The next five months of Caruso-Bass: What the strategies might look like
An avalanche of celebratory confetti rained down on revelers at the Grove late Tuesday night, as the mall’s billionaire developer Rick Caruso maintained a small lead over Rep. Karen Bass in the Los Angeles mayoral race. But the path from early primary returns to a November victory is far from a straight shot for either candidate.
The next five months of campaigning will likely amplify the partisan schism between Caruso, a Republican turned centrist Democrat best known for his business bona fides, and Bass, who began her career as an outside-the-system activist and became a more pragmatic progressive over two decades in elected office.
Ahead of the primary, both candidates spent much of their time introducing themselves to voters — and the direct attacks on one another picked up as election day got closer. The road to the runoff election will now be a head-to-head battle, with both candidates fighting to define themselves in opposition to each other.
There will be more television ads, attacks on Caruso’s Republican ties, roasts of Bass’ elected tenure as being more of the same and efforts to speak to voters in different ways about homelessness and crime.
The localization of hypercharged national debates around abortion and gun control may also play a role in framing narratives for the upcoming Nov. 8 general election.
Rick Caruso led in the mayoral primary, showing that his promise of quick action on homelessness, crime and corruption was embraced by voters.
As of Wednesday evening, Caruso held a five-point advantage in the contest to lead the nation’s second-largest city besting Bass 42% to 37%. But those percentages could shift.
Countywide, more than 400,000 ballots still have to be tabulated and an unknown additional number of vote-by-mail ballots remain in transit. (Ballots postmarked by election day will be accepted through Tuesday.)
Still Caruso cast his as a “victory story” on Tuesday night, saying that frustrated L.A. voters had sent a clear message about wanting change.
Addressing supporters at the Grove, Caruso alternated between extremes of darkness and light, contrasting romantic tropes about Los Angeles as a city where dreams can come true with stark images of homelessness and crime.
“We have the power to change the direction of Los Angeles,” Caruso told supporters on Tuesday night. “And that’s the way we’re voting.”
After basking in the adulation of supporters like former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Rev. Jesse Jackson and receiving big hugs from friends and family, Bass told reporters Tuesday night that her campaign was ready for the coming battle. They’d take stock of where they underperformed and bolster efforts to turn out voters in those areas.
“We’ll have to do the analysis and to be clear, wherever we are lacking, we will be first to go there to meet with those voters to find out their issues,” she said.
Bass was energized by the possibility of “mobilizing the collective power of our people — a city propelled by coalition’s working toward progress driven by unity and focused on advancement.”
A path to victory for either candidate will involve courting the supporters of other candidates in the once-crowded field. Councilman Kevin de León and activist Gina Viola remained in the running through the primary and collectively garnered nearly 13% of the vote thus far.
De León said in a statement that he would ultimately support whichever candidate “has the strongest plan to build pathways into the middle class for the workers who make this city go.”
Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, a strong Bass supporter, made a case for why De León’s voters might naturally shift toward Bass. The two candidates’ ideals “were more alike than not,” he said, citing their similar plans on homelessness and crime. But the calculus may be more complicated than that.
Viola said Wednesday she’d be talking with her supporters and those who endorsed her about the possibility of backing Bass.
“I think she’s gonna need our base. She’s going to need the support of the movement,” Viola said, noting that some of the congresswoman’s positions still gave her pause — particularly Bass’ stated preference that there should be laws governing where homeless people can camp in the city.
With a margin that could possibly shrink as more votes come in, Caruso’s campaign had reason to be excited. Their view of the race in the final days had always greatly differed from recent Times polling that had found Bass leading by a similar margin just days earlier.
But more importantly, the results showed that Caruso had hit on a message and a media strategy that was resonating with the small percentage of Angelenos who voted. The $40 million poured into this campaign — much of it spent on TV ads and mailers — had the effect of introducing Caruso’s face and priorities to a broad swath of the electorate.
At the Baldwin Hills mall where Bass voted Tuesday, a few shoppers said they were unaware of the day’s election. In a T.J. Maxx store, most of the shoppers who spoke to The Times about their choices said they were voting for Caruso.
“What’s that guy’s name? The good one?” Luis Martínez, a South L.A. warehouse worker, asked his pregnant wife as she pushed a cart through the aisle. “I’m voting for him.”
Neither Martínez nor his wife, Barbara, could remember the name of the candidate who’d become a familiar fixture on their screens, but they both thought he might make their community better and fight violence. Shootings were commonplace in their South L.A. neighborhood, they said.
Still it was clear that Caruso’s ad barrage did the trick with certain voters like Martinez or the largely working-class Latino residents in Pacoima, where a Caruso canvasser spent the day before the election knocking on doors. Caruso has been performing well in polls among Latinos — outpacing in some cases both Bass and De Leon.
One resident, Marta Ochoa, told the canvasser about her concerns over the crime rate and worries about the safety of her 15-year-old daughter.
“I really want a change,“ she said. “I vote for other candidates before and nothing has changed.”
Paul Mitchell, a political data expert who has been closely following the race, said the uncounted votes could still mean that Tuesday’s results tighten — and Caruso’s lead shrinks.
While some political shifts were made in blue California, the election results were far from a sweeping move to the center.
The question for the fall, he said, is whether the larger November electorate will be more focused on hot-button national issues like abortion, or the frustrations about homelessness and public safety that have dominated the race thus far. Those kind of broader shifts in political mood are, to some extent, beyond the control of any one candidate.
Mitchell thought an election dominated by local frustration would be favorable to Caruso. But “if the November election is a referendum on [former President] Trump and the Roe vs. Wade decision and these kind of core progressive views, then maybe Caruso is swimming upstream,” Mitchell said.
Councilman Joe Buscaino, a onetime opponent turned ardent Caruso supporter, saw the landscape differently.
“Karen and her team, are going make this a partisan race and the voters are going to be over that,” the San Pedro-based former cop said. “I’m advising Rick to let people know that a pothole is not a D or an R issue. A 911 call isn’t a D or a R issue. Cleaning our streets isn’t a D or an R issue.”
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.