California’s recall election is a right-wing media grift

Earlier this year, Lil Kalish, of Mother Jones, profiled Randy Economy, a local reporter turned conservative radio host in California who, to quote the introduction to his show, “wears an eye patch but can spot fake news a mile away, like a superhero pirate. Yargh!” If, like me, you were feverishly wondering whether “Randy Economy” is his real name, it is; he has claimed on his LinkedIn page that he is both fluent in Pirate and a Pulitzer Prize nominee, which is a bit like describing Trump as a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. At the time, Kalish wrote, Economy was the “one-man media machine” behind a right-wing campaign to recall Gavin Newsom, California’s Democratic governor—a once-fringe, longshot effort that got a double boost when, on the same day last November, a judge gave the campaigners more time to garner enough public support to force an election and Newsom went to a lobbyist’s party at the French Laundry, an exclusive wine-country restaurant, in violation of his own COVID advice and basic political judgment. Economy, who renamed his show Recall Radio, launched another program, on the same LA station, with two other recall leaders. They called it Friday Night at the French Laundry.

Newsom’s hypocrisy injected new energy into the recall campaign; by March, it had gathered enough signatures to force an election, which takes place today. The campaign has been a media circus from the get-go; as Politico put it, “getting attention in the nation’s most populous state is no easy feat, and candidates performed outlandish stunts in a desperate bid for attention—including Newsom.” In early May, John Cox, a Republican businessman, set off for a press tour in a bus with “MEET THE BEAST” plastered on the side, accompanied by a sometime movie star and full-time Kodiak bear named Tag. (“We certainly expected that the bear would get some attention,” Cox said. “It worked.”) The same week, the reality star Caitlyn Jenner, who had also jumped in on the Republican side, sat for a splashy interview with Sean Hannity, on Fox. Jenner started paying a camera crew to follow her around, prompting Politico, among other observers, to ask, “is the content for the campaign, or is the campaign just for the content?” In mid-July, Jenner’s campaign denied that any TV or movie deal had been struck; around the same time, Jenner flew to Australia to take part in that country’s edition of Big Brother. Also around that time, state officials finalized the field, which, at a mere forty-one candidates, was slimmer than expected. During a debate last month, Kevin Paffrath, a Democrat and investment YouTuber who was among those to make the cut, proposed solving California’s drought issues by building a pipe to the Mississippi river. During another debate, a private investigator served Cox with a subpoena related to an unpaid debt.

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One candidate emerged as a more serious threat to Newsom than any of the others. Naturally, he, too, is a media personality. Larry Elder, a conservative radio host from Los Angeles, was excluded from the initial field of forty-one after officials said that he’d failed to disclose tax records in line with state law, but a judge struck down the decision and Elder made the ballot. He has since risen steadily in the polls, breaking away from the pack; his ceiling, in the region of thirty percent, is not very high, and would have been meaningless had polling around a different, prior question on the ballot—to keep or ditch Newsom (who, if ditched, will not be among the candidates to replace himself; no, these rules don’t make sense to me either)—not narrowed substantially. The more Elder looked like a possible governor, the more he attracted serious scrutiny from the mainstream press. Alexandra Datig, Elder’s former radio producer and fiancée, told Politico and the LA Times that Elder once brandished a gun at her while he was high (Elder denies this); reporters also detailed his long history of misogynistic remarks. Late last month, the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee called on Elder to drop out of the race.

Elder, for his part, has bashed the Bee, in particular, and the mainstream media in general. He banned the former paper from his campaign events after it edited anti-Newsom attacks out of his responses to a questionnaire (the paper had asked for the focus to be on policy), and canceled interviews with Politico on at least two occasions. He complained that the LA Times never took him seriously enough to review his books. (The paper has since rectified that, concluding that Elder is “not a writer but a brand.”) During a session with opinion writers at the same paper, he refused to take a question from Jean Guerrero, a columnist whom Elder’s campaign has accused of “bigotry masquerading as journalism.” His campaign has amplified articles by right-wing pundits attacking mainstream outlets for their supposed racism and bias against Elder (who is Black), and right-wing outlets have in turn amplified Elder; according to Media Matters for America, he has appeared on Fox weekday shows sixty-five times already this year, averaging more than one appearance per week on Hannity’s show alone. At his first press conference, he took only two questions, both from Chinese-American outlets; one had ties to the Epoch Times, a Falun Gong-linked far-right publication where Elder is a contributor.

Where Trumpian media-bashing goes, untethered conspiracy theories are rarely far behind. In recent days—with polling now suggesting that Newsom will comfortably hold on—a number of right-wing pundits have made California the latest front in their war on democracy, raising the specter of foul play even though the election hasn’t happened yet. “The only thing that will save Gavin Newsom is voter fraud,” Tomi Lahren said on Fox last week. “So, as they say, stay woke, pay attention to the voter fraud going on in California.” Trump himself fanned the flames in one of his trademark not-a-tweet tweets. Elder, too, has pushed it; yesterday, NBC’s Jacob Soboroff asked him repeatedly if he would accept the result, win or lose, and Elder repeatedly demurred. Like Trump before him, Elder “is relying on this big lie,” Guerrero told CNN Sunday. “He understands that Californians are very likely to reject him as the next governor of California, and the only way that he can explain this loss away is by claiming that it was stolen from him.”

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On the face of it, there’s much less shame in a Republican outsider losing in deep-blue California than a Republican incumbent losing a national election. But the loser’s embarrassment is not the main issue here; California, clearly, has been sucked into the much broader Republican campaign to undermine voters’ confidence in democracy, then cite that lack of confidence in passing restrictive election laws. The California lies aren’t new, in that regard, but they do attest to the breadth and brazenness of the campaign. The press must continue to take this very seriously, despite the clownish absurdity of the recall election as a whole, and the lies at the tail end of it. As I’ve written before, there’s no contradiction in finding attacks on democracy funny, pathetic, and terrifying all at once.

Right-wing media outlets, of course, are central to these attacks. For them, the recall—an election that right-wing media entrepreneurs helped contrive into existence outside of the regular schedule, and were always unlikely to win—looks like a free hit: an attention hustle that will beget more attention. In the final stretch of his campaign, Elder eschewed public rallies and doubled down on right-wing media hits; this, as CNN’s Kyung Lah noted, seemed “illogical” from an electoral standpoint, but it made perfect sense if Elder—as Lah’s colleague Bryan Lowry put it—has been running with at least one eye on “media opportunities in the election’s wake.” We likely have not seen the last of him. Randy Economy, for his part, stepped down from the recall campaign in May, after doing more than two thousand media interviews in its service. He’s less visible now, but has still regularly been quoted in recent weeks, including in mainstream national outlets. In January, as the signature drive heated up, Economy spoke with the Desert Sun, a local paper, about the effort. “Hopefully,” he said, “I will get an Academy Award after this thing.”

Below, more on California:

  • Meanwhile, in the real world: The recall election has distracted attention away from many of the pressing challenges that face California, not least the recent, huge fires in the state. Over the weekend, Steve Lopez, a columnist at the LA Times, focused on another big story that has gotten lost amid the campaign circus: inequality. “If the recall election is about leadership failures and the many problems that have resulted—including homelessness, crime, the state of public schools and the quality of life—a major reason for all these woes has been virtually ignored before and during the campaign,” Lopez wrote. “A staggering level of income inequality has affected nearly every aspect of life from cradle to grave… and the pandemic has widened the divide.”
  • Board to tears: Giulia Heyward, of the New York Times, assessed where the editorial boards of top California newspapers stand on the recall. Many of them have strongly opposed the effort, despite having some reservations about Newsom’s leadership; the San Jose Mercury News, for instance, slammed Elder as an inexperienced “Donald Trump clone who would impose his right-wing, extremist views on California in every way possible.” By contrast, the Orange County Register, whose editorial stance leans conservative, came out in favor of removing Newsom, describing its problem with his leadership as “fundamental… Pick an issue and the state’s failures are obvious.”
  • Last time: Much coverage of the recall has made comparisons to the last time it happened—in 2003, when Governor Gray Davis, a Democrat, was removed, and an obscure Republican candidate named Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced him. CNN’s Dana Bash revisited the 2003 recall for a new podcast that’s appropriately titled Total Recall: California’s Political Circus; Bash spoke with Schwarzenegger, who said that, despite the insanity of this year’s election, the atmosphere around it is “exactly the same” as when he ran. (Another candidate in the 2003 recall? Arianna Huffington.)
  • Next time?: The New Republic’s Alex Shephard argues that Republicans are “road-testing Trump’s reelection strategy” by asserting a conspiracy in California, and that the press needs to be ready. The recall is “a test for the media, which has a checkered record in giving proponents of such lies a platform to disseminate these deceptions,” Shephard writes. The press, he argues, has mostly ignored the recall, in large part because Newsom is expected to hold on. “It’s a crucial story to cover, though, because it perfectly encapsulates where the GOP is headed.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.