He burst onto California’s political scene in a flash, an outspoken conservative voice with polarizing views on everything from the coronavirus pandemic to gun laws.
Now, with just over two weeks to go in his unlikely quest to become governor, Larry Elder is caught up in a growing saga over whether the radio talk show host brandished a gun at his one-time fiancee during an argument six years ago.
While the scandal could quickly derail the leading recall contender’s political fortune, political observers say the domestic violence allegation that is now being investigated by the Los Angeles Police Department may instead become a rallying cry among Elder’s ardent followers, some of the same voters who looked past former President Donald Trump’s boasts about groping women.
“Whoever was going to vote for Elder is going to vote for Elder,” said longtime political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, “and whoever wasn’t isn’t.”
The allegations surfaced Aug. 19 with Elder, a 69-year-old Republican firebrand, building momentum in his campaign to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom as leader of the Golden State. Multiple polls put Elder at the front of a pack of 46 replacement candidates, with likely voters almost evenly divided over whether to keep or replace Newsom.
Elder’s former fiancee Alexandra Datig told Politico she ended her engagement with Elder after he pulled out a loaded gun during an argument in 2015. Elder denied the accusation on Twitter, writing, “I grew up in South Central; I know exactly how destructive this type of behavior is. It’s not me, and everyone who knows me knows it’s not me.”
Ying Ma, his communications director, said Friday in an emailed statement, “He’s never brandished a gun at anyone and he has never engaged in domestic violence. Beyond that, we are not going to comment further on an active investigation.”
News of the investigation comes less than three weeks before the Sept. 14 recall election and after millions of voters have already cast their ballots by mail.
Political experts say an investigation is highly unlikely to derail his campaign.
“It might have in the last century but I don’t think it makes a difference,” said Bebitch Jeffe, a former professor of the practice of public policy communication at the University of Southern California.
In 2003, just days before the Gray Davis recall election, the Los Angeles Times reported multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“I don’t remember things that I’ve done or said 20 years ago. I don’t remember things that I’ve done 30 years ago. And I said that many of the things that are in there are not true because that’s not my behavior,” the film star told reporters at the time. “And then other things may be true, and in case it is, that’s why I said I want to apologize if I offended anyone, because that was not my intention.”
Days later, Davis was recalled and Schwarzenegger topped 135 replacement candidates with nearly 49% of the vote.
“It just bounced right off,” said Sacramento State University political science professor Kimberly Nalder, an expert on gender and politics.
While the powerful #MeToo movement in the last couple of years has pushed Democrats, including President Joe Biden in the case of disgraced former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to call out prominent members of their party accused of sexual misconduct, some Republicans have become emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric and actions, with many in the party excusing his comments about grabbing women inappropriately and defending GOP members accused of misconduct.
That “himpathy,” as Nalder calls it, is often accompanied by questions about the credibility of women coming forward — with sympathizers in some cases pointing to elapsed time as evidence that an allegation is opportunistic, when in reality it’s “pretty normal” for domestic violence victims to delay coming forward.
In Elder’s case, some voters may be even more enthusiastic about voting for someone they perceive to be wrongly accused.
Long-time listeners of Elder’s radio show, Nalder said, may already be attracted to his views that are “in line with someone who doesn’t maybe respect women so much.”
In the past Elder has said women are not as informed as men when it comes to politics and the economy, endorsed pregnancy discrimination and said he does not believe the wage gap exists.
But Elder’s comments may also help give a boost to recall opponents — which could help Newsom.
“It gives Democrats a Trumpian boogeyman to motivate their voters to get out to the polls,” Nalder said.
But if Newsom’s party is going to play up the investigation to their political benefit, time may be running out.
“It’s too late,” Bebitch Jeffe said.
Already, more than 3 million of the state’s 22 million voters have returned their ballots — with Democrats outpacing Republicans in early voting — and countless more are in the mail.