Editor’s Note: Lincoln Mitchell (@LincolnMitchell) teaches in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. His most recent book is “The Giants and Their City: Major League Baseball in San Francisco, 1976-1992.” (Kent State University Press, 2020) The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
At mid-summer, polls suggested California’s recall election was getting close and Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom was in danger of losing his job. But recent polls indicate an increasing chance the recall will fail.
The recall was always a bit of a long shot but the people behind the effort were betting they could generate enough excitement among those who strongly dislike the governor in an off-year election, when Democratic turnout could be low. That strategy seemed to work for a while, particularly since the Democrats were struggling to gain much traction with their attempts to make the election about former President Donald Trump and his followers, rather than Newsom himself.
But voters never really saw the former president as a threat in the California recall election, especially since many of the initial leading Republican candidates were relatively moderate by 2021 standards or lesser-known conservatives.
And then in July, along came Larry Elder, who quickly rose to the top of the pack of candidates seeking to replace Newsom.
Elder was precisely what Newsom needed to make the fear of Trumpism real in the eyes of California’s substantial Democratic majority. Elder, a long-time conservative talk radio host, is well known among right-wing Californians, but many other voters have only gotten to know him in more recent weeks.
With Elder’s ascent, Newsom and the Democrats supporting him could now put a name and a face to the danger of a recall, which requires a majority of votes to oust Newsom but only a plurality to elect a replacement. Elder’s extreme positions made this easy for Newsom. Elder for example, has said, “The ideal minimum wage is $0.00.” He once called climate change “a crock,” argued slave owners should receive reparations and opposed mandating masks or vaccines during the Covid-19 pandemic. He has also written women “know less than men” about the issues voters face and said they “exaggerate the problem of sexism.”
Faced with the choice between Newsom and Elder, engagement among Democrats – likely driven more by a fear of Elder than excitement over Newsom – began to grow.
Some might say the emergence of Elder was a lucky break for Newsom, which allowed him to inject some life into an otherwise moribund campaign. Of course, anything can happen on Election Day. But given the strength of the Democratic Party in California, Newsom has always had a pretty decent chance of beating the recall.
There is also another important dynamic at play here. Given the intense polarization in US politics and the grip Trump has had on the GOP, it’s no surprise a Republican candidate like Larry Elder emerged as a frontrunner in the recall election. It’s also telling that a moderate like Kevin Faulconer, who previously served as the Republican mayor of San Diego, has trailed far behind Elder in the polls. It’s clear Trump’s success grabbing headlines and building a fervent base has created a blueprint for many conservatives, and the California recall demonstrates the GOP has become the party of Trump, from sea to shining sea.
Elder has also followed in Trump’s footsteps in recent days by baselessly suggesting “there might very well be shenanigans” in the recall election. Trump himself weighed in to say the upcoming election was “probably rigged.”
This kind of talk is unlikely to help Elder become governor, but sowing doubts about the electoral process is likely to become additional fodder for efforts to pass voter restriction laws like those being passed in a number of red states. To be clear, California, a blue state that has successfully expanded voter access, isn’t going to pass voter suppression laws just because Elder baselessly kvetches about election fraud. But it is entirely possible Republican politicians will repeat these claims to bolster voter suppression efforts in other states.
It’s clear Newsom never wanted a recall, but once Elder became the Republican frontrunner, it was easier for the governor to define the race and mobilize his huge Democratic base. While Elder’s campaign has been a gift to the Democrats in the short term, it may help undermine our democratic processes and make it harder to vote in the long run.