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Los Angeles and San Francisco voters may rebuke left in primaries

An ex-Republican billionaire could be the next mayor of Los Angeles, and San Franciscans may oust their headline-grabbing reformist district attorney.
Rick Caruso at Grand Central Market
Rick Caruso tours Grand Central Market on Thursday as he campaigns to become mayor of Los Angeles. Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Two of America’s most famously progressive cities may take right turns Tuesday, when California and six other states hold primary elections. 

This year’s sixth round of primary elections will feature no major Senate or gubernatorial battles. But primaries will determine who may end up representing millions of Americans in California, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota.

In Los Angeles, long-simmering frustrations with issues like homelessness and crime have made an ex-Republican billionaire the unlikely front-runner to be the next mayor of the heavily Democratic megacity.

Rick Caruso, a major real estate developer who only recently joined the Democratic Party and received a rare endorsement from Tesla CEO Elon Musk, has spent more than $34 million on his campaign — nearly 10 times more than his main opponent, six-term Democratic Rep. Karen Bass.

While the money helps, Caruso has tapped into growing resentment about the state of the city and the perception that its Democratic leaders have been unable to do much about it. 

Homelessness continues to rise while housing has become even less affordable. Crime is up, traffic is worse, and high gas prices come with extra sting in a city infamous for its long commutes.

Los Angeles County, which has for decades been a magnet for Americans dreaming of a fresh start, saw more people leave during the first year of the pandemic than any other in the U.S., according to census data released in March. 

Rep. Karen Bass
Rep. Karen Bass in Elysian Park in Los Angeles on May 27. Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

With TV ads promising to “clean up LA” and to be “a doer ... not just a talker,” Caruso has portrayed himself as a nonideological outsider with the ability and willingness to do what the city needs, even if it angers activists or unions. His plan to hire 1,500 new police officers, for instance, has earned rebukes from other candidates focused more on the LAPD’s civil rights issues.

Bass and her allies, meanwhile, have compared Caruso to another party-switching billionaire real estate developer — former President Donald Trump — and highlighted Caruso’s past donations to GOP candidates like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and to anti-abortion causes.

“He’s a fraud,” says the narrator of an ad from a pro-Bass super PAC, calling Caruso “a lifelong Republican.”

L.A.’s recent mayoral elections have been relatively sleepy affairs where only around 1 in 5 registered voters bothered to turn out. But analysts say that could be different this year, as term-limited Mayor Eric Garcetti leaves office with low approval ratings and polls showing a growing number of voters concerned about the direction of the city. 

The contest, however, will likely continue into the fall since none of the candidates are expected to clear the 50 percent threshold necessary to avoid a runoff, which is scheduled to coincide with the general election in November.

It’s a similar story in San Francisco, another famously progressive city that has been suffering from familiar urban plights — it had an even bigger exodus recently than L.A. on a per-capita basis. But crime has become the central flashpoint here, as polls suggest voters are poised to fire their reformist district attorney in a recall election Tuesday.

Chesa Boudin
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin speaks to reporters before his swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 8, 2020.Jeff Chiu / AP file

Chesa Boudin made national headlines when he was elected to be San Francisco’s top prosecutor in 2019. Boudin’s parents were members of the violent left-wing Weather Underground and imprisoned for much of his childhood, but Boudin went to Yale and earned a Rhodes Scholarship before, years later, joining a wave of reformist DA candidates that embraced Black Lives Matter and called for a new approach to policing.

Three years later, however, many San Franciscans have grown exasperated by a perception of impunity for low-level crimes like shoplifting, while violent crime is also up; Mayor London Breed declared a crackdown in December on the “reign of criminals who are destroying our city.”

Under Boudin, the DA’s office — which once was run by now-Vice President Kamala Harris — has seen an exodus of attorneys, with some even joining the recall effort against their former boss.  

The rest of Tuesday’s primaries have attracted less attention. 

In Iowa, Democrats are expected to nominate former Rep. Abby Finkenauer to challenge longtime Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley in November, but while Finkenauer is seen as a strong candidate, the state has trended red and Democrats may be lucky just to hold onto their one congressional seat. 

Montana, meanwhile, gained a second congressional seat in the latest round of redistricting. Ryan Zinke, who served as interior secretary under Trump, is expected to win the GOP nomination for the Republican-leaning district. 

In New Jersey, Trump called on his supporters to oust Republican Rep. Chris Smith, the state’s longest-serving member of Congress, after he broke party ranks to vote for Biden’s infrastructure plan, but Trump never really followed up or endorsed either of Smith’s GOP rivals. Smith still has the backing of his party’s congressional leaders and is seen as a favorite.

Several of the state’s congressional districts are expected to be competitive in the fall, with crowded Republican fields out to take back seats recently won by Democrats like Reps. Andy Kim and Mikie Sherrill.

In the only open congressional seat in the state, representing a deep blue area around Jersey City, the entire Democratic establishment has lined up behind Robert “Rob” Menendez Jr., the son of Sen. Robert “Bob” Menendez, though he is facing two other Democrats.

In New Mexico, Republicans will pick from a crowded field of candidates to face off against Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is seen as vulnerable in November. 

And in South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem, a national GOP rising star, is expected to cruise to re-nomination. Trump had called on her to challenge South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune because he did not support Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election, but she opted to run for re-election instead and Thune is also seen as a heavy favorite.