Tuesday’s primaries test Democrats on crime, GOP on electability, Trump

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In San Francisco, voters will decide Tuesday whether to recall a liberal prosecutor whose critics are accused of being too lenient. In deep-blue Los Angeles, a billionaire ex-Republican in the mayoral race is betting that voters want tough talk on crime.

And in California’s farm country, the GOP’s most electable candidate is under fire for his vote to impeach President Donald Trump for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

Primaries spread across California and six other states Tuesday will further shape Democrats and Republicans’ identities in the midterms, as established GOP candidates — some of whom have bucked Trump — try to fend off challengers from the right and as liberal contenders reckon with a backlash over their party’s policies and messaging on public safety and growing concerns about an increase in violent crime.

From the Deep South to the Mountain West, voters will be picking candidates in municipal, congressional and statewide contests with some significant implications in the November midterms. Their choices will offer clues about the direction of both parties in the run-up to an election in which Republicans are expected to make gains across the country.

Many of Tuesday’s primaries — in California, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota — will not be competitive. But some have been heated and have felt signals about the battle lines this fall.

GOP strategists have hammered Democrats over rising costs and violent crime, arguing to voters that their opponents are culpable for trends that have worsened on their watch as the party in power in many major cities, as well as in Congress and at the White House. Tuesday’s vote poses a new test for Democrats on crime, an issue they have struggled to navigate. Even in left-leaning areas, voters are signaling an appetite for a new direction.

“Democrats, for some reason tend to take a bit longer than their Republican counterparts to wake up to political realities,” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist. If San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin is decisively recalled, he said, and if businessman Rick Caruso does well in the Los Angeles mayoral race, “that’s going to shake a lot of people awake.”

Boudin rose to national prominence in 2019 as a “progressive prosecutor” promising to fight mass incarceration. Now he’s a focus of anger over rising crime during the pandemic, the Democrats have toughened their tone on crime nationwide and Republicans continue to draw attention to some far-left calls to “defund the police.” President Biden and other party leaders have strenuously tried to distance themselves from that idea, urging more police funding alongside other proposals for improving public safety.

Supporters of Boudin and Caruso’s chief opponent, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), says these more liberal candidates are offering nuanced solutions on public safety rather than sound bites. Bass, a well-known lawmaker with a history in community organizing, has emphasized social interventions to prevent crime and says different neighborhoods want different things from police. “We’ve tried arresting our way out of the problem before — it doesn’t work,” her campaign website declares.

“Karen Bass understands you need to go beyond talking tough and be smart and comprehensive about how you deal with these complicated issues,” former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who endorsed Bass, said in an interview Monday. “Poverty. The mental health crisis. The gun violence that we see in our cities. You don’t solve these problems with a magic wand.”

But Bass might be in for a long and difficult race against Caruso, a real estate developer and former president of the city Police Commission. If no candidate gets a majority of the vote, as some polls have suggested could happen in the crowded race, the top two would advance to a November showdown.

Caruso has spent tens of millions of his own money pitching himself as the change candidate who will take on crime and homelessness. He became a Democrat this year, switching from “no party preference,” but has sought to signal that he would not he a prototypical member of his new party.

Some analysts say Caruso’s best shot to win the mayoral race could be Tuesday’s primary. The higher turnout expected in a runoff would probably help Bass, they said.

Bass’s campaign sought to suggest that Caruso is underperforming despite the massive spending. “He should be 20 points above us for the differential,” said Anna Bahr, a spokeswoman for Bass’s campaign, attributing Caruso’s success in part to his deep pockets and name recognition of him as a developer of shopping malls.

Peter Ragone, an adviser to Caruso’s campaign, responded in an interview Monday that past California campaigns have shown that “money without a message is not very effective.” The former aid to California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) argued that Caruso has “emphasized public safety and the way people feel about their public safety more than other candidates.”

Boudin, meanwhile, appears to be at serious risk of recall. An attempt to remove Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon (D) is also underway.

If recalls are successful in such Democratic strongholds, said Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist Mike Trujillo, “then you have to make strong and hard assessments that in swing districts and swing states, things are in a more dire place.”

Republicans were navigating their own challenges.

In Orange County, a super PAC dedicated to maintaining the Republican majority in the House of Representatives has sought to boost incumbent Rep. Young Kim (R) as she faces a challenge to her right from retired fighter pilot Greg Raths. In California, the top two vote-getters move on from the primary regardless of their party affiliation and Democrats said they see national Republicans’ spending money attacking Rath as a sign of nervousness that Kim may not advance.

“Whichever Republicans manage to win their primaries will be forced to explain their extreme positions and out-of-touch records to battleground district swing voters,” said Helen Kalla, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Matt Gorman, a former communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the outside help shows that Kim is well thought of among House Republicans. “Keeping her in Congress is a huge, huge priority,” he said, speaking optimistically of her chances. Republicans are expected to regain control of the House and are hoping to regain the Senate majority as well.

A similar test of Republicans’ preferences is unfolding in the state with Rep. David G. Valadao, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last year. Trump has not endorsed a challenger to Valadao, a contrast to the other races where he has recruited candidates and sought to punish officials who helped certify the 2020 presidential election. But Valadao’s Republican opponent Chris Mathys has still campaigned on the incumbent’s split with Trump.

“I will do everything in my power to defeat Congressman David Valadao who voted to impeach President Donald Trump!” reads a prominent quote on Mathys’s campaign website.

Elsewhere on the ballot in California, Newsom is expected to coast to victory after beating back a recall effort last year.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) has no opposition in her primary and has Trump’s support for her. On the other side, Democrat Deidre DeJear, a small-business owner and voting rights activist, also has no primary competition. DeJear would be the first Black governor of Iowa if she wins in November. Reynolds would begin as a heavy favorite, according to nonpartisan analysts.

In South Dakota, polling of the Republican primary gives a significant edge to incumbent Gov. Kristi L. Noem, a potential 2024 presidential contender.

Another top US House Republican recruit, Gorman said, is Tom Kean in New Jersey, who narrowly lost to Rep. Tom Malinowski (D) in 2020 and now faces primary competitors further to the right as he seeks to rematch. “I think he can get by this primary, and if he does he has a pretty good shot of winning” in November, Gorman said.

Some incumbents are facing scrutiny after ethics investigations. Ryan Zinke, who served as secretary of the interior during the Trump administration, is seeking the Republican nomination for Montana’s new House seat. The Justice Department declined to bring charges this year after a government watchdog found that Zinke broke federal rules.

In Mississippi’s 4th District, Republican Rep. Steven M. Palazzo has a slew of challengers a year after the Office of Congressional Ethics found “substantial reason to believe” that he misspent campaign money.

Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.

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