Can Rick Caruso regain steam in L.A. mayoral race as Karen Bass’ lead mounts?
After a fiery spring and a relatively quiet summer, Rep. Karen Bass and Rick Caruso will soon enter the final stretch of the Los Angeles mayor’s race: a months-long, all-out sprint to November.
The same players are still onstage, with roughly the same messaging they’ve had since before the primary. But the national context and political atmosphere in the city have both shifted since the spring, to Bass’ benefit.
For the first time in more than a century, the mayoral race will be held in an even year, synced up with national and state elections. Against a hyperpartisan backdrop of midterm elections and dwindling national reproductive rights, Caruso’s Republican past has become a difficult-to-obscure liability in this deep-blue city.
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With fewer than 75 days until the November election, polls now show the six-term congresswoman with a double-digit lead over the real estate developer in a head-to-head matchup.
A Times/UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies survey released Friday puts Bass 12 points ahead of Caruso, and a separate poll released by an outside group supporting Bass found her with a similar advantage. Caruso campaign officials said their internal polling looks markedly different, but declined to provide details.
It’s a plum position for Bass to be in as the race to lead America’s second-largest city accelerates into its final stretch, though experts say Caruso could still carve a comeback path to victory. But the climb would be steep and the political terrain has grown increasingly unfriendly to his cause.
The question now is what that path might look like, and whether the chemistry of the race will change before November.
The mayor’s race is technically nonpartisan, but pundits on both sides agree that a more partisan race framed around national issues is a boon for Bass.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, which came two weeks after the June primary, has kept abortion at the white-hot center of the national discourse. With divisions escalating across the country and an abortion rights proposition atop the California ballot, it’s hard to imagine the issue receding from view.
After handily beating Rick Caruso in the June primary, Rep. Karen Bass has expanded her lead against the businessman, a new poll finds.
Caruso has been outspoken about his support for abortion rights on the campaign trail, but focus on Roe has kept an uncomfortable spotlight on his history of donations to antiabortion conservatives and the fact that he was a Republican for much of his life.
In the months before the primary, the political atmosphere appeared more favorable to Caruso, according to Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, chair of USC’s Department of Political Science and International Relations. She cited concerns around homelessness and crime, and a sense that voters distrusted the ability of current officeholders to solve some of the city’s problems.
“Now the exact opposite is happening and these issues are really flowing away from Caruso in an important way,” Hancock Alfaro said, noting the intense focus on abortion rights and waning attention on crime in the city.
Had the effort to recall L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón qualified for the ballot, it almost certainly would have aided Caruso’s campaign, energizing voters likely to support him. But the recall fizzled this month, adding another external factor in Bass’ favor.
It’s a very different picture from the spring, when political tailwinds and near-unlimited funding fueled Caruso’s late-entrant candidacy into propulsive ascent.
In the wake of Eric Adams’ New York mayoral victory last year, political watchers speculated about a similar shift away from the progressive left in Los Angeles, amid mounting frustration and fear in the city.
For a brief moment in the weeks before the primary, Caruso appeared on the precipice of a potential political tidal wave, with whispers that a 50+1 outright primary victory might even be in reach for the first-time candidate.
But when the dust finally settled after the primary and all the mail-in ballots had been counted, Bass emerged as the decisive victor.
Any notion of a swing toward law-and-order centrism in Los Angeles was sharply rebuffed — not just by Bass’ lead, but also by the success of several fierce progressives in down-ballot races.
In a role reversal from the months before the primary, when Caruso was seemingly omnipresent, Bass has been the more visible presence through the sluggish summer, with a busier public schedule and a series of news-making endorsements.
The billionaire businessman is eclipsing the field with ads fueled by a $35-million outlay, spending likely to grow substantially in an anticipated November runoff.
That methodically waged endorsement campaign — which effectively boxed Caruso out of the game — includes a dizzying list of Democratic elected officials, from President Biden on down.
Despite some influential endorsements from business and law enforcement groups, just two Democratic elected officials have backed Caruso — and neither Councilman Joe Buscaino nor Councilman Gil Cedillo will be in office next year.
Individual endorsements rarely matter much on their own, but experts say that Bass’ virtual lock on party backing could be significant for voters.
“It helps to have enough Democratic endorsements that it creates a kind of permission structure for Democratic voters,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Cal State L.A. Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, citing Republican candidate Richard Riordan’s success over Democrat Mike Woo in the 1993 mayoral election.
Woo also dominated his more conservative opponent in Democratic Party support. But his hold was less absolute, with Riordan picking off a number of Democratic City Hall power players.
That 1993 general election was held in early June, less than two months after the April primary — an abridged spring schedule that had long been the norm for L.A. elections.
This is the first modern L.A. mayoral election to spread out over the better part of a year, meaning there is no precedent for how things typically unfold in the five long months between primary and general.
But Angelenos enjoying a few months of relative summer respite should batten the hatches, as campaigning will almost certainly go back into overdrive after Labor Day.
By this point in the primary cycle — a little less than 11 weeks before the election — Caruso was already spending more than $1 million a week on TV advertising. But he has remained off the airwaves since June. Both campaigns have been coy about their fall media plans, though it’s hard to imagine Caruso remaining a muted presence after his spring blitz.
The billionaire businessman’s ability to self-finance remains a potent X-factor in the race. Caruso poured more than $40 million of his personal fortune into his primary bid, upending the race and shattering local candidate spending records. He has put at least $3.5 million into his campaign during the summer — a figure roughly equivalent to Bass’ total fundraising during the primary.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the power of near-unlimited funding, or the amount of ground Caruso gained between February and June.
“I started this race down 30 points and beat out multiple career politicians to make the runoff and am confident the path to victory is clear,” Caruso said in a statement Friday.
But the battlefields of California politics are also littered with cautionary tales. John Shallman — a veteran political consultant who ran City Atty. Mike Feuer’s mayoral campaign before Feuer dropped out and endorsed Bass — suggested that Caruso might be learning a difficult lesson in the vein of former gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Al Checchi, who both lost badly after spending big.
Funds from the primary can’t carry over to the general, meaning Bass had to begin the money game from scratch on June 8. A full picture of her summer fundraising won’t emerge until the next set of campaign finance disclosures are released.
Outside spending will also shape the race. An independent expenditure committee supporting Bass will likely continue the drumbeat of pointed anti-Caruso messaging that her campaign shies away from. And L.A.’s most powerful police union, which endorsed Caruso and spent millions attacking Bass in the primary, is expected to resume fire in the fall.
There will be a series of head-to-head candidate debates in September and October, including a forum at the Skirball Cultural Center on Sept. 21 sponsored by The Times, Fox 11, Univision, KPCC and Loyola Marymount University. Both candidates have confirmed attendance for at least two other debates.
Caruso’s aggressive and early push into get-out-the-vote field efforts has spawned relentless speculation in political circles about hourly rates for door-knockers and what total spending in that arena might look like.
The campaign already has hundreds of canvassers knocking doors and plans to have 10 field offices around the city by mid-September, according to someone familiar with planning.
Caruso’s most visible areas of focus since the primary have been with Latino voters, Asian American voters and in the San Fernando Valley.
Caruso won the lion’s share of the Valley in the primary, but Friday’s Times/Berkeley IGS poll shows Bass making significant inroads in the region. The poll also showed her essentially tied with Caruso among Latino and Asian voters, and leading strongly with Black and white voters.
“We do feel like we have the momentum,” said Bass campaign spokesperson Sarah Leonard Sheahan. “We’ve been intentionally building a coalition from San Pedro to the Valley and amongst decision-makers at every level.”
Financial constraints will almost certainly prevent the Bass campaign from mounting a field operation on par with Caruso’s. But some of the labor and community groups that have endorsed her will likely provide field support.
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