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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

June 8: Primary Shows California Democrats Mostly Need to Get Out the Vote

Having read some insta-reactions to the June 7 California primary that treated it as some sort of massive validation of right-wing law-and-order politics, I pushed back at New York:

The big headlines from yesterday’s California primary were unsurprisingly driven by high-profile contests in the state’s two most prominent cities — San Francisco and Los Angeles. And the results, with the recall of the highly conspicuous progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin in San Francisco and strong showing by ex-Republican developer Rick Caruso in the L.A. mayoral race, lent themselves to a law-and-order narrative — with an undertone of panic among progressives that the GOP wave expected to convulse the nation in November might extend even into deep-blue California.

Democrats don’t need to panic just yet; turnout in the primary was too low to sustain any excited interpretations. We won’t know the final numbers for a good while in a state that’s careful to count every vote (California allows mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day to count if received within seven days and has generous procedures for “curing” faulty ballots). But with ballots received now at 19 percent of registered voters, the Golden State could challenge the record-low primary turnout of 25 percent in 2014. While low primary turnout is normally a danger sign for Democrats (and may be this year as well), it could just reflect a year when there were no red-hot statewide contests — a dampening effect compounded by the sense that California’s top-two primary system makes the first contest a dry run with few real winners and losers.

The idea that the primary showed a state convulsed with reactionary tough-on-crime sentiment is an overreaction to what actually happened on June 7. Boudin was happily tossed over the side by much of San Francisco’s Democratic political establishment — who regarded him as an embarrassing and not terribly competent outlier, not a national symbol of criminal-justice reform (as some have treated him). And while Caruso’s emergence as a freshly minted Democrat running a viable race for mayor of L.A. was startling, it took a ten-to-one spending advantage over Karen Bass to make the general election. His best shot at winning may have passed in this low-turnout primary; Bass should be favored to win in November.

In addition, there were statewide races that didn’t confirm the “law-and-order spring” hypothesis. Appointed incumbent attorney general Rob Bonta should have been a prime target for tough-on-crime agitation. As The Appeal noted: “Bonta’s record on criminal justice reform, and his ties to groups doing the frontline work to transform prisons and policing, are stronger than either [Xavier] Becerra or [Kamala] Harris,” his two predecessors. (The former is Joe Biden’s Health and Human Services secretary; the latter is his vice-president.) As a novice statewide candidate, Bonta could have been especially vulnerable, but in a primary against four opponents, he has received almost 55 percent of counted votes — a higher percentage than U.S. senator Alex Padilla and a bit below that of Governor Gavin Newsom. Bonta’s most conspicuous tough-on-crime opponent, Sacramento district attorney Anne Marie Schubert (running as an independent after ditching her Republican affiliation as impolitic), tried hard to tie Bonta to Boudin and his L.A. counterpart, George Gascón. Schubert was endorsed by several major law-enforcement organizations and a majority of her fellow county prosecutors, but she finished a poor fourth and is currently running 47 points behind Bonta — who will face one of two not terribly impressive actual Republicans in November.

In general, the overall California returns belie the idea that it was some sort of conservative-backlash election. The top-performing statewide Republican candidate, Lanhee Chen (known nationally as chief policy adviser to Mitt Romney in his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns), made the general-election contest for state controller. But he did well mostly because he faced four viable Democrats and, at present, is only winning 37 percent of the vote. Chen has distanced himself from his national party and is running on a claim that California needs a non-Democrat in this position to avoid fiscal recklessness by the dominant party. He remains a long shot, at best, to break the GOP’s 16-year losing streak in California statewide elections.

At the congressional level, there’s no sign of an anti-Democratic wave so far. Candidates from both parties expected to make the general election have done so. Probably the weakest performances by incumbents were posted by Republicans David Valadao and Young Kim, who are both struggling a bit to put away challengers running to their right.

It’s a long way until November, and there are many dynamics that will shape the outcome — from inflation rates to gun-violence incidents, the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion rights, and efforts by Donald Trump to steal the spotlight. But California Democrats weathered Republican midterm waves in 2010 and 2014 quite well. And while California voters are expressing concerns about crime and (more prominently) homelessness and housing policy that may hurt some Democratic incumbents, talk of a law-and-order tsunami in the Golden State is premature. Like their colleagues everywhere, California Democrats should most urgently focus on getting their voters to the polls.

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