If Elder’s victory is a liberal nightmare, though, it is just the nightmare Newsom needs us to be thinking about. Elder’s record is so far beyond the California mainstream that he functions as a one-man cattle prod for energizing the Democratic base. No wonder Newsom has made Elder the star of his recent ads. “Some say he’s the most Trump of the candidates,” Newsom said of Elder recently. “I say he’s even more extreme than Trump in many respects.”
He could be. Elder opposes the minimum wage, abortion rights, and vaccine and mask mandates, and in 2008 called climate change a “crock.” (He now says climate change is real but he’s not sure if it’s playing a role in California’s wildfires — given the scientific evidence, that’s little different than denying climate change altogether.) He has a long history of breathtaking misogyny. In 2000, he argued that women tend to vote for Democrats over Republicans because, bless their hearts, they’re just not as well informed as men.
“Women know less than men about political issues, economics and current events,” he wrote. “Good news for Democrats, bad news for Republicans. For the less one knows, the easier the manipulation.”
In the 1990s, Elder, who is Black and grew up in South Central Los Angeles, rose to national prominence largely for his paternalistic attitudes on race. He has called Blacks “victicrats” for painting themselves as victims of racism. “In the year 2001, racism is not our major problem,” he once said. “Personal responsibility is.”
An audio clip recently surfaced of Elder performing a political stand-up act in an L.A. comedy club in the mid-1990s. He is heard doing an apparent impression of F. Lee Bailey, one of O.J. Simpson’s defense attorneys, practicing saying the N-word — a slur Elder repeats several times with cringey, theatrical gusto.
It’s possible that the attention Newsom and the news media are now heaping on Elder will burn up his budding candidacy. Last week Elder’s former fiancée, Alexandra Datig, told Politico that during an argument in 2015, Elder waved a gun at her while he was high on cannabis. This week Jenner and another Republican vying to replace Newsom, the former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, called on Elder to drop out. Elder has denied Datig’s claim and rejected his opponents’ counsel; late last week, he shook up his campaign staff.
But anyone who was alive in 2016 ought to appreciate the danger of Newsom’s focus on Elder’s extremism. Like Donald Trump, Elder has a keen understanding of the utility of outrage; when the left attacks him, he goes on Fox News and wears the criticism as a badge of purity, helping him further stand out from the Republican pack. Perhaps that’s why Elder’s standing in the polls has only gone up amid the onslaught of criticism. By making him the face of the recall, Newsom is cementing Elder’s lead, all but guaranteeing him as a successor should Newsom fail to win a majority. It’s a frightening strategy, even if it’s Newsom’s best play.