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A Closer Look At Four Top Candidates In The Recall Election

Clockwise from top left: Larry Elder, John Cox, Kevin Faulconer and Kevin Paffrath appear in these candidate photos.
Campaign photos
Clockwise from top left: Larry Elder, John Cox, Kevin Faulconer and Kevin Paffrath appear in these candidate photos.
A dizzying selection of 46 candidates appear on the ballot in California's recall election. Here's a closer look at four of them — three Republicans and one Democrat.

Early voting is underway in the Sept. 14 recall election that will decide whether California Gov. Gavin Newsom will be removed from office. The first question on the ballot is a simple yes or no: Should Newsom be recalled?

The second question — who should replace Newsom if the recall passes — has many voters scratching their heads. Forty-six candidates appear on the ballot, most of them longshots with little to no name recognition or political experience.

KPBS chose to examine the four replacement candidates who have most frequently polled near the top and have raised the most money. Here are details on those four.


Larry Elder

Conservative radio host Larry Elder has led in most polls, likely helped by his national profile. But his right-wing politics would be a dramatic departure from the leftward trend in California.

Elder, who is Black, denies the existence of system racism. He opposes gun control, abortion rights and clings to the outdated term "illegal alien" to describe immigrants who are in the country without legal permission.

Elder also believes the minimum wage should be abolished.

"I never have quite understood why a third party like government — why that government feels it's anybody's business what my relationship is with an individual who willingly sold his labor, and my relationship with that person when I willingly bought that labor," Elder told the Sacramento Bee editorial board. "Why two people who are adults can't determine what the price of labor ought to be is beyond me."


On COVID-19, Elder said he would reverse the statewide requirement that teachers and students wear masks in both public and private schools, and that state employees, health care workers, teachers and school support staff get vaccinated for COVID-19 or get tested every week.

A Closer Look At Four Top Candidates In The Recall Election
Listen to this story by Andrew Bowen.

Last week, Elder's ex-fiancée accused him verbal and emotional abuse. In one heated argument, she said, Elder took out a gun and checked to see if it was loaded — something she called "an act of silent scorn and anger." The ex-fiance, Alexandra Datig, said Elder was high on marijuana at the time.

Elder has also come under fire for sexist remarks that have recently resurfaced. In a tweet, Elder denied having "brandished" a gun at Datig, but did not respond to the rest of her allegations, saying: "I am not going to dignify this with a response — it’s beneath me."

John Cox

You may recognize San Diego businessman John Cox as the Republican nominee in the 2018 gubernatorial election, which Newsom won in a landslide. Cox also made headlines earlier this summer for his use of a live bear as a campaign prop.

Cox's platform includes using the criminal justice system to force people experiencing homelessness into mental health treatment, and he rejects the practice of giving those people housing first. He also proposes cutting state income taxes by $30 billion.

On COVID-19, Cox told the audience at an Aug. 4 debate in Los Angeles that those who had recovered from the disease should not get vaccinated. The CDC recommends even those who recovered from COVID-19 get vaccinated because the vaccines offer greater protection from reinfection and severe illness.

In an interview with CalMatters, Cox said the government's response to the pandemic bordered on "hysteria."

"It's not Ebola, it's not the smallpox," Cox said. "I think maybe what we ought to do is take a step back and take a deep breath and say, you know, 'We'll do what we can, we'll keep people as protected as we can.' But we're never going to get rid of this disease, and I think it's disingenuous on the part of the politicians to think, 'Gee, we're going to end this disease completely.'"

Kevin Faulconer

Another familiar face for San Diegans is former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who has sought to claim the title of the most moderate Republican in the race, and the one with the most experience in elected office.

Faulconer has touted his accomplishments as mayor, including the passage of the Complete Communities program, which offers developers relief from height and density regulations if they include more affordable housing in their projects near public transit. He said during a CapRadio debate that California's environmental laws need to change so similar programs can be approved faster.

"It needs to be streamlined," Faulconer said. "We need to make it easier so we can actually construct the housing where we want it, which is along our transit corridors. That's where you want the density, not in single-family neighborhoods."

RELATED: Looking Back At San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s Wins And Losses

Faulconer has also said he cut homelessness "by double digits" while he was mayor, though the claim is somewhat exaggerated and lacks context about how the city has measured homelessness over the years. Faulconer's record on homelessness is complex and includes the 2017 hepatitis A outbreak that killed 20 people, most of them homeless.

Kevin Paffrath

Elder, Cox and Faulconer are all Republicans who supported Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. But one Democrat has emerged among the top contenders: YouTuber and real estate broker Kevin Paffrath.

Paffrath is young — 29 — and his platform includes converting vacant commercial buildings into homeless shelters. But he doesn't say where the shelters would be, or how he'd pay for them.

Paffrath is trying to appeal to voters of both parties but says a Republican governor would be unable to accomplish anything as long as Democrats control the state legislature.

"I'm not a far-leftist and I'm not a far-rightist," Paffrath said in one of his YouTube videos. "In fact, most people who learn about me don't even know if I'm a Democrat or a Republican. That's because my policies and my solutions are California solutions. They're neutral, middle-of-the-road solutions, and I seek to provide those solutions with both Democrats and Republicans."

A Closer Look At Four Top Candidates In The Recall Election

Other Candidates

In addition to these top four candidates, Republicans Kevin Kiley and Caitlyn Jenner have raised decent sums of money, though they have not performed as well in polls. Kiley is a state assemblyman representing the northeastern suburbs of Sacramento, while Jenner is a former Olympic athlete and reality television personality.

Newsom and the California Democratic Party are encouraging voters to simply vote "no" on the recall and to leave the second question on the ballot blank. But even those who want to keep Newsom in office can choose a back-up candidate if they wish. Meanwhile, the California Republican Party opted not to endorse a candidate, telling voters to pick any Republican running to replace Newsom.

Polls suggest more California voters oppose the recall than support it. But the split among voters who are most likely to cast ballots is almost even. That is because Democrats are more apathetic and less likely to turn out, while Republicans are more energized at the prospect of taking over the Golden State.

Due to rising COVID-19 cases, Scripps Health is postponing some medical procedures to help healthcare workers manage. Meanwhile, San Diego State University started the fall semester Monday morning, with many students back on campus for the first time since the COVID shutdown. Plus, a dizzying selection of 46 candidates appear on the ballot in California's recall election. We have a closer look at four of them — three Republicans and one Democrat.

The 2024 primary election is March 5. Find in-depth reporting on each race to help you understand what's on your ballot.