“Seemingly overnight, Larry Elder galvanized support from GOP voters in California, building on his decades long experience of connecting with radio listeners to energize Republicans in a way no statewide candidate has in a generation.” — Politico
Don’t worry if that tweet gives you a headache. You’re not the one who is confused here.
In the days that followed Governor Gavin Newsom’s landslide defeat of the Republican effort to recall him from office, the political news media appeared bored by the realities of the results and eager to crown the defeated GOP frontrunner as some kind of actual winner. Elder even declared himself a “political force” shortly after the results became obvious. But the cold hard truth is that a loser is a loser is a loser. And Larry Elder is a loser. Or one of them anyway.
Newsom beat the polling average by about 8 percentage points (yeah, that’s a polling failure), and he even improved his 2018 margin of victory in some unlikely places like Orange County. By Election Night, the trajectory of the race was so clear that Newsom’s aides were telling reporters it was over even before President Joe Biden took the stage in Long Beach to warn Californians about Elder the Trump clone.
Still, there does seem to be a growing belief that somehow in all that losing, Elder managed to make himself a brand or a future candidate or something other than just a guy who lost an election.
“I don’t know how you take such a devastating loss and call it a win,” says Ace Smith, Newsom’s lead campaign strategist. “The only thing Larry Elder won was maybe a spot on Fox News.”
In a conversation with Los Angeles, Smith, a consultant with L.A.- and San Francisco-based Bearstar Strategies, chuckles at the idea that Elder had somehow “galvanized” anyone or anything aside from Democratic voters who didn’t want Elder bringing a deadly Florida-style pandemic response to low-COVID California. It was Newsom’s COVID response that ultimately provided him with such a huge margin of defeat, Smith says.
While national Democrats and California liberals were paying attention to scary early polls, Smith and his team saw the story of the race in one important crosstab in their polling. And it wasn’t Republican vs. Democrat, man vs. woman, or educated vs. uneducated.
It was vaccinated vs. unvaccinated.
In every breakdown, Newsom was handily winning groups where the majority were vaccinated. And the massive overall number of vaccinated voters in California, meant that Elder could win every single anti-vaxx voter with his promises to end Newsom’s pandemic response and still lose. “Knock yourself out,” Smith says of Elder’s anti-vaxx efforts to fire up the Trumpian base.
So when Newsom mandated vaccines for healthcare workers and Elder—along with the entire Republican field vying to replace Newsom—came out against the mandates, Smith and his team saw a win coming together.
“Go explain to your grandkids why you were against vaccinating people in charge of the health and well being of other human beings. I mean really?” he says.
And Smith believes that the ripples from this victory—and the Republican response to the pandemic—will be felt in California elections for years to come because candidates’ vocal opposition to doing the right thing is “forever tattooed on their foreheads.”
“They don’t understand that being against vaccine mandates for healthcare workers is a permanent stain on their record,” Smith says. “They will never ever be able to be successful in statewide politics in California because of it, and every one of them took that stand.”
Newsom doesn’t have much of a turnaround from the recall before he has to run for re-election, but Smith says the recall allowed him to put down a foundation for the next campaign based on competence and following science instead of politics. And just two weeks after the election, California has the lowest COVID rates in the country, further vindicating Newsom.
It’s not hard to imagine Newsom reminding voters of this again next year and asking them where we would all be if Elder had won.
“This is a moment in history, and you were either on the right side or the wrong side,” Smith says.
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