rich lowry

Rich Lowry

The best indication that Larry Elder was going down hard in the California recall wasn't the polling, although that all swung the wrong way in the final weeks, but his suggestion late in the campaign that Democrats were going to steal the election.

Preemptive excuse-making isn't a sign of great confidence — the winning side never complains of cheating.

Sure enough, incumbent Gov. Gavin Newsom cruised to a victory made a little easier, as it happens, by Elder's insistence that Republicans were robbed in 2020 and about to be robbed again.

To his credit, Elder graciously conceded on Tuesday night, but his talk of stolen elections was arguably his biggest misstep of the campaign.

His landslide defeat is the latest evidence that the idea the 2020 presidential election was stolen is toxic for Republicans.

It's not as though Elder, a talk radio host with no political experience who was running in a deep blue state and got massively outspent, was going to have an easy time regardless. But when he got pushed by Trump supporters into endorsing the stolen election narrative, he ran directly into a Newsom political buzzsaw linking him with Donald Trump and the Jan. 6 riot.

In the Georgia special Senate elections earlier this year, Trump himself divided the party and suppressed GOP turnout at the margins by trying to make the election about November 2020 as much as possible and accusing Republicans who didn't go along with his allegations of partisan treason.

There may be other costs to come, perhaps up to and including the 2024 presidential election if Trump is the nominee again.

The odds were always stacked against Elder. Still, there was a chance he could define himself as an outsider worth taking a flier on, so long as he never lost sight of the fact he was running in a strongly anti-Trump state with an enormous Democratic registration advantage.

In an interview with The Sacramento Bee's editorial board in August, Elder seemed aware of his situation. Asked about the 2020 election, he said Biden had won "fairly and squarely."

Then, Elder got some pushback on Twitter and couldn't withstand it. Shortly thereafter, he appeared on a conservative talk radio program and said he needed "a mulligan," and related a variety of complaints about the 2020 election.

Although Elder didn't deserve the abuse he endured during the campaign — getting smeared as an alleged tool of white supremacy and even physically assaulted at a campaign stop — here, he'd given his opponents unnecessary ammunition.

If Elder had been running in a Republican primary in a red state, he would have secured his position nicely with his do-over, but he'd driven a nail in his own coffin in the recall.

It's one thing to complain about last-minute changes in voting procedures in 2020 and to advocate for a system that is secure and tilts toward in-person voting; it's another to retail unproven allegations that, for most people, will always be associated with Trump's worst excesses and the rioting at the U.S. Capitol.

The choice that was forced on Elder — to admit that Biden won the election and alienate MAGA voters, or to say it was stolen and alienate voters in the middle — will be faced by Republican candidates around the country for the duration.

That won't change as long as Trump has an outsize influence on the party. He's not letting 2020 go, rather is bent on vengeance against those Republicans he believes betrayed him by not embracing his various conspiracy theories.

Since he never admits the fairness of any loss, the number of rigged and stolen elections will only increase — the recall, Trump said in a statement, is "just another giant Election Scam, no different, but less blatant, than the 2020 Presidential Election Scam!"

This is a cynical and corrosive view of American democracy that, to the extent it becomes GOP orthodoxy, can only contribute to further Republican frustration.

Rich Lowry of the National Review is on Twitter: @RichLowry.