The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

S.F. DA recalled, L.A.’s Caruso advances as Democrats tested on crime

Some of the highest-profile primaries were fueled by angst over liberal leaders’ approach to public safety

Rick Caruso, a billionaire real estate developer, vowed a tougher response to homelessness on June 7 after he entered a runoff in the Los Angeles mayoral race. (Video: AP)
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Crime, homelessness and Democratic divisions over the issues took center stage Tuesday as a liberal prosecutor in San Francisco was recalled and seven states held primaries that helped mold each party’s image heading into November’s fight for control of Congress, statehouses and major cities across the country.

The recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin (D) — whom critics called too lenient — came as angst over liberal leaders’ approach to public safety also loomed large in a contest for Los Angeles mayor, where Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and billionaire businessman Rick Caruso are projected to advance to a runoff. Caruso, a former Republican, has pitched himself as a different kind of Democrat who will fix long-simmering crises in the nation’s second-largest city.

Soaring inflation, gun violence and abortion rights were on voters’ minds Tuesday as they headed to the polls in California, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota. Republicans are seizing on rising costs and crime to try to retake the House and narrowly divided Senate this fall. They have sought to pin those problems on the Biden administration and liberal policies, arguments that resonated with some voters Tuesday.

Turning in their ballots for Caruso together, a group of neighbors wished for “a better future” before taking a selfie. One woman said crime was her biggest concern — her husband’s brother had been robbed at gunpoint the day before in Burbank.

Surrounded by supporters at a bar Tuesday night, Boudin said the recall campaign “exploited an environment in which people are appropriately upset.”

“They were given an opportunity to voice their frustration and their outrage, and they took that opportunity,” he said.

“Looking for someone to blame,” an audience member chimed in.

Democrats are bracing for an uphill battle this fall amid low approval ratings for President Biden and political head winds that the president’s party has historically faced in first midterms. To counter those trends, Democrats are seeking to cast GOP candidates as extremists beholden to Trump.

“I’d like to get a functional country again,” said Iowa voter Mehgin Lawrence, who was torn between several Democratic candidates vying to challenge Republican Charles E. Grassley, 88, the country’s longest-serving sitting Republican senator. “There is a lot of dysfunction in general on both sides of the aisle.”

Grassley won renomination, the AP projected, and he is favored to keep the seat. In the Democratic race to replace him, retired Navy Vice Adm. Mike Franken defeated former congresswoman Abby Finkenauer, who was also seen as a strong contender. Franken has sought to appeal to Iowa’s swing voters. “It is that middle segment who want logical, pragmatic, smart, dedicated national servants to work for them, leader servants,” he said in a recent debate. “I believe I’m that person.”

The night’s first results from the East Coast and the Deep South, meanwhile, highlighted conflicts within the GOP, offering the latest tests of former president Donald Trump’s influence and more moderate candidates’ efforts to beat back challengers from their right.

In Mississippi, Rep. Michael Guest (R) was in a close race with challenger Michael Cassidy with a majority of the vote counted. Cassidy targeted Guest’s vote last year for a commission to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection by a pro-Trump mob at the U.S. Capitol. Rep. Steven M. Palazzo (R-Miss.) was forced into a runoff, the Associated Press projected, amid scrutiny of an ethics body’s finding there is significant evidence he misspent campaign money.

Sam Welford, 45, cast his vote for one of the opponents, Clay Wagner, and said Palazzo has “run his course.” Welford said he does not align with any party but said rising prices under Biden played a key role in his choice to vote Republican Tuesday.

“Look at where we are today,” said Pamela Turner, a retired nurse and “staunch Republican” in Mississippi who blamed Democrats for the state of the country, even as she voted to oust Palazzo. “Look at the price of gas.”

In New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District — one of many the GOP hopes to flip this year — Tom Kean Jr. was projected to defeat challengers who attacked him as not conservative enough. And Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who has clashed with Trump, won renomination, the AP projected.

Republicans call Kean a top recruit and say the former state senator is well-positioned to flip the seat in November. The son of a former governor and grandson of a former Congressman, Kean finished just over a percentage point behind incumbent Rep. Tom Malinowski (D) in 2020 and will face Malinowski again this fall under more favorable conditions for Republicans nationwide.

At a polling site in Bridgewater Township on Tuesday, Bob Hummer said that while he voted in the Democratic primary, he is leaning toward voting for Kean in the general election — he said thinks Republicans are better on economic issues.

In California, Democrats offered voters different tacks and tones on public safety — underscoring how the issue has rankled voters even in liberal strongholds.

A liberal DA finds voters’ moods have changed even in San Francisco

In 2019, voters embraced Boudin’s pitch for a less punitive justice system that looks to rehabilitate offenders. Drawing on his public defender experience and personal story — his parents went to prison when he was a child — Boudin triumphed over an interim district attorney backed by the Democratic establishment. The district attorney’s supporters say he has become an easy scapegoat for a systemic and nationwide problem: Crime rose in many large cities during the coronavirus pandemic.

“There is a very long tradition from the right of using these issues as a wedge, using these issues as a weapon, with no actual interest in the solutions that have been proven to reduce crime,” said Julie Edwards, a spokesperson for the anti-recall effort, in an interview.

But recently, leaders like Boudin have been on the defensive, as Republicans highlight some activists’ push to “defund the police” and as Democrats including Biden try to recalibrate their party’s image.

With about half the vote tallied by early Wednesday morning, roughly 60 percent were in favor of recalling Boudin, the AP said. San Francisco Mayor London Breed (D), who has called for a crackdown on “criminals who are destroying our city,” will appoint Boudin’s replacement.

Caruso, the wealthy developer in Los Angeles, has been framing himself as the change candidate in the mayoral race, vowing a tougher response to homelessness and crime. He has poured his own fortune into the campaign, spending tens of millions of dollars.

Bass, a veteran lawmaker and finalist to become Biden’s running mate in 2020, has also promised to tackle a “humanitarian emergency” of homelessness and made public safety a key issue. But she emphasizes social services to prevent crime and says not all neighborhoods want police to be more visible.

Early Wednesday morning, with most votes yet to be counted, Bass and Caruso were in a tight race. Because neither candidate won a majority of the vote in a crowded field, they will face off again November, when strategists say they expect Caruso would face tougher odds.

To some voters, the choice was anyone but Caruso.

“I think he’s a little too polished for my taste,” said Daniel Sackler, 57, even as he agreed with some of Caruso’s proposals on crime. “Billionaires are not to be trusted for the most part.”

Jennifer Dustin, 46, said she has considered moving her family from Los Angeles because of concerns about crime — but still, she voted for Bass.

“They are all going to say the same stuff,” Jake Kuczeruk, 33, said. “If it translates to action is the real question.”

In Los Angeles, public anger drives an identity-focused mayor’s race

Also in California, Rep. Young Kim (R), who flipped her seat in 2020, was facing not only Democrat Asif Mahmood but also GOP rivals including Greg Raths, a city council member and retired fighter pilot. A super PAC aligned with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has funded ads against Raths as Kim tries to ensure she advances in California’s unusual primary system. The two candidates with the most votes proceed to the general election regardless of party.

California Rep. David G. Valadao (R) was seeking reelection as his opponent, Chris Mathys, attacked his vote last year to impeach Trump for his conduct leading up to the storming of the Capitol last year. Trump hasn’t endorsed a challenger, despite pouring massive political capital into other critics’ races — underscoring many Republicans’ belief that Valadao is their best bet at retaining a blue-leaning district.

Other U.S. House races also grabbed the attention of party strategists. In Iowa, state Sen. Zach Nunn won the Republican race to challenge Rep. Cindy Axne, the conservative-leaning state’s only Democratic legislator in Congress. The seat is expected to be highly competitive this fall.

In Montana, one of Trump’s Cabinet members — former interior secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned during an ethics investigation — was in a tight race for the Republican nomination in a new congressional district expected to boost the GOP’s influence in the House. Montana got a second House seat after the 2020 Census.

Zinke, who secured Trump’s endorsement, has four opponents in the GOP primary. Critics have noted he splits his time between Montana and California and have also highlighted the government watchdog report released this year that found that he broke federal rules as interior secretary and also lied to an ethics official.

Former local TV weatherman Mark Ronchetti won in a crowded GOP field to take on New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), according to the Associated Press, as Republicans see room for gains even in a state controlled by Democrats. Ronchetti ran for Senate in the state in 2020 and lost to Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D).

Democrats said they believe that Ronchetti’s views are not in line with New Mexico voters, pointing to comments he’s made questioning climate change as the state has faced massive wildfires. “No individual fire or storm is the result of climate change,” Ronchetti told the Albuquerque Journal. “That isn’t the case.”

Annie Linskey and Scott Clement in Washington; Brian Wellner in Iowa; Ashley Cusick in Mississippi; Miranda Green in Los Angeles; and Jack Wright in New Jersey contributed to this report.

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