OAKLAND — In a strategy sparking growing concern among grassroots Republican activists, California gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder has not only rejected debates with his fellow GOP candidates, but also refuses to be on stage with them at Republican party events.
Elder didn’t appear at a Tuesday debate sponsored by the Sacramento Press Club, and plans to skip another debate Thursday sponsored by KRON and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Elder was a no-show to a Riverside County GOP recall event in July, a move that miffed many local Republican activists, party sources told POLITICO. After agreeing to attend, the talk show host demanded that Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, another candidate, be disinvited — a request denied by Riverside County Republicans.
The following month, Elder was invited to an Aug. 9 San Diego County grassroots recall event, and a separate Aug. 16 Orange County Republican party gathering. He accepted both invites, but again demanded that Assemblyman Kiley be taken off the program, officials said. In both cases, local party representatives granted his request.
With less than one month before the recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom, Elder’s insistence to put himself at arm’s length from his fellow Republicans — both on the debate stage and on local stages — appears to be a first by a major candidate in state politics.
“What is he afraid of?” said longtime GOP activist Allen J. Wilson of Diamond Bar, who has been involved with the party for more than two decades. Elder has to realize that running for governor of California “isn’t a talk show,’’ he said, and that he has an obligation to the voters to directly contrast his positions with other Republicans in the race.
“He touches the surface on so many points,” said Wilson, who has decided to back Kiley in the race. “But I don’t think he has an in-depth plan to manage the state. He’s all talk.”
Elder’s moves have also prompted fellow Republican candidates to take off the gloves. In an interview Wednesday, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer challenged Elder, saying, “He won’t come to debates, to talk about his comments, to talk to talk about his perspectives. And I think that Californians deserve that. I’m not afraid to answer tough questions. He is.”
Those concerns are being echoed by party activists and recall leaders, who say Elder is not serving voters’ interests.
Randy Economy, one of the original backers of the recall, says Elder’s initial appeal — as a good communicator with a high profile — is now grating on many Republicans, who are irritated at the talk show host’s failures to provide details on policy.
“I think the charm and the novelty of Larry Elder is wearing very thin,’’ he says.
Ying Ma, Elder’s campaign spokeswoman, and CAGOP chair Jessica Millan Patterson did not respond to requests for comment.
But Lani Kane, chair of the GOP County Associations, said she understands there may be political strategy involved in Elder’s recent decisions. “I think he’s new to the political arena, and he’s being advised in a different fashion than is normally the process,” she said. “He’s concentrating on events and votes that he thinks will garner the most support.”
Still, she added, “Voters would like to see him in person and maybe hear him talk about what he’s going to accomplish and what he’s going to stand for.”
Randall Jordan, chair of the San Luis Obispo Republican Club and a California Republican Party delegate said Tuesday that his organization decided not to proceed with a Sept. 2 forum featuring gubernatorial candidates because “we couldn’t get a response from Larry Elder’s team” and didn’t want to hold the event without a major contender.
Jordan, a Tea Party activist who is a passionate backer of the recall, said he was “troubled” by Elder’s strategy. “That’s part of the political process — debate, and having your candidates on the same platform at the same stage so that people can make a decision,” he said.
Elder is clearly a good communicator and has proven it with his radio success, Jordan said, but “he’s not as well versed on public policy and state policy as someone like Kevin Kiley, so I don’t know if that’s what his hesitation is.’’
Still, he said, “We sure as heck would rather a candidate say, ‘I really don’t have a good wide knowledge of that, but I’ll surround myself with people that will help me.’ I think we’d rather hear that, than, ‘No, I won’t be on the same stage.’”