Of all the candidates trying to unseat California Gov. Gavin Newsom in the recall election wrapping up Tuesday, conservative talk show host Larry Elder has the best chance.
Elder works for the right-wing broadcaster Salem Media Group, an outfit that has quietly become one of the most powerful forces in conservative media, with hosts who peddle discredited claims about COVID-19, last year's elections and more.
But Salem Media is not merely an employer for Elder; it is a platform, a vehicle and an outright backer for him in this race. Polls suggest the recall attempt will fail. Yet Elder stands out as the candidate likely to post the most votes should Newsom falter. And whatever success he has derives, in large part, from the significant support of Salem Media.
Salem Media Group contributed $35,000 to Elder just last week (under California law, corporations are allowed to give money directly to candidates' campaigns). On Sunday, Elder was the featured speaker at an annual event sponsored by the conservative website Townhall and KRLA-AM radio in Southern California, the home station for Elder's nationally syndicated radio show. Both outlets are owned by Salem Media.
Another KRLA host, Jennifer Horn, who was helping to moderate the evening's event, noted that for legal reasons Salem couldn't have him stage a true campaign-style rally. But it was at times hard to tell the difference: Elder sat comfortably, microphone in hand, bantering with his colleagues in a way tailor-made to stir last-minute supporters to vote.
"Your question was what would I do when I become governor?" Elder asked, drawing fervent applause as he lingered on the word "when."
Elder jokes of being "the Black face of white supremacy"
Horn had introduced him to hundreds of cheering fans at a Hyatt Regency in Orange County by his preferred nickname: the "Sage of South Central." Elder grew up in South Los Angeles, went to Brown University and earned a degree in law at the University of Michigan. Yet he would not make his mark in law.
If his unlikely bid succeeds, Elder would be the first African American governor for the nation's most populous state. He would also bring a record of years of brashly stated policy beliefs, particularly on matters of race and gender, intended to stir outrage among millions of the liberals who would number among his new constituents.
At the event Sunday, Elder promised to kill any of Newsom's coronavirus-related mandates, joked with another radio host that he was "the Black face of white supremacy," and defended himself from earlier criticism that he had argued women were not as smart as men. Elder told attendees that he's not against the vaccines for COVID-19 and that he himself has been vaccinated, but he questioned the need for government mandates.
On his radio show, he has given ample time to those casting doubt on the effectiveness of the vaccines themselves. And he has also amplified false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.
Such controversies might inspire rebukes from some employers. Not so at Salem Media, which has welcomed conspiracy theorists into its lineups. As a warmup for Elder's appearance on Sunday, hosts interviewed a rogue's gallery of Trump surrogates: former Trump White House adviser Sebastian Gorka, Turning Point USA Founder Charlie Kirk, and Blaze and Fox News host Mark Levin. All of them are employed by various outlets of Salem Media.
Salem Media seeks to appeal to "a voter base of fundamentalist Christians who are urged to the polls, based on their conservative and sometimes socially regressive beliefs, anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, etc.," says Columbia University scholar Anne Nelson, author of Shadow Network, a book on the political alliance of conservative media and religious and business groups.
Brothers-in-law founded Salem Media as a religious broadcaster
Salem Media's founders were a pair of brothers-in-law, Stuart Epperson and Edward G. Atsinger III. They established the outfit in 1986 as a religious broadcaster. Their mission has now expanded to incorporate conservative fundamentalist Christianity and to promote victories by like-minded Republicans.
Salem Media, which is publicly traded on Nasdaq, now owns more than 100 stations, making it among the largest radio groups in the country. It says it syndicates its programs to 3,000 stations nationwide. Additionally, it owns a welter of conservative opinion sites, including not just Townhall but also HotAir, PJ Media, RedState and Twitchy. Salem Media claims more than 200 million unique users a month, a figure that's hard to verify. But Nelson says that through the radio stations and the sites, Salem Media can encourage Trump-minded people to vote, especially in more conservative swing states in the Midwest and South.
Elder had been a nationally syndicated host twice for ABC Radio in Los Angeles. When he was let go the second time in 2015, Salem hired him. Nelson says he's found ways to align himself with his even more conservative bosses.
"Elder has kind of gravitated towards endorsing these positions and tapping into that voter base with this massive radio network support that's built under him," Nelson tells NPR.
The senior executive at Salem Media assigned to handle media inquiries did not respond to three messages left by NPR over five days seeking an interview for this story. Elder's campaign also did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2018, Salem Media fired writers at RedState who were deemed insufficiently supportive of Trump, according to reports in CNN and elsewhere.
Salem Media puts extreme content behind a paywall
Behind paywalls, some Salem Media commentators offer even more extreme takes. In July, PJ Media Editor Paula Bolyard warned readers that the critical reaction to the site's coverage of COVID-19, especially its caustic takes on public health officials, had taken a toll. And, Bolyard wrote, there was a reason she was asking readers to subscribe to get past the paywalls: She did not want to subject her site's most powerful posts to scrutiny.
"Regular readers of PJ Media know that much of our COVID-19 coverage has been behind a paywall, accessible only to our VIP subscribers," Bolyard wrote. "It's just not worth our time to have to deal with the fact-checkers, who have been working overtime to discredit us and damage our reputation."
Behind the paywalls for various Salem Media sites, writers and podcasters have blasted the use of masks and vaccines against COVID-19 and instead promoted discredited cures. Additionally, hosts unleash coarse rants against the media, and glory in their ability to evade not just fact-checkers but social media moderators. On repeated paywalled streaming videos, RedState's Scott Hounsell raises aloft a middle finger to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter's Jack Dorsey.
To be clear, Salem, an explicitly conservative fundamentalist Christian media company, charges viewers, listeners and readers money to access uncensored and profane content.
Yet unfettered conspiracy theories can be found in free content, too. On the free version of the Townhall podcast Triggered, hosts Matt Vespa and Storm Paglia earlier this year called Congress a disgrace. They mused why anyone should be surprised by the violent Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Moments later, however, they concluded the event wasn't real but a setup by the FBI.
In July, on his Salem radio show, Elder took a call from a voter urging him to run and suggesting that the vote might be sabotaged against him. Elder laughed at the Trump-like prediction of electoral fraud and said he wouldn't be surprised.
In more recent days, Elder's campaign has set up an official site claiming fraud is taking place in the California recall race, even though the election has yet to wrap up. It's a claim — unsupported by any meaningful evidence — that's receiving a warm reception throughout Salem Media.