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What Democrats can learn from Tuesday’s California primaries

Everything you need to know about California’s primaries, explained by an expert.

Mike Feuer, the Los Angeles city attorney, speaks at a podium that is covered by a sign reading “Karen Bass for Mayor”. Karen Bass stands next to him, in front of a crowd of supporters.
L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer speaks at campaign event for Rep. Karen Bass, a candidate for Los Angeles mayor ahead of June’s primary election.
Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The most populous state in the United States has its primary elections on Tuesday, June 7, and they may offer signs of where Democrats plan to steer their party — and whether Republicans will have a smooth path toward retaking the House of Representatives.

So far, turnout has been low — just over 10 percent of California voters who received a mail-in ballot this year have voted. That enthusiasm could have major implications on the results in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly two to one, and where most statewide races are decided in an open primary that advances the top two vote-getters. For Republicans, losses could mean being locked out of the general election in November.

The results could echo beyond California: an effort to oust San Francisco’s progressive district attorney might reinvigorate similar efforts elsewhere. A handful of safe Democratic seats will see moderate and progressive Democrats pitted against each other. And in competitive congressional races in the Central Valley, Los Angeles, and Orange County, victories for key GOP candidates could help deliver Republicans control of the House.

To learn more about all of this — and which races are key to watch — I spoke to Dan Walters, a longtime Golden State reporter and author who writes a column for CalMatters, on Friday. Our conversation, below, has been edited for clarity.

Christian Paz

Let’s start off by talking about what the big issues affecting California right now are. Is it still the coronavirus pandemic? Is it inflation? Is it homelessness?

Dan Walters

Homelessness is always there, and it always is an undercurrent of politics in California.

Inflation is not something that the state government, or local governments, can do much about. The most obvious example of inflation is rising gasoline prices, and what’s happening on that is the governor and the legislature are bickering over a plan to basically give money to Californians — the idea that it’ll cover some of their inflationary costs and if nothing else, showing that they feel their pain, so to speak, even though they can’t do anything about the underlying inflationary causes.

Crime is another issue: It’s something that is in the purview of politicians in California. Over the last 10 or so years, California has loosened up on criminal sentencing through a series of ballot measures and through a series of laws passed by the legislature. Penalties have been decreased. Crimes that were felonies have been reclassified as misdemeanors. And there’s been a concerted effort to reduce the prison population — and that’s happened — and also to divert more offenders into some sort of treatment or rehabilitation programs rather than punishment.

This has been going on at the state level, and it has been going on at the local level in the form of district attorneys who pictured themselves as reformers who want to embrace that idea of not putting as many people in jail, and that’s backfiring to a certain extent.

Christian Paz

That’s what the recall efforts in San Francisco and Los Angeles are about?

Dan Walters

Yes, Chesa Boudin, the district attorney of San Francisco, faces a recall this coming Tuesday. And it has a pretty good chance of passing. This is in San Francisco, probably the most progressive big city in America. But the crime issue has really hit hard in San Francisco, and a tremendous number of smash-and-grab robberies in stores and cars being broken into and open drug use, and so forth. And so, Mr. Boudin is feeling the pain of that.

There’s another recall pending against George Gascon, who used to be the district attorney in San Francisco, but he’s now the district attorney of Los Angeles. That recall looks like it’s going to make the ballot for later in the year. It’s basically the same argument there: Crime is rampant, and the district attorneys are not doing much about it, and, therefore, they ought to be thrown out.

And that also fuels the looming contest for attorney general in California because the incumbent attorney general — who was appointed, not elected — Rob Bonta, a former assemblyman, identifies with the criminal justice reform movement of those district attorneys in San Francisco and Los Angeles. So he’s now under the same kind of heat. Somebody will come out of the primary as his opponent that he will have to face in November, and nobody knows who it will be. But it’s basically a replay of these conflicts and arguments in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

If there is an overall theme to this year’s elections in California, it’s probably the concern over crime.

Christian Paz

Let’s go through some of these other races. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is running for reelection; he just trounced a recall attempt last year. Alex Padilla is running to finish his term as an appointed senator replacing Vice President Kamala Harris and a full six-year term as senator. Is there anything we should look at there?

Dan Walters

If there is something out there that’s unpredictable, or signaling the possibility of some sort of a sea change, it’s probably to be found in the congressional races in California.

Democrats four years ago cut the Republicans in half from 14 seats to seven seats, Republicans recouped a little bit two years ago. But since then, the districts have all been changed because of redistricting. And in that change, it sets up a number of competitive congressional races. And the situation is Republicans cramming to hold onto what they have, what they won back two years ago, like in Orange County. And there’s probably a 50-50 chance that they’re going to lose a seat or two in California.

That’s important only because Republicans are trying to take back control of the House, and so it’s possible that it would boil down to a couple of congressional races in California, which, of course, happens to be the home state of the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and the minority leader, Kevin McCarthy. So by ironic fate, what happens in these congressional races in California, may determine which Californian is the next speaker of Congress in Congress.

Christian Paz

Another toss up is what happens in the race to be state comptroller, right?

Dan Walters

There’s an outsized chance that the Republican Lanhee Chen could win — but it’s not a great chance, because of the overwhelming differential of voter registration in California. Republicans only have a quarter or less of registered voters. And Democrats are almost half. So it would take an unusual event for a Republican to win any statewide race, including controller, but I would say he’s the only one with an outsized chance to be the Republican that might win. It’s not a great chance, but it is a chance.

Christian Paz

The Los Angeles primaries include a race that has brought national attention to my hometown: the contest to be mayor. If no one wins an outright majority, the race goes to a runoff, which could be shocking. A recent poll showed Rep. Karen Bass, who was the presumed frontrunner, neck and neck with billionaire businessman Rick Caruso [a more recent poll since we talked showed the race tightening]. How is that race unfolding so far?

Dan Walters

It’s a toss-up, and there are other people on the ballot, which means that it’s not guaranteed that one of them is going to get 50 percent-plus. If there is an issue in that race, again, it’s crime. Crime and homelessness are the two driving issues of that race.

The other thing you have to remember, and that’s both in Los Angeles and in the state as a whole, is that the key to all of these things is voter turnout. And turnout for elections in Los Angeles is historically extremely low. they used to have those elections in Los Angeles all by themselves in off-years. They switched to doing their elections in even numbered years, which should drive up turnout a little bit, which might help the Democrats because they tend to do better when there’s a higher turnout.

However, overall turnout in California might be about as low as it’s ever been this year, based on the number of mail-in ballots already received versus those seen in previous years.

The big thing in November is probably going to be a bunch of very high octane ballot measures, that probably will set an all-time record for spending on ballot measure campaigns (voter referenda). Over a billion dollars, almost certainly.

Christian Paz

One more race that I’m following is the Los Angeles County primary for sheriff, because Sheriff Alex Villanueva has seemed to shift a bit to the right and has clashed with some of the Democratic establishment in Southern California.

Dan Walters

It’s an interesting situation because he had the support of all the Democratic leaders when he ran for office in the first place, and now they don’t like him. But there’s really not much of an organized campaign to dump him, so he’ll probably survive. There are also some hot local races for district attorney and sheriff in some other counties. There’s one right here in Sacramento County. The current sheriff is not running for reelection, he’s running for Congress. And so you have a pretty spirited battle for sheriff of Sacramento County, and there’s also a pretty spirited battle for a district attorney in Sacramento County because the incumbent district attorney is trying to unseat Rob Bonta for state attorney general.

Christian Paz

Are there any specific state legislature primaries that you’re looking at right now that are in anyway demonstrative of greater political shifts?

Dan Walters

At the legislative level, there are basically no Democrat versus Republican battles on the horizon. All the big battles are Democrat versus Democrat, progressive Democrats versus moderate Democrats for which faction will control the state legislature. So the big money groups are playing in those all over the place.

The business community is pumping money into the moderate Democrats, and the labor unions and the progressive groups are pumping money and support into the progressive Democrats. There’s about 12 of them that are interesting to see—the primary just sets the stage for November, and in races where the top two who come out are both Democrats, there is a chance of more moderate versus progressive face offs.

Christian Paz

So we might learn a little bit about how California Democrats are thinking of the direction they want to take their party. In summary, what else are you looking at Tuesday night?

Dan Walters

The recall of the district attorney of San Francisco and how the vote runs for mayor of Los Angeles are two things I’m going to watch. Everything else is stage-setting for November.