Today is the California gubernatorial recall. Barring a reversal of the polls that have to be nothing short of miraculous, Gavin Newsom will keep his job and Larry Elder will lose. The question is how Mr. Elder will take his loss.
With the country still in the grip of the pandemic, the recall could look a lot like last year’s presidential election. Election Day is today, but California law gives voters 17 days to get their absentee ballots in. That means the vote cannot be completely counted until October 1 and sets the stage for another situation in which the votes counted on Election Day favor the Republicans but the tally shifts toward the Democrats as absentee ballots are counted. In the midst of the pandemic, Republican voters are more likely to vote in person while a large share of Democrats will vote by mail.
Donald Trump famously used the long absentee ballot count to claim that the presidential election was stolen through fraud, a claim that has been debunked and laughed out of a long list of courts. Now it seems that Trump’s strategy may become the new normal for Republicans who lose elections.
In recent weeks, the recall has started to sound like the presidential election in the closing weeks of the campaign. The Sacramento Bee reported that Elder told reporters that he believes “there might very well be shenanigans” in the election and Tomi Lahren told Fox News viewers last week, “The only thing that will save Gavin Newsom is voter fraud.” Even Donald Trump got into the act with a pre-emptive non-tweet alleging that the recall was “rigged.”
It’s like deja vu all over again.
If there is any doubt about the GOP’s Plan B, on Monday Elder gave a nonanswer to a reporter’s question about whether he would accept the results of the election. Elder’s refusal to answer the question directly said a lot.
Let’s get one thing straight: Republicans wouldn’t be talking about fraud and rigged elections if they thought they were winning. The race was close a few weeks ago, but FiveThirtyEight’s average of polls now shows that voters now oppose the recall by more than 15 points. It is no longer close.
While Trump’s fibs about a stolen election didn’t get him reinstated (unless his inauguration date has been rescheduled again and I didn’t get the memo), they did fire up his base as well as undermine national faith in the electoral process. If Elder claims “shenanigans” after the votes are counted, he won’t have a prayer of forcing Newsom out of office, but he can damage California’s credibility.
If the Republicans can’t win by claiming fraud, what is the point? That’s difficult to say because making up fraud claims is not a logical thing to do. Maybe it’s a Hail Mary, hoping that a friendly judge will throw out the election and hand the victory to Elder. Maybe it’s a form of mental conditioning based on the Illusory Truth Effect, a phenomenon in which repeated lies are gradually perceived as truth. Maybe they think if enough elections are believed to be stolen, the Republican base might rise up in an insurrection more successful than the one on January 6.
I hope that I’m reading the signals wrong. I hope that if and when Larry Elder is not governor on October 2, he will peacefully and honorably accept his loss and concede.
But if Elder claims “shenanigans” and starts another Stop the Steal movement, we will have a preview of 2022 and 2024. Donald Trump paid no serious price for trying to overturn the Constitution. Republicans blocked his impeachment, refused to cooperate with the January 6 commission, and now almost two-thirds of Republican voters think Trump should lead the party.
If Trump got away with it and Elder gets away with it, why shouldn’t other Republicans try their luck at it?
The key may be how other sitting Republicans react. Elected Republicans were mostly silent when Trump tried to steal the election last year. It took the insurrection to get many to speak out forcefully, but now, months after the assault on the Capitol, quite a few have backtracked into calling the rioters “tourists” and “political prisoners.”
Would elected Republicans look away while Larry Elder tells the country that the California election was rigged? Will they stand back and say nothing i̶f̶ when Donald Trump starts saying the election was stolen? I think we all know the answer to that.
As recently as a couple of years ago, I’d be hoping that Larry Elder (who I used to occasionally listen to on the radio) would at least give a good showing if he couldn’t win. Put a scare into those liberal California Democrats!
Now, however, I’m leaning toward heeding the advice of another radio talker that I used to listen to a lot. As Herman Cain used to say, “If it ain’t close, they can’t cheat.”
A 15-point blowout would be hard to explain away as massive fraud so maybe that would discourage Elder from pushing the issue. That would not only be best for California and the country but for the Republican Party as well.
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