Why California’s primary results should worry Democrats

·West Coast Correspondent
·7-min read

LOS ANGELES — Most days, the deep-blue state of California — a place dominated and defined by Los Angeles and San Francisco, two of America’s most liberal cities — is not seen as a bellwether of U.S. politics.

But Tuesday wasn’t most days.

In this week’s top two nonpartisan primaries, the overwhelmingly Democratic electorates of California’s twin cosmopolises went to the polls and did things that overwhelmingly Democratic electorates don’t normally do.

In San Francisco, voters easily recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a poster boy for the nationwide “progressive prosecutor” movement. He swept into office two years ago, vowing to end “the tough-on-crime policies and rhetoric of the 1990s and early 2000s.”

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin speaks to supporters during an election-night event on Tuesday. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“People [in San Francisco] are angry,” Boudin admitted Tuesday night. “They’re frustrated.”

And in L.A., more voters appear to have cast mayoral ballots for billionaire luxury mall developer Rick Caruso, a longtime Republican turned Democrat who spent $41 million pledging to restore law and order, than for Karen Bass, a prominent six-term Democratic congresswoman who made Joe Biden’s vice-presidential shortlist. Caruso and Bass will now compete in a November runoff.

To be fair, what happens in, say, Hollywood can reveal only so much about the rest of the midterm landscape. Few candidates can afford, like Caruso, to outspend their top opponent 10 to 1; outside California, few candidates face $7.2 million recall efforts.

Yet the dynamics on display this week in California also reflect the dynamics of 2022 as a whole. Impatience with the continuing disruptions of the COVID-19 era — a list that now includes astronomical gas prices and rampant inflation. Unease with new signs of disorder and dysfunction — like California’s metastasizing homeless encampments and rising crime rates — that accompanied the pandemic. And the urge to ditch whoever’s in charge for something — anything — different.

People walk past a sign that with an arrow that reads: Vote Center Voting.
Voters make their way into the Clifton C. Miller Community Center in Tustin, Calif., to vote in the California primary election on Tuesday. (Mark Rightmire/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

The fact that even liberal Californians in Los Angeles and San Francisco now seem to be succumbing to these forces should set off alarm bells for the Democrats who are struggling to hold the House and Senate.

Boudin’s recall made the most headlines. A Yale-educated Rhodes Scholar who was born to two members of the Weather Underground — then raised by other members of that militant leftist group when his parents were sent to prison on felony murder charges — Boudin served as a public defender before running for DA in 2019. His stated goal: to reform the criminal justice system from the inside by reducing racial disparities, curbing mass incarceration and holding police more accountable.

But Boudin’s narrow mandate — he won office by the slimmest of ranked-choice margins — wasn’t enough to bolster him when San Francisco’s longtime homelessness and drug abuse problems worsened during the pandemic, and when a concurrent if unrelated increase in property crimes like burglaries and break-ins only added to a gnawing sense of lawlessness (even if the overall rate of violent crime in San Francisco remains among the lowest in decades).

Boudin’s controversial reaction to a series of anti-Asian-American hate crimes, as well as emotional stories about repeat offenders who went on to commit violent offenses after his office declined to prosecute, didn’t help. Nor did accusations of mismanagement or Boudin’s refusal to moderate his positions.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed speaks at a news conference about crime against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in January. (Nathan Frandino/Reuters)

London Breed, the city’s liberal Democratic mayor and a Boudin critic, will now appoint his replacement. Among the contenders for the post is Brooke Jenkins, who was a prosecutor in Boudin’s office until last year when she left amid a dispute over sentencing in a murder case. Jenkins then helped lead the recall effort against Boudin.

“This is about San Franciscans wanting a district attorney who’s actually dedicated to prioritizing public safety,” Jenkins recently told the Washington Post. “People’s issue with Chesa is that he has been tone deaf to their pleas for accountability. They think things have gone a bit too far with crime and they don’t feel as though he is setting the right tone.”

Yet Caruso’s strong showing in L.A. may have been Tuesday’s most revealing result. The last time the city elected a Republican mayor — which Caruso would effectively be, having only joined the Democratic Party just before announcing his bid — was in the 1990s. That he currently outranks Bass 42% to 37% as of Wednesday morning is a warning for Democrats elsewhere.

Rick Caruso.
L.A. Mayoral candidate Rick Caruso speaks to his supporters on election night at the Grove Tuesday night. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

As in San Francisco, property crimes have increased in L.A. in recent years; unlike in San Francisco, reported rates of violent crime have increased sharply as well. The problem is not unique to places with progressive leadership — in fact, murder rates are higher and have risen more quickly in Republican-led states and cities — but when overlaid on a landscape of pervasive homelessness and soaring prices, it does little to dispel perceptions of dysfunction.

“In the broadest perspective, the voters and residents are feeling that the governing regime, the liberal Democratic regime that has dominated L.A. for the last 30 years, and California and San Francisco, is not meeting the moment,” Fernando Guerra, a political scientist who directs the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, recently told CNN.

With ubiquitous ads pledging to “end street homelessness” and “stop crime,” Caruso capitalized on this disillusionment, holding up his squeaky-clean, Disney-like malls — familiar to nearly all Angelenos — as examples of the direction in which he would steer the city. Never mind that the mogul’s promises to “build 30,000 shelter beds in 300 days” while putting “1,500 new officers on the street” are unlikely to come true; he’s selling change in a city that craves it.

Caruso is hardly a shoo-in for November, though; Bass remains a formidable opponent. And across California, it’s unclear after Tuesday’s results whether or not other Republicans could capitalize like Caruso.

In some key House districts, relatively moderate GOP incumbents such as Orange County’s Young Kim appear to have fended off MAGA challengers and advanced to a fall runoff; in at least one other, however, Republican Rep. David Valdao — who voted to impeach former President Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection — is still in danger of losing his slot.

Alex Villanueva.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva votes in California's primary election. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, L.A. County’s tough-on-crime but scandal-tarred Sheriff Alex Villanueva did not earn enough votes to avoid a runoff, while state Attorney General Rob Bonta — a criminal-justice reformer — cruised through the primary with more than 50% of the vote. Bonta’s most formidable general-election threat — Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, a Republican running as an independent — was lapped by two conservatives who ran to her right, including attorney Eric Early.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is in a similarly comfortable position; he will now face a pro-Trump Republican, state Sen. Brian Dahle, in the fall. Recently, both Bonta and Newsom released ads that looked like attempts to boost Early and Dahle, respectively — the candidates they’re reportedly most confident they can defeat.

Still, Boudin’s recall and Caruso’s ascent will reverberate. Neither result has the power to alter California’s solidly progressive landscape, but for Democrats elsewhere — in D.C. and in swing districts nationwide — both signal trouble ahead.

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