As Los Angeles careens toward election day, two different but related things have become inescapable: the stream of TV commercials that seek to position mall developer Rick Caruso as a messianic figure capable of rescuing the city from the scourges of homelessness and crime; and a second avalanche of ads, these relentlessly attacking and trying to bury U.S. Rep. Karen Bass.
The latter strain is actually two-pronged. Some spots were launched by the Caruso campaign, and others were propelled by the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union representing thousands of rank-and-file officers. But no matter who is paying, they have something in common: They are pernicious in content and spirit, and while the slags may contain elements of truth, you feel like you need a bath after watching them.
As unseemly as they are, there’s a reason they are blasting across television screens near you 212,000 times a day: Negative ads, when deployed effectively, can pay off at the ballot box.
“We use them because they work. We don’t use them because we like them,” says John Thomas, a veteran GOP strategist who is not affiliated with any current mayoral candidate.
“She is competing for undecided voters that probably don’t have a strong opinion of her in either direction… So these attacks will be effective at keeping many undecided voters from breaking her way.
Thomas has been on both the giving and receiving end of attack ads, and describes what is likely the strategy of the Caruso team and those who support him: Pumping out grainy videos and stating that Bass has missed votes on the floor or the House of Representatives, or seeking to tie her to City Hall and USC scandals, won’t make those who plan to vote for her abandon ship. Rather, says Thomas, the aim is to woo undecided, low-information voters. When the attacks are paired with the fountain of glowing Caruso spots—Rick in a sweater! Rick endorsed by Sweet Alice and Snoog Dogg!—the effect can be cumulative.
“She is competing for undecided voters that probably don’t have a strong opinion of her in either direction,” says Thomas. “So these attacks will be effective at keeping many undecided voters from breaking her way.”
The money unleashed in the campaign is already legendary. On Friday, Caruso surpassed a head-wrecking $40 million in expenditures. While it is unclear how much of that has gone to attack ads, as I recently wrote, he had spent more than $10 million on commercials on just a quartet of local TV stations.
Then there is the LAPPL, which on May 6 made a $1.9 million TV attack ad buy, according to disclosures filed with the City Ethics Commission. Since May 24 the union, which has to adore Caruso’s aim to grow the force by 1,500 officers, has spent another $1.1 million on TV spots. They’re hitting Bass with mailers, too.
The attacks have not gone unanswered, though whether there is enough cowbell for the response to resonate is debatable. Last month a group of South Los Angeles religious leaders showed up outside the union’s headquarters to protest the commercials, asserting in a press release that, “The Police Protective League’s series of attacks consists of lies and defamatory statements—inflaming already-sensitive relations between the community and Los Angeles Police Department.”
Bass’ camp also punched back, issuing a cease and desist letter seeking to get local TV stations to stop running LAPPL ads. Although the commercials kept airing, the rhetoric was fiery, with Bass spokesperson Anna Bahr stating, “While Caruso helped the wealthy and well-connected at USC, depriving working class students of an education, Karen Bass was at USC to study our broken child welfare system. This is what happens when a real estate billionaire tries to buy an election.”
Precisely how all this plays out in an election that could have lower-than-expected turnout is difficult to tell. The most recently cited polls had Caruso and Bass near each other in the mid-30s, and if no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote on June 7, the top two finishers would advance to a November runoff (Councilmember Kevin de León could also figure in the mix). Thomas predicted that even if Caruso’s advisors don’t expect him to secure a majority, the smart strategy once you start running attack ads is to keep going, both for results in the upcoming election, and to send a message and do advance positioning for a potential second round.
For all the slings she suffers on TV screens, Bass maintains some important advantages. She has copious endorsements, is widely respected, and is a stalwart Democrat in an overwhelmingly blue city. Although she can’t compete with Caruso financially, on Friday she still had $1.4 million in cash on hand, according to financial disclosure statements, which is enough for a late-stage media blitz. Additionally, an independent expenditure group spearheaded by Jeffrey Katzenberg has dropped nearly $2.2 million backing her and taking shots at Caruso, including by trying to align him with Donald Trump and the Republican party.
The Bass campaign also went to the stick late in the week, releasing its own attack ad that, in a meta way, slags Caruso for his political fisticuffs. It states that Caruso is “taking a page straight from the Trump playbook—running false, ugly ads against Karen Bass, blowing that right-wing dog whistle.”
It’s barbed, but according to the Bass campaign, the ad is only going on YouTube. While something is always better than nothing, it’s questionable how much reach that can provide, particularly when Caruso continues to inundate the airwaves.
That points to Bass’ ultimate challenge, says Thomas: She lacks the cash to go big and fight back.
“If Bass survives this round,” says Thomas, “if she can reinvent her campaign and be aggressive, she’s still got a fundamental problem, which is, you can’t go to war with a BB gun against someone who has a bazooka. Can’t do it.”
Election Day is Tuesday.
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