High Voter Apathy and Amped-Up Fears About Crime Shaped California Primaries

There are three main takeaways from California’s elections this week.

First, the level of voter apathy ought to send a shudder through the political establishment. Voter turnout was shockingly low. Despite all 22 million registered voters in the state being sent mail-in ballots weeks ago, as of Election Day, only 18 percent of ballots had been returned early.

Voters’ fury at high inflation and, in particular, high gasoline prices, as well as the sense of lingering anxiety unleashed by the pandemic, didn’t necessarily translate to a tsunami against California’s Democratic state leadership; but it did result in a mass abstention from an election that generated precious little of the political passion and engagement that became something of a routine during former President Donald Trump’s years.

With voter turnout flagging on Election Day itself, the percentage of voters taking part in the election was hovering somewhere around 25 percent, which was the record low for participation set during the primary elections in 2014. Contrast this with the June primary elections two years ago, when nearly half of all registered voters cast their ballots.

Second, of those who voted, most stuck with the marquee-name Democrats. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Rob Bonta and U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla all cruised to large primary wins, and all head into November’s election with what ought to be insurmountable leads in the opinion polls. Despite the sense of angst throughout the electorate, this didn’t translate to an automatic tilt rightward across the board. In other words, whatever the hype in the media in the next few days, California as a whole isn’t about to shift red.

In fact, in at least one of the GOP congressional seats in the state, a Republican incumbent stumbled badly. In the 41st District, Rep. Ken Calvert appears to have won roughly 43 percent of the vote, which put him eight points up on his nearest Democratic rival but far behind the total Democratic vote, split between two candidates, of about 50 percent. Come November, these numbers give Democrats more than a fighting chance of picking up the seat.

Meanwhile, in the 22nd District, currently represented by Republican David Valadao, who was one of a handful of GOP congressmembers who voted to impeach Trump in the wake of the January 6 insurrection, GOP primary voters appear to have sat on their hands. With counting still underway, it’s entirely possible that Valadao, the incumbent, will end up with less than a quarter of the total vote.

But the third takeaway arguably has the biggest impact on the national stage. In a recall election flooded with cash from conservative GOP billionaires and with misinformation on crime data in the Bay Area, San Francisco voters decisively voted to recall progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin.

On one hand, the vote can be seen as a backlash against progressives’ efforts to decrease mass incarceration and instead address the root causes that lead people to commit crimes. For weeks, polls had suggested Boudin was going to lose, with voters citing their discomfort with homeless encampments, in-the-open drug use and crime rates as top issues in the lead-up to the vote.

But the outcome must also be understood in the context of massive dark money PAC spending from Republican billionaires like William Oberndorf and Ron Conway, who have bankrolled an effort to spread narratives about soaring crime rates in San Francisco.

In reality, however, the Washington Post offers a different snapshot of crime in the city: “Like most big U.S. cities, San Francisco has seen a rise in homicides during the pandemic, although rates remain far below those of past decades, and other cities have experienced bigger per capita jumps. Overall violent crime here remains at some of the lowest levels it has been in four decades.” The Post goes on to note that property crime is in the process of “declining gradually to pre-covid levels” but that residential burglaries currently remain higher than pre-pandemic levels.

In the face of this billionaire-bankrolled recall effort, Boudin — who had pushed forward efforts related to jail-diversion, to further the rehabilitation of people with criminal convictions, and to address the deeper causes that trigger young people to engage in crime — lost by an even larger margin than was expected. The outgoing DA in many ways got the short end of the stick, as a critical mass of voters blamed him, and his progressive prosecutor priorities, for problems like the rampant and highly visible overdose crisis — in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, more San Franciscans died of overdoes than of COVID — that began festering decades before he ran for office.

So large was the “yes” vote that the Associated Press called the result within a half hour of the polls closing. Boudin will now have to step down, and the city’s mayor, London Breed, who has been urging the DA’s office to take a tougher, more pro-policing stance, will be tasked with appointing his replacement.

Given the large number of progressive DAs who have been elected around the country in the past few years — from Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner to Los Angeles’s George Gascon — and who have struggled mightily with messaging in recent months, Boudin’s recall in one of the country’s most liberal cities could have huge ramifications, raising questions about whether voters are wavering in their support for exploring alternatives to the violent, racist and stunningly expensive, lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key strategies of broken-windows policing and the “war on drugs.”

It’s clear that voters have grown increasingly concerned about homelessness, addiction, mental illness and street crime, so any progressive efforts at decarceration need to explicitly speak to those issues. Boudin struggled to do so when addressing his constituents.

In the end, tens of thousands of liberal San Franciscans — people who wouldn’t in a million years have voted for Trump, and wouldn’t in a million years vote for a Republican for statewide office in California — were persuaded by a dark money-funded recall effort emphasizing concerns about street conditions and public safety to upend the apple cart and ditch Boudin.

It’s important to note, however, that voters up and down the state did not follow suit in giving conservative law-and-order voices a carte blanche: In the high profile race for Sacramento County sheriff, for example, the more liberal candidate, Jim Cooper, beat his conservative rival in the race to replace Trumpite outgoing sheriff and congressional hopeful Scott Jones.

However, California voters’ concerns about highly visible issues of homelessness, addiction and mental illness, as well as concerns about crime, also played out in important ways in the Los Angeles’s mayor’s race. In LA’s case, it translated into a large vote against progressive Rep. Karen Bass, who went into the election as far-and-away the odds-on favorite to be the city’s next mayor, but who ended up losing ground to mall developer Rick Caruso.

Caruso picked up endorsements from a slew of top business figures, including Elon Musk; and his campaign closed hard, his support noticeably improving in the last weeks of the campaign. He built a strong base of support, across ethnic and class groups, in part by convincing voters that he was serious about tackling a homelessness crisis that has become visible with the emergence of encampments even in uber-affluent neighborhoods of LA such as Venice Beach.

In the end, it looks as if the wealthy developer has eked out a slight win over Bass, and, in so doing, put himself in poll position to be the next mayor of the country’s second-largest city. If that does indeed go down, it would be a huge, and catastrophic, reversal in fortune for a Democratic Party that has, since at least Barack Obama’s election in 2008, recast itself as the party of the U.S.’s great metropolises.

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