A streak of anarchy runs through many rank-and-file Republicans these days, a vague sense that democracy must be undermined in order to save it. California’s recall election next month could offer the GOP a real chance to break this pattern — and chart a different course.
But, at least right now, that doesn’t look very likely.
The Jan. 6th Capitol attack seems to have uncaged this anarchic attitude in local Republican parties across the country. The flawed GOP-backed recount in Arizona continues to erode confidence in voting systems. In Texas, a new law allows citizens to bring guns into public government meetings. And at least two red states now have measures that provide legal protection to drivers who hit protesters.
Eighteen states have already passed laws making it harder to vote, with more in the legislative pipeline.
Here in California, our gubernatorial recall is set for Sept. 14. Make no mistake: The recall process itself is deeply unsound. A very small minority of voters can trigger a recall, and — while Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomDon't break California's recall by 'fixing' it Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Altria — Walrus detectives: Scientists recruit public to spot mammal from space Top Latino group endorses Padilla for full Senate term MORE (D) needs majority support to stay governor — challengers have to win a mere plurality of votes to replace him.
But this process does present California’s Republican party — win or lose — with an opportunity to rebrand itself. The state once had a thriving GOP, offering voters pragmatic, moderate standard-bearers like Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian. But a Republican hasn’t won a governor’s race since Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006; no GOP politician currently holds statewide office, and Democrats have strong majorities in the legislature.
California Republicans clearly want to reverse that trend — and a recall, with rules that favor small slices of voters, smelled like the best bet. More than 40 candidates are running to replace Newsom, including a retail store clerk, an aircraft mechanic, a musician, and a woman named “Angelyne,” best known for her provocative billboards lining the Sunset Strip in Hollywood.
Also on that list, however, are Republicans in the old, winning center-right mold, including Assemblyman Kevin Kiley and, especially, Kevin Faulconer, the well-regarded former mayor of San Diego. His 2013 mayoral race even featured the slogan: “There’s no Democrat or Republican way to fill a pothole.” He was the recall campaign’s early favorite.
But, beginning last month, polls showed that voters — largely Republican voters — have something very different in mind. Vaulting to the top of the charts was GOP candidate Larry Elder, an African-American radio host modeled after Rush Limbaugh who has never held — or even run for — elective office.
Elder is a strong Trump supporter in a state that went for Biden 63 percent to 34 percent. He opposes widely popular basics like the minimum wage and unpaid family leave. And he promises to repeal California’s mask and vaccine requirements in the middle of a virus surge.
There’s more: An ex-fiance claims Elder once drew a gun on her during a heated argument. Inappropriate comments from his radio show are now regular fodder for headlines and newscasts. Newspaper editorials insist he withdraw from the race.
The result? Elder’s first place standing in the polls remains rock solid.
Most surveys now have him leading other candidates with around 20 percent of the vote — which could make him governor.
Kevin FaulconerKevin FaulconerRepublicans trapped in a media prison of their own making Seven takeaways from California's recall election Newsom easily beats back recall effort in California MORE, meanwhile, mostly polls in the single digits. Just a few days ago, a former aide to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMcAuliffe takes tougher stance on Democrats in Washington Democrats troll Trump over Virginia governor's race Tom Glavine, Ric Flair, Doug Flutie to join Trump for Herschel Walker event MORE called on Faulconer to drop out, so that more votes can go to a “solid conservative.”
This is where the modern GOP finds itself.
Faced with a clear choice among its own — between a confrontational publicity hound and an experienced executive who ran the nation’s eighth largest city — an angry, anarchic Republican faction is deciding once again to scream and howl. The more Elder gets pounded in the press, knocked by experts and professionals, the better he looks to these voters.
California needs a relevant, competitive GOP. One-party rule is not healthy, especially not in a state of 40 million people with the world’s fifth largest economy.
The recall election, defects and all, was the Republican party’s moment to prove it could compete again on policy ideas and a vision for California at a challenging time. But, as in so many other states, the most-motivated Republicans here seem determined to forego the hard work — and just blow the whole thing up.
Putting the pieces back together? That’ll be someone else’s job.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.