The tectonic plates just shifted in the race to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom, although it will likely take more Republican momentum to seriously shake his hold on power.
Conservatives in California Wednesday afternoon cheered a Sacramento judge’s decision to rebuke the state’s top election official after she blocked conservative talk-show personality Larry Elder from appearing on the ballot. Superior Court Judge Laurie Earl ordered the Secretary of State Shirley Weber to include Elder’s name on the certified list of candidates challenging the governor in the recall, which is set to take place Sept. 14. There are 42 other certified candidates.
In a swift decision, Earl determined that the secretary of state’s requirement that candidates produce tax returns in order to qualify for the ballot applied to primary elections, not recalls. “I don’t find that Mr. Elder was required to file tax returns at all,” she said at Wednesday’s hearing.
Reacting to the judge’s decision, Elder tweeted that it amounted to a “TOTAL VICTORY!!”
“California judge rules that the election law Elder allegedly violated DID NOT EVEN APPLY to a recall election AND even if it did, Elder ‘SUBSTANTIALLY COMPLIED.’ I will be on the ballot,” the candidate tweeted along with a YouTube video of a young Muhammad Ali after his career-making 1964 triumph over Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight boxing title.
Two hours later, he boasted in a subsequent tweet that his next “victory” will be on “Sept. 14 at the ballot box.”
Carl DeMaio, a conservative Southern California radio talk show host and chairman of Reform California, a group helping to organize the recall, issued a “BREAKING” tweet.
“We are THRILLED with this decision,” he said, though he noted that neither he nor his organization is endorsing any candidates in the recall “at this time.”
Over the last three days, Republicans backing Newsom’s recall angrily questioned Weber’s decision to abruptly disqualify Elder, at times speculating that partisan political motivations were behind the decision, as well as potentially racist efforts to deny a black conservative with high name recognition from appearing on the ballot. Elder is a syndicated libertarian talk show host, Fox contributor, author and attorney.
The uproar began over the weekend when Weber’s office released a preliminary list of 41 certified candidates whose names would be on the ballot but left off Elder’s, noting only that his tax returns were improperly redacted. Elder late Monday announced that he was suing to overturn the decision, arguing that he filed all the necessary paperwork to qualify for a spot on the ballot, including more than 300 pages of tax returns.
Elder said his campaign only received Weber’s vaguely written letter alerting him of unspecified problems with his returns on Sunday evening, giving him little time to object ahead of an encroaching deadline to qualify. Elder’s lawyer has said he filed both redacted and unredacted personal and corporate tax returns. On Monday, Elder then accused Weber, a Democrat, of political “shenanigans” and said he would sue to get on the ballot.
“We’ve complied with everything the secretary of state has required of us,” he said in a statement. “The politicians in Sacramento know that I’m the only candidate who can beat Gavin Newsom and are using whatever shenanigans they can to try to trip me up. It won’t work.”
Weber’s office did not respond to RealClearPolitics’ request for comment.
The California law used to disqualify Elder was originally passed by state lawmakers as an effort to force then-President Trump to turn over his tax returns if he wanted to qualify for the 2020 presidential ballot in California. In 2017, then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, arguing that it would create a “slippery-slope precedent” of imposing new mandates on political candidates.
“What’s next? Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards?” Brown asked at the time. “And will these requirements vary depending on which political party is in power?”
Newsom had a different view and signed a new version of the bill into law two years ago. That state statute was litigated up to the Supreme Court, which ruled it unconstitutional as it applied to presidential ballots but allowed it to stand for California gubernatorial primaries, though it was unclear whether it applied to recall elections.
Elder’s case was one of several court disputes in the run-up to California finalizing the list of candidates for the election. A week ago, a different judge sided with Weber in ruling that Newsom could not list “Democrat” next to his name after an error in his paperwork failed to request it by an earlier deadline. On Wednesday a judge also denied an effort by Kevin Faulconer, a prominent GOP candidate, to have “retired San Diego mayor” listed next to his name on the ballot.
“Never a dull moment on the recall,” remarked Anne Dunsmore, the campaign manager for Rescue California, one of the groups behind the effort to remove Newsom. While Dunsmore said she doesn’t like conspiracy theories, she said the decision to block Elder’s name from the ballot raised suspicions in her mind.
“It’s the same contradictory, deceptive narrative that [Newsom and his supporters] have been following for a while,” she told RCP. Dunsmore referenced an investigation by CapRadio and NPR’s California Newsroom that found the governor misled the public about his wildfire prevention actions and overstated by an astounding 690% the number of areas treated with fuel breaks and prescribed burns in priority areas.
“If it was underhanded, it means that they think Elder is a huge threat to [Newsom], probably his biggest threat,” she said, noting that she was speaking only for herself, not Rescue California. “… They certainly don’t want a black man from South Central Los Angeles being your opposition on the ballot.”
Before the judge’s ruling, Republican elections attorney Mark Meuser questioned whether Weber was engaged in “voter suppression by exercising political power not granted to her by California law and using this fiction power to remove candidates from the 2021 recall election.”
“Right now, I am seeing more voter suppression coming out of the actions of the California secretary of state than any law that requires a voter to show an ID before they vote,” he said in a Facebook post. Meuser lost a 2018 campaign against Weber for the secretary of state post.
Elder was born in Los Angeles and grew up in the South-Central area, graduating from Crenshaw High School in 1970. He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in political science from Brown University and his juris doctorate from the University of Michigan Law School. He eventually founded his own executive search firm before launching his television and radio talk show career.
After announcing he would take on Newsom in the recall July 12, Elder quickly became one of the most recognizable names in the GOP field, along with Caitlin Jenner, Faulconer and businessman John Cox, who lost the gubernatorial race against Newsom in 2018. Elder quickly raised $382,000 within days of announcing.
Despite the headline-grabbing Jenner candidacy, before Elder got into the fray the roster of Republican contenders has split GOP voters’ support with none of them catching enough fire to seriously threaten Newsom. Faulconer has the most institutional Republican support and is the most organized with press outreach and events.
A new Inside California Politics/Emerson College poll released late Wednesday shows Elder with leading all challengers with 16% support, 10 percentage points ahead of his nearest competitors, Faulconer and Cox.
Meanwhile, Newsom supporters in recent days have celebrated his success in preventing a prominent Democrat from joining the fray and challenging him. There are now 21 Republicans, one Libertarian, eight Democrats and two Green Party members running in the election, but none of the Democrats have high enough name recognition to give the governor cause for concern. The anti-recall efforts also have amassed far more funds — $32.5 million — compared to $16.8 million pro-recall groups and candidates challenging Newsom have collected, the Los Angeles Times reported in early July.
But GOP consultant Rob Stutzman, who served as deputy chief of staff for Arnold Schwarzenegger, the winner of the 2003 recall of then-Gov. Gray Davis, has argued that Newsom isn’t out of the woods yet. He recently warned that “something weird could happen” if there is a lack of enthusiasm among Democrats to show up and vote against the recall and for Newsom.
Since Elder jumped into the race, he’s begun to change its dynamic, according to at least one recall organizer.
“If the election were held today, [Elder] would win the top spot, according to all the analytics and polling numbers I’ve been looking at,” DeMaio, the conservative radio talk show host and recall organizer, told his listeners Tuesday. “And maybe Democrats understand that, as an African American, he has the opportunity to bring in new support that ordinarily would not vote in this election.”
Elder’s entry into the contest also defies the narrative from Gavin Newsom and the Democrats that this is a “racist, white supremacist, QAnon recall,” asserted DeMaio.
“As a conservative, he excites the base, getting all kinds of people willing to knock on doors and make phone calls for him,” DeMaio added. “As a veteran broadcaster, he’s good on his feet and is a very effective communicator. With that name ID, he has the opportunity to raise money from the grassroots. … Larry Elder is a contender.”
In late January, Newsom tried to frame the effort to remove him from office as a fringe GOP movement backed by right-wing extremists, Trump supporters and QAnon believers. “It's the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers, not just the mega-Trump donors,” he told ABC’s “The View.” It’s also “the conspiracy theorists and militia members that are behind this recall.”
The action against Elder may have backfired, with his fundraising increasing over the last couple of days as supporters and donors rallied to his side, his lawyer, Steve Baric, told KOGO radio Tuesday evening.
“Even with providing 300 pages’ worth of documents, that’s still not enough for Mr. Elder to get on the ballot?” he asked ahead of the court decision. “It’s candidly shocking, and it should concern every Democrat, Republican, independent, whatever your party affiliation.”