Republicans trapped in a media prison of their own making
The GOP’s media echo chamber has become a prison cell the party can’t break out of.
California’s recall election this past week made that clear, as Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) held onto his office in a landslide, 64 percent to 36 percent.
His margin of victory was hardly a foregone conclusion, even in this heavily blue state. Polls early in the summer showed an almost 50-50 split among likely recall voters. The pandemic, homelessness, years of drought and record wildfires left people weary. Democrats were not motivated to cast ballots.
But then along came candidate Larry Elder, a typically no-holds-barred right-wing talk radio host. Elder checked all the MAGA boxes for the Republican base: He idolized Trump and vilified mask mandates, vaccine mandates, environmental regulation, family leave and the minimum wage.
Inside the echo chamber, Elder was the answer.
Inside the echo chamber, he was a genuine radio star of national significance. He was seen on Newsmax, OAN, and Fox News — where he’d made 52 appearances so far this year. And he regularly went after mainstream media as the real source of polarization. Rob Stutzman, a veteran Sacramento-based Republican strategist, called him “a near-perfect caricature of a MAGA candidate.”
But outside the echo chamber — on the other side of those self-made prison walls, away from the GOP’s informational solitary confinement — the world was very different.
Outside the echo chamber, eight out of ten people supported mask wearing, and 70 percent of the population had received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. In exit polls after the recall vote, 70 percent said the governor’s pandemic control measures were not unduly strict; 54 percent saw Newsom as someone in touch with their overall concerns.
After weeks of Trump-like pronouncements from Elder — and a Newsom campaign that made sure voters heard about them — 55 percent in exit polls said they’d be “concerned” or “scared” if the governor were removed.
Sixty-two percent rated the Republican Party unfavorably.
It was a stunning loss in a recall election that cost the state $276 million. The Republican base was shaken: Their trusted echo chamber somehow got it wrong. Elder’s followers booed and yelled even as he urged them in his concession speech to be “gracious in defeat.”
But that Republican base has only themselves to blame.
Their frustration with the system is, in many ways, understandable. California no longer has a competitive Republican Party; conservatives — especially in rural areas — feel few in Sacramento speak for them. Only 24.1 percent of voters here are registered Republicans; in 2003 that number was 35 percent. Orange County, just south of Los Angeles, was once the home of country club Republicans with nationwide influence. Ronald Reagan famously called it the place “where good Republicans go before they die.” Joe Biden won Orange County in 2020, and this week it voted to retain Newsom, 53 percent to 47 percent.
In response to this kind of urgent dilemma, political parties normally broaden their base and build bigger tents. The recall election gave Republicans a chance to start that shift.
Some GOP contenders, like former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, tried the centrist approach — but couldn’t break into the right-wing media bubble.
MAGA-serving cable news, radio shows, websites, blogs and newsletters ignored Faulconer. A former Trump aide even encouraged him to drop out so a “solid conservative” could step up.
Faulconer wound with 8.6 percent of the vote. Given the choice between a big tent or the familiar echo chamber, the GOP here voted to lock itself inside and throw away the key.
A loss of this magnitude could give Republicans yet another opening to rethink, revise and modify — but that door may be closed, too. Larry Elder won’t fade away: He’s now widely considered the GOP’s California leader and has strongly hinted he’ll run for governor again next year, when Newsom’s regular four-year term is up. And Elder makes a great cable news guest.
In the end, there may be no escape from the right-wing media herd mentality that has isolated California’s GOP. Even after this past week, the Republican base — enthralled by the loudest voices — will likely continue to beat back those rare attempts at moderation and bridge building.
Instead, the base will build the walls of their information prison ever higher, blocking out the sun.
Eventually, the party will be trapped in shadow — but will, no doubt, call it light.
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.