Progressive DA recalled in California elections with high stakes – and low turnout

Voters in California returned mixed messages in the state’s midterm primary elections on Tuesday, casting ballots in a series of high-stakes races that were dominated by themes of inequality, crime, and the rising cost of living.

Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor, cruised to an easy victory in this deep blue state, advancing to the November general election, where he will be an overwhelming favorite to win a second term.

In Los Angeles, the Democratic congresswoman Karen Bass and the billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso qualified for the final vote in November to fill the mayor’s seat.

And in San Francisco, residents voted to recall the high-profile progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin, who was elected in November 2019 on an agenda of criminal justice reform but faced intensifying backlash from law enforcement, conservatives and residents concerned about crime.

In a year when they are on the defensive nationwide, Democrats were expected to perform well in the Golden state on Tuesday, outnumbering Republicans 2-to-1 and holding huge majorities in the legislature and congressional delegation.

In races up and down the state, crime, policing, the growing humanitarian crisis of homelessness and record gas prices had emerged as central issues. Still, Tuesday’s primary was marked by low turnout, in what experts say is a stark sign of political apathy considering all registered voters in California were mailed a ballot.

The turnout left analysts to debate whether the results should be seen as a bellwether of Democratic voters’ broader views on crime and policing. Some more centrist political consultants argued the results were a warning to Democrats to avoid progressive stances on reforming the criminal justice system. Others said the results reflected the media’s coverage of crime and a successful rightwing playbook, more than the reality on the streets.

Less than a year after a recall campaign tried to force him from office, Newsom obliterated a field of 25 other candidates with about 59% of the votes. The Democrat will face Republican Brian Dahle, a state senator from the sparsely populated north-east corner of the state, in November.

Newsom has been campaigning on a progressive agenda, pitching California as a bulwark against conservative legislation spearheaded by Republicans nationwide.

boudin speaks into handheld microphone amid balloons
Chesa Boudin addresses supporters on Tuesday night. Photograph: Noah Berger/AP

He has vowed to make California a sanctuary for women from other states seeking abortions and has pushed for a new law that would let people sue gun makers and sellers to enforce a ban on some assault weapons.

Jessica Levinson, a political commentator and election law professor at Loyola Marymount University, was blunt in her assessment of Dahle’s chances: “The proverbial snowball has a better chance in hell,” she said.

Boudin, a former public defender and the son of two leftwing Weather Underground radicals who spent decades in prison for a fatal heist, was one of the most prominent prosecutors in the US fighting to undo the damage of harsh punishments in a country that locks up more people per capita than any other.

But he had faced growing headwinds from critics, blaming him for crime, violence, homelessness, retail thefts and other challenges that escalated in the city during the pandemic.

Echoing national trends, San Francisco had seen an increase in homicides in past years, though analysts noted overall violent crime decreased during the pandemic, and many categories of crime were down under Boudin’s tenure. But the recall campaign tapped into growing frustration among some voters, and had a huge financial advantage, backed by ultra-wealthy donors.

In a speech to his supporters on Tuesday night, Boudin struck a defiant tone, noting that progressive candidates were winning or leading in their races in other parts of California and the US: “The movement that got us elected in 2019 is alive and well. We see the results from coast to coast, from north to south.”

In Los Angeles, voters’ decision to send Bass and Caruso to a runoff sets up a race that will present residents in the second largest US city with starkly different options for the future.

Bass came to prominence as a progressive community activist in South Central Los Angeles and rose to become the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. She said that she had decided to run for mayor in part because of her concerns that voters’ frustrations over homelessness and high-profile property crimes might lead to the same kind of punitive, damaging policies that California politicians and voters endorsed during the 1990s.

Caruso, a luxury mall developer with an an estimated net worth of $4bn, ran with a pledge to “clean up” Los Angeles. His campaign focused on crime and disorder, pledging to strengthen and expand the city’s police department and vowing to aggressively crack down on homeless encampments.

Caruso poured more than $38m of his own fortune into his campaign through early June. He was backed by celebrity endorsements from Gwyneth Paltrow, Snoop Dogg, Kim Kardashian and Elon Musk.

At his election night party at the Grove, one of his shopping malls, Caruso said the voters supporting him were sending a clear message: “We are not helpless in the face of our problems. We will not allow the city to decline,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

Bass told supporters on Tuesday night: “We are in a fight for the soul of our city, and we are going to win,” the Times reported.

In another high-profile race, California’s state attorney general, Rob Bonta, a progressive who has backed reform efforts, advanced to the general election, with early results showing he held a substantial lead over three challengers with more conservative platforms.

Levinson, the Loyola Law School professor, predicted that Bonta would win in November despite his challengers’ attempts to tap into Californians’ growing unease on crime.

“Because this is not just about prosecuting crime, which mostly happens on the county level,” she said. “This is about what is going to be our legal policy with respect to reproductive rights, what’s going to be our legal policy with respect to second amendment rights, what’s going to be our policy with respect to immigration?”

The Associated Press contributed to this report