Politics

Is Larry Elder Black Republicans’ California Dream?

Larry Elder.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ringo Chiu/AFP via Getty Images

Listen to A Word … With Jason Johnson:

Once upon a time, the Republican Party was the default choice of millions of Black voters. But for decades, the party of Lincoln has embraced the most reactionary policies, leaving many conservative Black Americans without a political home. And just in the past 15 years, the most prominent Black Republican has changed from elder statesman Colin Powell to radio host Larry Elder. He’s leading the Republican pack in a bid to become California governor in the upcoming recall election. In the meantime, Black Republican and former football star Herschel Walker has announced his long-shot candidacy for senator in Georgia, even though he lives in Texas.

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But there are still Black Republicans who want to make the party credible again among Black voters. One of those leaders is Michael Steele. He once served as lieutenant governor of Maryland and briefly as chairman of the Republican National Committee. He’s currently a political analyst for MSNBC and host of the Michael Steele Podcast. On Friday’s episode of A Word, we spoke about Elder, and the future of Black Republican leadership. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jason Johnson: I’m just going to start off with this. Just purely from a strategic standpoint, one of the things I appreciate about you the most, Michael, is that you have a very good mind for just plain old campaign and political strategy. I’ve talked in the past about how Raphael Warnock’s commercial with the dog was based on one of your campaign ads from 10, 12 years ago. You know what you’re talking about.

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So when you look at Larry Elder, who’s trying to become the governor of California. And you look at Herschel Walker, who’s trying to become the Republican nominee and therefore try to win the Senate seat against Warnock in Georgia, what do you think their chances are?

Michael Steele: Well, let’s start with Georgia. I think Herschel Walker certainly … OK. So the thinking of a lot of white Republicans is going to be, “Oh, let’s put the Black man up against the Black man.” And so that will create some of its own juice.

It so much reminds me of when I was elected chairman. The day I was elected, I was walking through the hall and one of the members came up to me and she gave me a big hug and this big smile on her face. And she said, “I’m so excited.” And I said, “Well, thank you.” She said, “Yeah, now Black folks will vote Republican.” And I went, “Baby, I’m not a Pied Piper. This is not how that works. I’m sorry.” That’s the mindset.

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So I think for Herschel, who has an enormous amount of baggage from his own public statements and tweets over the past few years, sort of the doubling down on the big lie and things like that. It’s going to be a challenge for him, but he’s got the blessing, I believe, of a lot of the party folks and former President Trump. That’s going to help him get maybe the nomination. And then Warnock, I think, cleans his clock in the general. So Republicans are sort of grasping at straws with candidates like Herschel Walker.

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And I’ll be straight up about California. California is all on the Democrats. There is no way in heaven, earth, or hell that they should find themselves with their governor now struggling to hold this seat against a Black conservative Rush Limbaugh, radio-style talk show host who has no idea how to govern the state of California.

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Why do these folks think that they’re going to put a guy who runs his mouth all day in a chair, that’s going to have to make these decisions about how to spend the very, very finite dollars of the taxpayers? His brother’s already come out talking about, “Well, we’re just going to open up the state and no mask mandates, no vaccine requirements.” So he’s going to affect the population and then wonder why the hospitals are overrun. And here’s the rub: When he runs for reelection a year from now, do you think Larry Elder’s going to get reelected governor of California? So what will this last 12 months have been about? Absolutely nothing.

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It seems like in the past 10 years, we’re down to a point where one of the only credible Black Republicans who is an actual elected official is Tim Scott. What’s Tim Scott’s immediate future? Because I see him and Nikki Haley—everybody’s going to talk about them as potential VP picks, but I don’t see them being on a ticket in 2024 for the Republican Party. So where does Tim Scott go? He’s the most prominent Black face left in the party.

Tim arguably can write his own ticket. Everybody’s pouring money into his coffers right now. And he’s raising more money than most Republicans. He’s “leading on” criminal justice reform. But you’re right. There’s going to be a lot of talk about him not only being on the ticket but being the top of the ticket as a potential run. But Tim Scott is not going to run against a Donald Trump for the office. I mean, he’s already shown he’s not prepared to fight Donald Trump. He won’t fight Donald Trump.

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But I think for him, he’s going to have to reconcile a number of things because the reckoning that a lot of African American politicians are having to come to grips with—and this goes back to California and the crazy that’s going there with Elder—is the Black community’s voice. It does not sound the same as it has in the past on these big civil rights issues. Now, it’s like “We’re going to declare our history. We’re going to declare our moment, Black Lives Matter. We’re going to make the country come to reckon with us.” And I don’t hear a whole lot of Black politicians speaking to that.

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I want to continue with this theme because I think you really hit the nail on the head first about Tim Scott, and then this idea of these new issues. I look at Tim Scott as a presidential candidate, as a Black Republican, he’s going to be an opportunity window guy. If Trump, for some reason, didn’t run in 2024—

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Oh, he’s the go-to.

Yeah. Then he’s going to run, right?

Yeah. I think that’s right. He still has to deal with the likes of a [Ron] DeSantis and some others that will emerge in that process. But it’s going to be a competitive primary regardless, even if Trump does win, because I think Trump is going to be challenged from his normal side and the crazies will rally around him. So it will be a very difficult primary for Trump or any Trump-style candidate. From what I’m hearing, this is going to be the first stage of Armageddon politically. And quite honestly, it needs to be.

So, where does Tim fit in that fight is going to be important. This is not going to be a fight for people who do the Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?” No, we’ve passed that bull. No, we ain’t doing that no more. This is about the country, democracy. It’s about a once proud party that stood for something other than itself, or certainly other than “dear leader.” And so there are going to be these very, very powerful strains that emerge. And candidates like Tim, Nikki Haley, and others who have placated, remained silent, nodded their head in the background, stood there with the wide grin when they know it was a shit show going on in front of them, they’re going to have to account for that somewhere.

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Now within the primary process, they may get a pass, they may slide by, it may work out. But in a general conversation with the American people, with all that we know to be on the line—on the line and then some—you’re going to have to make that case. But now here’s the rub, my friend: Having said all of that, you still have to deal with the American people who can be fickle as hell when it comes to their vote. Witness what’s going on in California.

I can tell you, having spent a significant amount of time there lately, I am shocked. I’ve encountered more far right-wing people in metro L.A. than in the D.C. metro area. They’re a real concern, and it’s not just Orange County. There are real conservatives there.

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I think if you can put a pin and an exclamation point on that point, I think people will then begin to understand a whole lot about California today. People forget California was once a Republican state. Those roots have not gone away in any given election—certainly a presidential election—you have 4 to 5 million Californians, Republicans, who don’t vote because, hey, our system calls the election at 8 o’clock. They’re still voting at 5 p.m. They decide, “What the hell, they’ve called the election. I’ll go home.” You change that system around where that vote still matters at 5 o’clock, and you’ll see. And this is a good example of it. It’s not just traditional Republicanism, but it is a conservatism that has gone off the deep end in many respects, as we’ve seen conservatism across the South and other parts of the country. So you make an excellent point there, and people cannot undersell that, which is why Larry Elder is where Larry Elder is.

Listen to the entire episode below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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