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Law-and-Order Backlash in California

San Francisco recalls progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin. California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sen. Alex Padilla seem to be on a glide path to victory in November. Meanwhile, all eyes are on the Latino vote.

Los Angeles conservative businessman Rick Caruso
Los Angeles conservative businessman Rick Caruso is running for mayor. (TNS)
Editor’s note: Alan Greenblatt, who writes Governing'sInside Politics newsletter, is on vacation this week. This edition is written by Governing Senior Writer Jake Blumgart. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Law and Order Backlash in California: The most closely watched primary results in the nation’s largest state have been cast as a referendum on urban disorder.

In San Francisco, progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin lost a recall election in dramatic fashion. By Wednesday morning, with half the votes tallied, the results were 60-to-40 against him.

In Los Angeles, conservative businessman Rick Caruso, running for mayor, pulled to the front of a crowded field by spending over $40 million of his fortune and utilizing law-and-order rhetoric. The race now goes to a runoff in November with Karen Bass, a liberal former congresswoman.

These results can be seen as part of a trend starting with Eric Adams’ victory in New York City last year, where his campaign promised to restore a tough-on-crime approach.

But it may be too soon to simply close the book on the era of criminal justice reform. The fruits of Adams’ approach in New York are not evident in polling numbers. A Siena College poll this week found that only 29 percent of New Yorkers rated him as doing a good or excellent job, while 56 percent said they felt the city was moving in the wrong direction.

Meanwhile in another one of the nation’s largest cities, Philadelphia, attempts to weaponize soaring homicide rates against progressive incumbents have not worked. Last year, progressive District Attorney Larry Krasner cruised to re-election and won large margins in many of the neighborhoods most affected by gun crime. This year the city’s Democratic party attempted to force a primary vote with a handful of socialist and liberal state representatives by blaming them for rising gun crime. All won re-election by commanding margins.

So, what’s going on here?

Voters everywhere appear to be dissatisfied with post(ish)-pandemic America, and for good reason. Inflation is eating at purchasing power for the first time in a generation, gas prices aren’t likely to go down soon, the virus continues to periodically surge, mass shootings plague the country, and in many cities, crime is higher than it was before COVID-19.

Americans want a change, which adds to the GOP’s strong advantage this November. But even when they get a paradigm shift, as with Adams’ win last year or Joe Biden’s victory in 2020, the honeymoon is short lived.

The solutions aren’t as simple as arresting people for sleeping on subway trains or increasing the number of police officers on the street either. As Henry Grabar recently pointed out in Slate, of more than 9,200 homeless people removed from New York’s trains in the last year only 8 percent were still living in shelters a month later. Meanwhile, the largest American city run by a Republican (Jacksonville, Fla.) spends a third of its budget on the police and still has a murder rate three times higher than that of New York.

The thrust of Grabar’s argument is that the law-and-order backlash politics that won in California this week has been fueled by the complacency of America’s (mostly) liberal Democratic mayors. In San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, conservative forces have conflated crime and homelessness. In reality, the two have little to do with each other. But because the majority of urban residents don’t experience crime directly, their main exposure to urban disorder is the rise of street encampments, aggressive panhandling and open-air drug use.

While addressing gun crime is difficult for local officials, attacking homelessness could theoretically be easier. More homes, some kind of rent regulation, and different kinds of homes are possible solutions, but local Democratic party politicians have strenuously avoided doing much to address these issues for fear of alienating homeowner constituents and district councilmembers. Now their successors are reaping what was sown, as housing prices spiral upward and more people are forced onto the street.
A sheet of "I Voted" stickers
The Rest of the Primary Results: There were primaries across seven states on Tuesday, but in many cases the races were not heavily contested.

There were many major state-level elections on the California ballot as well, including Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sen. Alex Padilla’s re-election bids. Both men are on a glide path to victory in November, but both will face Republican opponents in the fall, which was not guaranteed.

The state has a top-two vote-getter primary system, where all candidates regardless of their party run on the same ballot. (No GOP candidate has won a statewide race in over a decade.) In keeping with the law-and-order trend, the attorney general’s race was the spiciest — although the Democratic candidate is heavily favored in the general election. But Democratic incumbent Rob Bonta will face Nathan Hochman, a Republican and former assistant U.S. attorney general. The GOP’s better-than-usual performance meant that Hochman edged out Anne Marie Schubert, a former Republican district attorney turned independent.

Elsewhere, statewide primaries were largely a snooze. In the Iowa, South Dakota and New Mexico gubernatorial primaries the major candidates either faced no opposition or were able to easily trounce their foes. It is worth noting that in South Dakota, Republican Sen. John Thune faced no primary challenger, despite former president Donald Trump’s attempts to recruit one.
Several election campaign signs behind a "Vote Here" sign
All Eyes on the Latino Vote: In the weeks to come, races in Nevada and Texas are expected to highlight the burgeoning struggle for Hispanic voters.

For much of the 21st century, Democratic pollsters and strategists have pinned some of their hopes on an “emerging majority” of their traditional base plus growing numbers of Hispanic and Asian voters. This theoretical winning combination seemed to bear fruit during Barack Obama’s presidency, as he twice put together a version of this coalition.

More recent presidential races haven’t looked so promising, however. The 2016 race revealed substantial Republican gains among working class white voters, even in union-dense locales that used to be the heart of the Democratic base. Then in 2020, a segment of Hispanic voters turned right.

In the Rio Grande Valley, Biden won by a sliver in districts that Democrats historically swept by substantial margins. He only secured Florida’s Miami-Dade County by 7 points — after Hillary Clinton won it by almost 30 points in 2016.

Now one of the authors of the emerging majority thesis, Ruy Teixeira, warns that working-class Hispanics are going the way of working-class whites. In a blog post, he points to the Silver State as an exemplar of that trend: “Nevada went from three-tenths of percentage more Democratic than the nation as a whole in 2016 to 2 points more Republican in 2020.”

Recent polling in Nevada seems to show that Democrats still enjoy a substantial advantage over Republicans among Hispanic voters in the state. (It’s worth noting that the findings were from a left-of-center polling firm.) But Democrats cannot count on their backing, as they have in many recent elections, and resources will need to be poured into areas of Texas, Florida and Nevada that may have once been considered safe.

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Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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