirdos, single-issue opportunists, unqualified celebrities, charisma-light Republicans—crowded onto the ballot. No name-brand, deep-pocketed moderate stepped forward to run. No prominent Republican consolidated support, either, and the state GOP declined to back a candidate.

Elder joined the race just before the filing deadline, and given his decent-enough name recognition (from his popular talk-radio program), ended up in front of the pack, with just 28 percent of recall voters behind him. “I’ve been a politician for six weeks!” he said at Destiny, a laconic note of astonishment in his voice.

Still, he ended up with a clear path to winning. As of a few weeks ago, liberals seemed uninterested in the off-cycle recall circus, whereas conservatives were electrified by the idea of unseating Newsom. That left open the possibility that a majority of people motivated enough to vote would support the recall; Elder would then likely win, no matter how small his share of the vote and no matter how small the sliver of the overall California electorate represented.

Antidemocratic forces—the Electoral College, voting restrictions, gerrymandering, the very geography of the Senate—deliver plenty of antidemocratic outcomes in American elections: Donald Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 and won the presidency. But democratic forces—such as recalls—deliver antidemocratic outcomes too. Most voters don’t want to show up to local housing-board meetings. They don’t want to participate in off-cycle elections. They don’t want to research a thousand ballot initiatives. They don’t participate, giving the driven, the time-rich, and the resource-rich ample opportunities to put people in office and dominate policy—no matter how weird or unpopular their ideas.

Probably not this time. This summer, the growing feasibility of an Elder win motivated Newsom and the Democratic Party to start fundraising and campaigning. The state’s massive Democratic base now seems hyped to vote “no” to the recall, lest a scandal-plagued, attention-grabbing libertarian find himself running the state. “It’s been clear to me for some time that Elder’s the best thing that’s happened to Newsom,” Rob Stutzman, a California-based Republican strategist, told me.

“I’m not doing it for money,” Elder said in Rocklin. “I’m not doing it for fame. I’m doing it because I feel I have a patriotic, a moral, and a spiritual obligation to fix this state.” If and when he loses, he has a chance to make his case again next year. When, unfortunately for him, many more Californians will be paying attention.