Can Caruso regain some strength in the LA mayoral race?


After a fiery spring and a relatively quiet summer, Rep. Karen Bass and Rick Caruso will soon enter the home stretch of the Los Angeles mayoral race: a full months-long sprint until November.

The same players are still on stage, with much the same message they’ve had since before the primary. But both the national context and the city’s political atmosphere have changed since the spring, to Bass’ advantage.

For the first time in more than a century, the race for mayor will be held in an even-numbered year, synchronized with national and regional elections. Against a hyperpartisan backdrop of midterm elections and diminishing national reproductive rights, Caruso’s Republican past has become a liability that’s hard to obscure in this deep blue city.

With less than 75 days to go until the November election, polls now show the six-term MP has a double-digit lead over the property developer in a head-to-head clash.

A Times/UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies survey released Friday puts Bass 12 points ahead of Caruso, and a separate poll released by an outside group supporting Bass found her with a similar advantage. Caruso campaign officials said their internal polls were markedly different, but declined to provide specifics.

It’s a prime position for Bass as the race to lead America’s second-largest city heats up in its home stretch, although pundits say Caruso could still fight his way to victory. But the climb would be steep, and the political terrain became increasingly hostile to his cause.

The question now is what that path might look like and whether the race chemistry will change before November.

The mayoral race is technically nonpartisan, but pundits on both sides agree that a more partisan race framed around national issues is a boon for Bass.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which came two weeks after the June primary, kept abortion at the white-hot center of the national discourse. With divisions escalating across the country and an abortion rights proposal at the top of the California ballot, it’s hard to imagine the issue slipping away.

Caruso has been outspoken about his support for abortion rights on the campaign trail, but the focus on Roe has kept an uncomfortable spotlight on his donation history to anti-abortion conservatives and the fact that he was a Republican for much of his life.

In the months leading up to the primary, the political atmosphere appeared more favorable to Caruso, according to Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, chairman of USC’s Department of Political Science and International Relations. She cited concerns about homelessness and crime, and a sense that voters were suspicious of the ability of current office holders to solve some of the city’s problems.

“Now the exact opposite is happening and these issues are really flowing away from Caruso in a big way,” Hancock Alfaro said, noting the intense focus on abortion rights and the waning focus on crime in the city.

Had the effort to call back LA County Dist. Atti. George Gascón qualifying for the ballot would almost certainly have helped Caruso’s campaign, energizing voters likely to support him. But the recall failed this month, adding another external factor in Bass’ favor.

It’s a very different picture than in the spring, when political tailwinds and near-unlimited funding fueled Caruso’s project. late application in propulsive ascent.

Following Eric Adams’ mayoral victory in New York last year, political observers speculated about a similar shift away from the progressive left in Los Angeles, amid growing frustration and fear in the city.

For a brief moment in the weeks leading up to the primary, Caruso appeared on the brink of a potential political tidal wave, with whispers that an outright victory in the 50+1 primary might even be within reach. for the first candidate.

But when the dust finally settled after the primaries and all the mail-in ballots were counted, Bass emerged the decisive winner.

Any idea of ​​a shift to law-and-order centrism in Los Angeles has been strongly rebuffed — not just by Bass’s lead, but also by the success of several fierce progressives in short-ballot races.

In a role reversal from the months leading up to the primary, when Caruso was seemingly ubiquitous, Bass was the most visible presence throughout the sluggish summer, with a busier public schedule and a series of endorsements making the news.

This methodically conducted endorsement campaign — which effectively kicked Caruso out of the game — includes a dizzying list of elected Democrats, from President Biden to descendants.

Despite some influential endorsements from business and law enforcement groups, only two elected Democrats have backed Caruso — and neither Councilman Joe Buscaino nor Councilor Gil Cedillo will be in office next year.

Individual endorsements rarely matter much on their own, but experts say Bass’ virtual lockdown on party support could matter to voters.

Mayoral candidate Karen Bass, left, is greeted with cheers during a mayoral event at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Los Angeles headquarters in July.

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

“It helps to have enough Democratic support to create some sort of permission structure for Democratic voters,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Cal State LA Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, citing the Republican nominee’s success. Richard Riordan on Democrat Mike Woo in the 1993 mayoral election.

Woo also topped his more conservative opponent in Democratic Party support. But his grip was less absolute, as Riordan knocked out a number of powerhouse players from Democratic town hall.

That 1993 general election was held in early June, less than two months after the April primary — an abbreviated spring schedule that had long been the norm for elections in Los Angeles.

This is the first modern Los Angeles mayoral election to span a good chunk of a year, meaning there’s no precedent for how things typically play out in the past. five long months between primary and general.

But Angelenos enjoying a few months of relative summer respite should batten down the hatches as the campaign will almost certainly kick back into high gear after Labor Day.

By this point in the primary cycle — just under 11 weeks before the election — Caruso was already spending more than $1 million a week on television advertising. But he has remained off the air since June. Both campaigns have been coy about their fall media plans, though it’s hard to imagine Caruso remaining a low-key presence after his spring blitz.

The billionaire businessman’s ability to fund himself remains a powerful X-factor in the race. Caruso poured more than $40 million of his personal fortune into his main candidacy, upsetting the race and breaking local candidate spending records. He invested at least $3.5 million in his campaign over the summer — a figure roughly equal to Bass’s total fundraising during the primary.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the power of near-unlimited funding or the ground gain Caruso gained between February and June.

“I started this race with 30 points and beat several career politicians to make the second round and I’m confident the path to victory is clear,” Caruso said in a statement Friday.

But the battlegrounds of California politics are also littered with cautionary tales. John Shallman – a veteran political consultant who ran City Atty. Mike Feuer’s mayoral campaign before Feuer quit and endorsed Bass – suggested Caruso could learn a tough lesson in the vein of former gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Al Checchi, who both have a lot lost after spending big.

Funds from the primary cannot be transferred to the general, meaning Bass had to start gambling from scratch on June 8. A full picture of his summer fundraiser won’t appear until the next round of campaign finance disclosures are released.

Outside spending will also shape the race. An independent spending committee backing Bass will likely continue the pace of pointed anti-Caruso messaging his campaign eschews. And Los Angeles’ most powerful police union, which backed Caruso and spent millions attacking Bass in the primary, is expected to flare up again in the fall.

Dates have not yet been announced, but a series of one-on-one debates between candidates will begin in late September or early October.

Caruso’s aggressive and early push in the on-the-ground efforts to secure the vote has spawned relentless speculation in political circles about hourly knocker rates and what total spending in this area might look like.

The campaign already has hundreds of canvassers knocking on doors and plans to have 10 field offices across the city by mid-September, according to a person familiar with the planning.

Caruso’s most visible areas of interest since the primary have been Latino voters, Asian American voters and in the San Fernando Valley.

Caruso carved out the lion’s share of the Valley in elementary school, but Friday’s Times/Berkeley IGS poll shows Bass making significant inroads in the region. The poll also showed her essentially tied with Caruso among Latino and Asian voters, and ahead with black and white voters.

“We feel like we have the momentum,” Bass campaign spokeswoman Sarah Leonard Sheahan said. “We intentionally built a coalition from San Pedro to the valley and among decision makers at all levels.”

Financial constraints will almost certainly prevent the Bass campaign from mounting an on-the-ground operation on par with Caruso’s. But some of the union and community groups that endorsed it will likely provide support on the ground.

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