Without a major celebrity running to unseat California Gov. Gavin Newsom, this year’s recall couldn’t live up to the showbiz carnival of 2003 when Hollywood action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger unseated the unpopular incumbent governor, Gray Davis, and an assorted cast of 135 characters also on the ballot.
But the last 24 hours have triggered a strange, bumpy ride that could change the trajectory of the 2021 race in its final weeks.
On Thursday, just hours before the third Republican debate of the recall, a bombshell story broke about Larry Elder, the conservative talk show host and surprise GOP frontrunner to replace Newsom.
Ever since entering the race more than a month ago, Elder has rocketed ahead of the rest of the field. He’s attained a double-digit lead with his bold denouncements of the state’s liberal policies and COVID mandates — even though most Californians don’t know much about him, he’s declined to take part in the debates and has held only two press conferences. During one of them, he bizarrely took questions only from Asian news outlets.
To put it mildly, the latest twist is a jaw-dropper. Alexandra Datig, Elder’s ex-fiancee and the former producer of his radio show, came forward with stunning accusations against him. She said she broke off her 18-month engagement to the libertarian media personality in 2015 after an argument when she said Elder took out a .45 pistol from his nightstand.
“And he checked if it was loaded — while I was talking,” Datig told Politico, accusing Elder of being high on marijuana at the time. “He wanted to make sure I saw that he had it.”
“It was an act of silent scorn — and anger,” she added.
There were several other disturbing elements in the story. Datig, 51, a conservative blogger and political commentator who is supporting Elder’s rival, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, became publicly known in the 1990s when she was an informant in the prosecution of Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss. She described being paid $10,000 a day while working as a prostitute in Fleiss’ network and has since spoken out about human trafficking. But she said her past didn’t stop Elder from pressuring her to get a “Larry’s Girl” tattoo on her lower back, a large portrait of which she said he then hung in their home for visitors to see.
Datig recalled that she met Elder in the early 2000s at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion parties — events frequented by Hollywood celebrities, including rapper Snoop Dogg — although she and Elder didn’t start dating until years later. Datig also provided a home video to Politico in which Elder grouses about Snoop Dogg snubbing him.
“I introduced him to the evil weed. … I taught him everything he knows. … I’m the one who made him what he is. I can’t believe he turned his back on me, m———–,” Elder is quoted as saying.
Hours after the story posted online, the candidate issued a blanket denial, calling the story “salacious allegations.”
“I have never brandished a gun at anyone,” he tweeted. “I grew up in South Central [Los Angeles]; I know exactly how destructive this type of behavior is. It’s not me, and everyone who knows me knows it’s not me.
“People do not get into public life precisely because of this type of politics of personal destruction. I’m not going to dignify this with a response — it’s beneath me.”
Elder also accused the Newsom campaign of attempting to keep “voters distracted” and vowed to “stay focused on the issues that inspired 1.7 million Californians to petition for this recall.”
The story sent shockwaves throughout the California political landscape, with consultants across the ideological spectrum predicting it would quicky erode Elder’s GOP support. Most believed it would also benefit Newsom by sowing doubts about the leading Republican to replace him and a recall process that allowed an unvetted candidate to threaten his hold on the job.
“@GavinNewsom has certainly created a lot of his own problems, but he has also caught some really bad breaks. Larry Elder ain’t one of them. Larry Elder early Christmas continues,” tweeted Rob Stutzman, who served as deputy chief of staff for Arnold Schwarzenegger — the winner of the 2003 recall.
Democrats reacted gleefully to the bombshell news.
“Larry Elder is the gift that keeps on giving for all the outrageous things he’s said [as a talk show host], and now this,” Garry South, a longtime Democratic strategist, told RealClearPolitics Thursday afternoon. “There’s a reason he’s been refusing most media interviews. There’s a reason why he’s skipping all the debates.”
Newsom in recent weeks has trained his fire on Elder as the race has tightened into a toss-up. He has assailed his top GOP challenger as “to the right of Donald Trump” and ticked off a list of Elder’s positions that he argues are wildly out of sync with California voters, including opposition to minimum wage increases and an assault weapons ban, as well as past skepticism about climate change and support for off-shore drilling.
After the story hit social media, political consultants on both sides of the recall braced for a spirited debate Thursday evening. Three Republicans gubernatorial challengers — Faulconer, businessman John Cox and Assemblyman Kevin Kiley — were set to face-off in a debate sponsored by KTLA, a California TV station. Elder and Caitlin Jenner had declined to appear while Newsom didn’t respond to the invite.
But there was no verbal jousting among the candidates as the hosts stuck to a rapid-fire questioning of each candidate on the well-worn themes of homelessness, climate change, wildfires and immigration. Only one big moment stood out – when KTLA news anchor Frank Buckley pressed the trio on whether they would vote for Trump if he were the GOP’s 2024 nominee for president. Only Cox said he would do so if Biden were the only alternative, while Faulconer and Kiley refused to engage in the hypothetical.
The event ended up being fairly sedate with the moderators posing no questions about the Elder bombshell, and all three candidates eschewing the opportunity to attack the frontrunner about the allegations or anything else.
Still, both Kiley and Faulconer issued written statements on Datig’s charges. Kiley said he found the allegations “very disturbing,” said Datig deserves to be heard and that her “deeply troubling account should be treated with the utmost seriousness.” Even so, he added, Elder should also be given “every opportunity to respond.”
Faulconer, who has the most institutional Republican support but has struggled to break out of the pack, was far more critical, arguing that allegations are further proof that Elder “doesn’t have the judgement or character to lead our state.”
In the past few days, Newsom and Faulconer have slammed Elder over a 2000 column he penned in which he cited a University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication study that found women knew less than men when it came to campaign finance, gun control, foreign policy, defense and questions about political candidates’ positions.
“Women know less than men about political issues, economics, and current events,” Elder wrote. “Good news for Democrats, bad news for Republicans. For the less one knows, the easier the manipulation.”
Elder vigorously defended himself against the attacks, arguing that his opponents and journalists were misquoting the essay. He directed reporters to Annenberg’s Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who had stated in the column that women were less informed than men at the time because they tended to get their news from local television.
“Local news-watching makes you dumber,” Hall Jamieson, who now serves as the director of the Annenberg’s Public Policy Center, is quoted in Elder’s column as saying.
In a previous debate this week, the usually mild-mannered Faulconer blasted Elder’s remarks about women, labeling them “bull—-.”
On Thursday, Faulconer said Datig’s accusations should be the final straw for Elder’s candidacy: “[Elder’s] writings and statements are attacks on working women and every family in California. Yesterday, he doubled down on these views, and now we’re hearing reports on his personal behavior. We cannot have him as our governor.”
California’s political class is convinced the allegations will at least curb Elder’s jet-fueled rise. But whether they take him out of the running completely is hard to say. In the MeToo era, sentiments have certainly changed since California voters shrugged off a late-breaking story during the 2003 recall in which several women said Schwarzenegger groped and humiliated them. With New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation last week over his treatment of women, Republicans would be wise to try to avoid a West Coast redux.
But California GOP voters haven’t warmed to any other candidate in the field and may be skeptical of scurrilous late-breaking allegations unless there’s solid proof.
South noted how difficult it was to get voters angry enough to vote against Schwarzenegger back in 2003, even when a 1981 video surfaced in which the actor explained to Johnny Carson how he and a buddy would purposefully damage people’s chimneys at night, then ask the homeowners for payment to do repairs the next day.
But nothing seemed to matter at the time – to Team Davis’ frustration.
“They always just let him off the hook,” South recalled. “They said, ‘Well, ya know, he’s a celebrity and he’s an actor … blah, blah, blah.’ … We would show [the video] to people in focus groups and they would laugh. They just thought it was funny.”
Yet, with the stakes so high, South predicts a “drip, drip, drip” release of negative stories about Elder between now and the Sept. 14 deadline for turning in ballots.
“And it all accrues to Newsom’s benefit,” he remarked.
It’s a logical conclusion, but so far this recall has defied all conventional wisdom. It’s similar to 2003 only in this way: being utterly unpredictable.