Politics / March 7, 2024

California’s Primaries Bring Changes to Its Political Landscape

The presidential contest was a foregone conclusion. But local races will shake up the makeup of both Congress and politics within the state.

Sasha Abramsky
Voters Cast Ballots In The California Primary Election

A voter casting a ballot inside the San Francisco Columbarium polling station on Tuesday, March 5, 2024.

(David Paul Morris / Bloomberg)

In an election characterized by extremely low voter turnout, Californians went to the polls Tuesday. There really was no suspense surrounding the top-of-the-ballot races for GOP and Democratic presidential nominees—it’s been pretty much a foregone conclusion for months now that Trump and Biden would win their respective primaries by a landslide.

Far more interesting, however, were the down-ballot races: Which top-two candidates would prevail in the so-called “Jungle Primary”? How would progressive Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon, who has faced withering fire from conservatives in recent years because of his willingness to embrace long-overdue criminal justice system reforms, fare in his reelection bid? How would Proposition One, which would free up billions of dollars in bond revenues for an expanded mental health treatment infrastructure, perform? And, at the local level, how would mayoral candidates who embrace rent control and a decriminalized approach to homelessness do in an era in which the public is souring on permissive approaches to public encampments and on-the-streets drug usage? (Witness the Oregon legislature’s rolling back last week Measure 110, which decriminalized hard drug possession and largely eradicated criminal sanctions for public drug usage, in the face of widespread public fury at cascading chaos on Portland’s streets.)

While California’s notoriously slow vote-counting process means that definitive results won’t be known for weeks, some things are already clear.

In the US Senate race, Adam Schiff’s month-long tactic of boosting Republican Steve Garvey, via an expensive ad campaign highlighting the retired baseballer’s conservative credentials, paid off. By night’s end, Schiff and Garvey were far ahead of Schiff’s Democratic rivals, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee—Garvey was, in fact, by Wednesday afternoon, within a hair’s breadth of taking the lead in the four-way race. The results ensure that Schiff will be able to run against a Republican in the November general election rather than against a fellow Democrat, and he ought to be able to consolidate the Democratic Party’s huge electoral advantage in California to ensure his election to the Senate.

As dirty tricks go, Schiff’s strategy was particularly unsavory, but it was also undoubtedly effective. While Barbara Lee’s campaign never really picked up traction, early on in the contest Porter’s candidacy had seemed to be building steam. Schiff’s cynical decision to elevate Garvey’s profile knee-capped her campaign, thus taking out of circulation a leading figure in the next generation of progressives in the House and one of the most effective congressional voices against corporate corruption—not to mention a candidate whom Schiff might well have struggled against in a general election campaign once she achieved greater name recognition with voters up and down the state. Congress will, undoubtedly, be the worse for Porter’s absence come 2025.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Gascon was facing 11 challengers, several of them prosecutors from within his own office. If the early returns are indicative of the final result, he fended all 11 off, finishing first in the crowded field.

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Now that certainly doesn’t mean Gascon, who has beaten back two recall efforts in recent years, is a shoo-in for reelection in November. After all, the DA’s office has been a political lightning rod for years, and in a one-on-one general election race, with Los Angeles increasingly on edge over perceptions of increased crime and violence—perceptions that in many instances aren’t actually grounded in reality—it’s not clear that his coalition will get him to 50 percent support. That said, it’s no small achievement for a progressive district attorney facing such strong headwinds to even make it into the general election run-off in LA, and it gives Gason an opportunity over the coming months to fine tune his messaging as he woos the city’s voters.

Meanwhile, up north in the state capitol of Sacramento, four candidates are duking it out to become the next mayor. All four are, broadly speaking, on the liberal side of the political spectrum, though their policy solutions for the housing crisis—which looms over every debate and every policy discussion in Sacramento these days—vary significantly. Until recently, the most progressive of the four, epidemiologist Flo Cofer—who has pushed to limit law enforcement’s involvement in tackling homelessness and advocates setting up large safe ground camp sites for the city’s thousands of unhoused residents—was trailing a distant fourth in polling. Two weeks ago, though, The Sacramento Bee endorsed her, and since then Cofer’s been gaining traction. As of Wednesday afternoon, with roughly half the votes tallied, she was still in fourth place, but only about 800 votes separated her from Richard Pan and Steve Hansen, and fewer still separated her from third-placed Kevin McCarty.

My guess is that Cofer won’t make it to the runoff—the city’s electorate is in a foul mood about public encampments and public drug usage and petty crime, and I doubt that Cofer’s policy prescriptions will fit with this angst—but she’s certainly polling better than seemed likely even two or three weeks ago.

As for Proposition One—pushed by Governor Newsom as a way to free up billions of dollars in bond revenues, recalibrate existing spending mandates on mental health, revamp how the state delivers mental health services, and push counties to build more supportive housing—as of Wednesday evening, the outcome was far too close to call. The yes vote was up, but by only 0.4 percent, and the final outcome likely won’t be known for weeks.

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This measure has split the advocacy world. The idea of building more mental health and drug treatment facilities, as well as additional supportive housing units, enjoys widespread support; but some mental health advocates have criticized it for being too coercive, and many county officials are leery of the increased power over funds that the proposition would give state agencies at the expense of county autonomy.

To my mind, passage of Proposition One is crucial if the state is ever to get a handle on its dismal, and spiraling, on-the-streets mental health crisis. For years, counties have tried to dodge the issue, passing the buck either down the line to underfunded cities, or up to the state. If this measure passes, those counties will finally be forced to grapple with the magnitude of the unfolding crisis.

For Newsom, the stakes are high. He’s doing everything he can to position himself as the Democratic Party’s presidential heir-apparent should Biden, in the face of daunting poll numbers, step aside later in the election season—or, alternatively, come the 2028 electoral cycle. But unless California gets a handle on the twin crises of homelessness and mental illness, the governor’s opponents will have a field day pointing out the policy failings of an administration that has talked the talk on solving the homelessness epidemic but has, so far, failed to make much of a dent in the overall numbers of Californians, many of them seriously mentally ill, living rough and on the streets.

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Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s Brain, The American Way of PovertyThe House of 20,000 Books, Jumping at Shadows, and, most recently, Little Wonder: The Fabulous Story of Lottie Dod, the World’s First Female Sports Superstar. Subscribe to The Abramsky Report, a weekly, subscription-based political column, here.

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