In the final days of the election season, it’s becoming clear that a series of high-profile California races could prove hugely significant nationally. Several Central Valley and Southern California congressional seats look increasingly like they could be pickups for the GOP. Nine of the state’s more than 50 congressional districts are rated as competitive; most of those nine are currently held by Democrats. Last week, NBC reported that Democrats were circling their wagons, putting all their resources into trying to defend their vulnerable seats in California and withdrawing ad money from GOP districts that, not too long ago, they had targeted as potential wins. The Cook Political Report now lists three Democratic seats, including the one held by Katie Porter, as toss-ups, and two others, including Josh Harder’s district, as only slightly favorable to Democrats.
It’s not that the GOP has suddenly become far more popular. In fact, Public Policy Institute of California polling finds Democrats vastly outperforming Republicans up and down the state, with solid majorities of residents favoring Democratic policy positions on abortion, climate change, and other key issues. While a large majority of respondents say the country as a whole is doing badly economically and headed in the wrong direction, far fewer respondents are as dissatisfied with California itself. Most respondents are fairly content with Governor Newsom’s policy approaches. With wages soaring in the state, and with a $15 minimum wage now locked into law and at least partially indexed to inflation, fewer Californians than Americans as a whole report that they and their families are worse off today than a year ago.
But in an election season dominated by a sour taste of economic malaise, even though California’s voters aren’t quite as negative about their state as the broader national electorate, Democrats are still struggling to mobilize their base. That problem is magnified by the lack of a genuinely competitive governor’s race; absent an apparent risk of a Republican eking out a victory at the top of the ticket, it’s possible that many voters will simply sit this one out. And without high voter turnout in key congressional races, there’s a real possibility that Republicans could peel off a handful of Democratic districts in deep-blue California. The same risk holds in Oregon, Nevada, Washington, and Arizona, all of which have seen Democrats on the defensive in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the mayoral race between Karen Bass and businessman Rick Caruso has taken a turn to the obscene. The Caruso campaign has launched a $53 million advertising blitz in the final days of the campaign and is now outspending the Bass team by a ratio of 13 to one. That’s far more money than most Senate candidates spend in most parts of the country. All told, since Caruso made it to the general election runoff between the top two mayoral candidates, the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission reports that he has spent over $80 million on advertising, while Bass has spent only $11 million. One can’t turn on the TV or radio or open a computer in LA at the moment without being blasted by a Caruso ad.
The Caruso campaign’s hope is that saturation advertising will be enough to cut into a sizable polling lead that Bass built up over the summer. It’s a lead that has held largely steady for most of the last few months, but that has started to show more than a few signs of vulnerability, especially among undecided and low-propensity voters. One much publicized recent poll, admittedly of a small sample size, suggested that the two candidates are now in a statistical dead heat.
As a part of the strategy to chip away at Bass’s support and to woo the huge pool of undecided voters, the real estate developer’s ads have been targeting Latino voters, who have shown considerable support for Caruso both in the primary and in subsequent polling. If his strategy works in America’s second-largest city, it would be a devastating moment for the rainbow coalition that has been of such critical importance to Democratic power-winning coalitions in big cities around the country over the past decade.
Politics in LA is always a messy business, and it has been made more so by the racism scandal that recently engulfed members of the city council. Caruso’s team argues that it’s time to clean house, and to bring a political outsider into the mayor’s office. It’s a disingenuous argument; for one thing, the billionaire developer is at least as plugged into the city’s upper echelon decision-making processes as any full-time politician. But with voter frustration growing—over crime, homelessness, the economy, and now political dysfunction and racism on the city council—it could resonate.
Bass, a long-time community activist and six-term congresswoman, understands Los Angeles politics inside out. She’s a tremendously strong, well-qualified, mayoral candidate. Caruso, by contrast, is pitching himself as a political newcomer. By most metrics, Bass remains the favorite going into the final few days of the campaign. But if Tuesday’s election turns into one of those episodic “throw the bums out” moments, it’s not entirely beyond the bounds of the possible that, come November 9, Los Angelenos could find themselves waking up to the news that they have a chosen a business tycoon to be the city’s next mayor.