As they poured millions of dollars into district attorney campaigns, New York billionaire George Soros and other liberal donors seemed poised for victory in California.
They enjoyed the political momentum, having helped elect more than a dozen prosecutors from Florida to Texas.
They had experience with the state’s voters, who overwhelmingly approved ballot measures in recent years to reduce the number of people behind bars.
And the prosecutor races were in counties that solidly backed Hillary Clinton for president less than two years ago.
But voters in three closely watched district attorney elections in California appeared to deliver a sharp defeat this week to the national network of wealthy donors and activist groups that is attempting to reshape the criminal justice system by electing liberal prosecutors.
Incumbent district attorneys in Sacramento, San Diego and Alameda counties were well ahead of Soros-backed challengers in unofficial results posted Wednesday.
In the only race where Soros backed an incumbent, the results were too close to determine whether the Contra Costa County district attorney managed to avoid a runoff in the November general election.
The results suggest the campaigns failed to energize like-minded voters to turn out against entrenched incumbents backed by police unions in a midterm primary election, in which conservatives historically are more likely to vote. And they appeared to underestimate the deeply rooted support that law enforcement enjoys in a state as politically blue as California.
The network’s past victories in Chicago and other parts of the country often relied on tapping voter anger over police shootings of African Americans or other hot-button issues. In Sacramento, the strategy didn’t work for a Soros-backed candidate who attempted to ride a wave of public outrage over the recent killing of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man shot by officers searching for a burglary suspect.
“People were angry enough, but it did not last to the polls,” said the Rev. Shane Harris, founder of the National Action Network’s San Diego chapter, who said he was speaking on his own behalf and not for the organization.
Harris faulted a reliance on television ads bought by Soros’ political action committee in San Diego, noting that the ads were pulled in the final week before the election.
“Soros, if you’re going to put money into something, put it into people and activists and groups and leaders who can really mobilize and get people to the polls,” Harris said. “You can pay for all the ads in the world, but if people don’t go to the polls, it really doesn’t matter.”
The California Experiment
This is one in an occasional series examining the impact of recent justice measures aimed at reducing incarceration. It is a collaboration between The Times and the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news outlet.
The campaign spent a significant effort to engage people who don’t normally vote, giving grants to the American Civil Liberties Union to craft and hone messaging. But in Sacramento, roughly 113,000 voters cast ballots for a district attorney candidate, compared with more than 183,000 four years ago, according to preliminary voting figures, though approximately 220,000 ballots remain uncounted.
Whitney Tymas, the strategist who directed Soros’ efforts in the campaigns, said she believed the final count in San Diego and other counties will show a higher level of engagement in the district attorney race there than four years ago.
“California reminds us that this is hard work,” Tymas said in a statement to The Times. “Across jurisdictions, prosecutor candidates are no longer competing to be toughest on crime, but smartest on crime.… The work continues.”
The elections, typically local affairs, garnered national attention this year after a consortium of liberal donors, headlined by Soros, pumped money into the races. Many of the players joined forces in California four years ago to pass Proposition 47, which turned drug use and most theft convictions from felonies to misdemeanors.
Targeting district attorney elections highlighted the enormous influence elected prosecutors wield within local criminal justice systems, deciding what charges to prioritize for prosecution and when to seek rehabilitation or lengthy incarceration. By supporting the election of like-minded district attorneys, the consortium hoped to secure many of the sentencing and bail policies they have struggled to realize through laws or ballot initiatives.
Soros-backed candidates pledged to reduce incarceration, crack down on police misconduct and revamp a bail system they contend unfairly imprisons poor people before trial.
The proposals alarmed some law enforcement officials who expressed relief Wednesday but said it was unclear what the results mean going forward.
“You expect incumbents to win absent some scandal,” said Michele Hanisee, head of the union that represents L.A. County prosecutors. “It’s hard to say if this is a rejection of Soros candidates or if this is just par for the course, but I think a larger policy issue needs to be asked…. Do we want big outside donors funding elections?”
Since 2014, Soros has spent more than $17 million in 18 races outside California, winning in all but a handful. Private foundations and donors provided another $11 million in largely unreported grants to nonprofit advocacy groups.
In California, Soros spent nearly $3 million. His heavy bet on California races drew money from other wealthy donors. The spouses of executives at Netflix, Instagram and Facebook rallied around the same candidates, joined by Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs.
On the other side, police unions, businesses and prosecutors spent to defend incumbents. Campaign finance reports show the state’s prison guard union also rallied to their defense. A former owner of the San Diego Padres, Jennifer Moores, put up $300,000 to back the county’s district attorney.
Tuesday’s results marked the consortium’s most significant loss in the national campaign for prosecutor races. In Sacramento County, Anne Marie Schubert, a prominent conservative voice in statewide politics, had won 63% of counted ballots as of Wednesday evening, compared with 36% for Noah Phillips, a career prosecutor in the same office. Phillips has not conceded, citing the large number of uncounted ballots.
And in Contra Costa County, the Soros-backed incumbent, Dist. Atty. Diana Becton, had 49.6%. A candidate must win more than 50% to avoid a runoff. It’s unclear how many ballots remain to be counted.
Experts on political and district attorney campaigns noted the difficulty in taking on incumbents who have the support of powerful police groups.
“So much of the California criminal justice system is dominated by law enforcement, and it’s hard to get their support, and yet they have a very strong voice,” said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson. “Money alone won’t do.”
Anne Irwin, a former San Francisco public defender who started a nonprofit advocacy organization that helped a network of donors identify candidates to support, said the election results weren’t a reason to despair.
She pointed to San Bernardino County, where defense lawyer Jason Anderson ousted Mike Ramos, a longtime district attorney, as a sign of hope. Anderson, a moderate Republican, did not receive Soros’ backing, but Irwin’s organization endorsed him, citing his support for bail reform and sentencing alternatives to incarceration.
Irwin said she plans to visit San Bernardino as part of an election postmortem, and she remained adamant that California voters will support liberal district attorneys.
“The 2018 campaigns were just the beginning,” she said.
The Marshall Project receives funding from the George Soros-funded Open Society Foundations and other organizations that support efforts to reform the state’s criminal justice system. Under terms of its funding, the Marshall Project has sole editorial control of its news reporting.