California GOP gubernatorial frontrunner Larry Elder: Yes, I think Biden won the election fair and square

Are MAGA fans actually going to sink this guy, knowing he’s their best shot at stealing Gavin Newsom’s seat next month, because he gave the politically astute (and correct) answer to a question about the election?

Even a loyalty cult like the post-Trump GOP should be able to cut Elder a break on grounds that he’s saying what he needs to say in order to attract anti-Newsom moderates in one of America’s bluest states. He wants to present himself as a generic Republican and would-be statesman, not the sort of fire-breathing Trumpist whom Californians would recoil from.

He gave the politic response. And of course hardcore Trump loyalists like Jenna Ellis are annoyed.

Does Ellis work for Newsom? It’s a gift to Democrats to give California GOPers a reason to dislike Elder when the latest poll showed him at 23 percent and in second place on California’s recall ballot. Republicans’ best chance at an upset is to consolidate behind a single candidate; Elder, as the highest-polling righty, is the obvious choice. Instead here’s Ellis trying to split the Republican vote because Elder wouldn’t lie and claim the election was rigged in order to pander to Trumpers, knowing that two-thirds of the state’s voters would have held it against him if he had.

Ellis has a big audience online thanks to her “stop the steal” pedigree and some Trumpers who follow her didn’t react to the clip well. That was Elder’s cue to try to clean up what he said as best he could without lapsing into full-blown “rigged election!” propaganda:

He’s now getting a crash course on the agonizing dilemma every Republican running for office has faced since 2016, when a decisive chunk of the party’s base went full cultist for Trump. If he hugs Trump too tightly by proving his loyalty, he’ll antagonize swing voters. If he doesn’t hug him tightly enough, he’ll fail the latest loyalty test and antagonize Trump superfans. So he’s resorting to trying to walk the tightrope with a nonsensical position, namely, that there were “shenanigans” in the election but Biden won “fairly and squarely.” Does that sort of non-answer satisfy enough voters to increase his vote take in the election or will he lose votes on balance? Republican candidates are always in danger of tumbling off the rope.

Clearly, though, he’s decided that distancing himself from Trump as much as feasibly possible is the way to go in California, especially with Newsom trying to tie him to you-know-who. (“Some say he’s the most Trump of the candidates. I say he’s even more extreme than Trump.”) Click here and watch a short clip of Elder’s recent interview with CNN, in which host Michael Smerconish asked him repeatedly if he’s a “Trump supporter” and Elder wouldn’t accept the term. I’ve been voting Republican since 1976, he replied; I’m as much a Reagan/Bush/Romney Republican as I am a Trump one. How do Ellis and MAGA feel about that?

Given that the recall is all about turnout, I could be persuaded that it would have made more sense for Elder to claim that Trump had been cheated than to try to triangulate in the way he has. He wants every Republican in California behind him and excited to send in their ballot. That’s the only way he wins, with the GOP energized and California Dems too apathetic to rescue Newsom and too divided among the Democratic choices on the ballot to overcome a unified Republican bloc. If going all-in on a “rigged election!” message ended up consolidating the Republican vote behind him, Elder could win even with no moderates in his camp depending on how splintered Dems are. Whereas, by reaching out to moderates in saying Biden won fairly, he risks shedding more Republican support on the right than he’ll pick up in the middle from independents.

Either way, consider this a sneak preview of next year’s midterms, when some Republican incumbents inevitably end up answering this same question in too ambivalent a way to satisfy the Ellises of the world and find themselves losing primaries to fringy types who may fumble away the seat in the general election.

As for what’s at stake in electing Elder, who’d doubtless be defeated handily in next year’s regularly scheduled gubernatorial election: Potentially nothing. But potentially everything. Charles Cooke:

Here’s the path that the scriptwriters would choose if we were living in a movie. First, New York trashes its hero governor after he turns out not to be a hero after all. Next comes California, which recalls Gavin Newsom and replaces him with a Republican. Soon after the recall, the 88-year-old Senator Dianne Feinstein leaves office and a Republican is appointed in her place. This flips the balance of the Senate to 49 Democrats and 51 Republicans, thereby killing the Democrats’ absurd $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, stalling the Biden presidency completely until at least the midterms, and prompting a besieged Justice Breyer to relax into another four years on the Supreme Court.

Can righties tolerate a strategic answer on election fraud in the name of trying to bring about that outcome? We’ll see. Trump hasn’t issued a statement attacking Elder for disloyalty yet, at least.

I’ll leave you with this guy, who’s skeptical about what Elder could plausibly do if elected. This isn’t any YouTube rando, though; it’s Democrat Kevin Paffrath, who happens to be the one person who polled higher than Elder in the recall poll mentioned above. Paffrath, a real-estate broker and online “influencer,” scored 27 percent in that survey by virtue of being the best-known Democrat on the recall ballot among a sorry bunch. If the actual recall vote shook out the same way that the poll did, this dude would be the no-joke next governor of California.

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