Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Voters Ready for Return of “Tough on Crime”

Tuesday's election results demonstrate voter antipathy towards crime. Meanwhile, the field is set in the year's most competitive race for governor and Texas has gotten redder.

George Gascón
George Gascón, the DA in L.A., received just over 20 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s primary.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Editor's Note: this article is a part of Governing's Inside Politics newsletter. Sign up here.

Voters Ready for Return of “Tough on Crime”: Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón has been one of the leading lights among progressive prosecutors. He has sought to overturn wrongful convictions while prosecuting police officers accused of excessive force. But crime has gone up during his term and voters are clearly unhappy. In Tuesday’s primary, Gascón took only a little more than one-fifth of the vote. Nearly all of Gascón’s opponents ran on the promise of repudiating his policies, among them several prosecutors from his own office.

In a field of a dozen candidates, his weak showing was still good enough for Gascón to head to the general election, where he’ll face Nathan Hochman, a former federal prosecutor. “We’ve already learned that about three-quarters of L.A. County residents have rejected George Gascón,” Hochman said on Tuesday. “These are people who are afraid.”

Over the past decade, many of the nation’s most populous cities and counties have signaled support for a progressive approach to criminal justice, electing prosecutors who pledged to lower incarceration rates by diverting resources away from petty theft and minor drug offenses. Some of these candidates are still winning. On Tuesday, José Garza, the DA in Travis County, Texas, won the Democratic primary over a challenger who’d received heavy financial support from Republican donors. Kim Ogg, who began her career as Harris County DA as a progressive but became an opponent of easing bail requirements, lost a challenge brought from her left by Sean Teare, a former prosecutor in her office.

But nearly four years after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, there’s clearly a shift back toward support for police and antipathy toward crime. In Washington, D.C., where two members of the City Council are facing recalls over the issue of crime, the council on Tuesday passed a sweeping public safety measure that among other things increases penalties for illegal gun possession and retail theft. “We have a responsibility to provide for the safety and well-being of our residents, visitors and business owners in our city,” said Brooke Pinto, who sponsored the legislation, “and today I think we lived up to that responsibility,”

Gascón formerly served as district attorney in San Francisco, where voters in 2022 recalled Chesa Boudin, who as DA had eliminated cash bail. San Francisco has been plagued by drug deaths and retail and vehicle crimes. On Tuesday, voters there approved two measures designed to crack down on crime. One increases police surveillance powers while limiting citizen oversight of the police, while another requires drug screenings for welfare recipients.

San Francisco voters haven’t embraced crime reduction at any cost. They rejected a measure to pay for minimum police staffing levels with a new tax. (The force is currently 500 officers short.) They also appear to have re-elected two judges who were targeted for being allegedly too lenient.

But even in some of the most liberal cities in the country, voters are demanding a sense of safety and security, regardless of whether it means rolling back some progressive policies.
Mark Robinson
Is Robinson too conservative to win in North Carolina?
(Photo Courtesy of Mark Robinson, Facebook)
Field Set in Year’s (Other) Most Important Race: Not many states have been as narrowly divided in recent years as North Carolina. If you add up all the federal elections since 2008, Republicans have come out ahead, 51 to 49 percent. If you add up the state races over that time, it’s Democrats who’ve been on top by 51 to 49 percent. It’s already clear that this year’s race to succeed term-limited Democrat Roy Cooper is going to be the most competitive governor’s contest in the country.

With Tuesday’s primary results, the long-expected matchup between Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and Democratic state Attorney General Josh Stein became official. Donald Trump carried North Carolina in 2016 and 2020 and starts out at least a slight favorite there in the fall. Still, Democrats are hopeful that Robinson is simply too controversial a figure to win a state as purple as North Carolina.

Robinson is a staunch social conservative who has a long history of making offensive statements about various groups. He has called transgender and gay people “filth” and likened gay people to “maggots.” He also once referred to the civil rights movement as “crap.” On Wednesday, HuffPost published a video of Robinson telling the Republican Women of Pitt County, “I absolutely want to go back to the America where women couldn’t vote.”

“Mark Robinson is an unelectable candidate in the general election in North Carolina and he puts a conservative future at risk for everyone,” said Bill Graham, one of his opponents in the GOP primary, after Robinson won on Tuesday.

North Carolina voters showed in 2020 that they’re willing to go only so far in support of social conservatives. Cooper was re-elected to the governorship that year over Dan Forest, then the lieutenant governor. But Cooper had the advantage of running as an incumbent. Stein now faces the challenge of winning over voters who support Trump yet still might be open to another Democrat in the governor’s office.

Because of the nationalization of politics and the strength of party loyalty, perhaps 95 percent of voters have already made up their mind, suggests Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College. The question is how many among the remaining 5 percent will find Robinson’s stances or rhetoric too much to accept after having previously rejected Forest. “Stein is trying to thread the needle with those Trump-Cooper voters that perhaps see both Donald Trump and, more importantly, Mark Robinson, as too extreme to support,” he says. “If they flip to the Democrats, they’re more likely to support Stein than Biden.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott greets supporters beside a red "Trump" baseball cap
Like Trump, Texas Gov. Abbott took out his enemies in Tuesday’s voting. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)
Texas Turns Redder: A total of nine Texas House Republicans lost their seats on Tuesday. Several more face runoffs in May, including Speaker Dade Phelan, who actually finished second in his primary. It was a huge repudiation of the so-called establishment wing of the GOP and a major win for GOP Gov. Greg Abbott.

As I noted in this space last month, Abbott was angry at state representatives for sinking his ambitious plan for school vouchers, which died during last year’s session. Abbott devoted more than $4 million to a campaign that targeted 10 members of his own party. He helped unseat six legislators, with four more facing runoffs. “Republican primary voters have once again sent an unmistakable message that parents deserve the freedom to choose the best education pathway for their child,” Abbott said.

Abbott was not the only Republican seeking revenge. Ken Paxton, the state attorney general, targeted nearly three dozen House members who voted to impeach him last year. His batting average wasn’t as high as Abbott’s and in some races the governor and the AG backed different horses. Still, more than a dozen of those targeted by Paxton either lost or face runoffs.

Voters also ousted three judges from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which is the state’s top criminal court. They were targeted by Paxton after ruling in 2021 that he lacked the power to pursue voter fraud cases unilaterally. “To those who would seek to obstruct justice or undermine our laws, know this: The people of Texas will not tolerate it,” Paxton said in a statement.

Paxton, who has spent nearly his entire tenure as attorney general under indictment, faces an April 15 trial date in a securities fraud case.

Previous Editions
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
From Our Partners