The Next 61 Days of L.A.’s Mayoral Race Will be a Slugfest

Cityside Column: It’s go time for Karen Bass and Rick Caruso. For the next two months, L.A. politics is going to get white hot
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On March 8, 2020, the filing period opened to declare candidacy for the Los Angeles mayor’s race. Now, after 30 months of a global pandemic, a contested primary defined by record-breaking spending, and a summer to reset, now, it’s officially go time.

November 8 is Election Day, which includes voting in the mayoral runoff. U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, who finished first in the June primary with 43 percent of the vote, and businessman Rick Caruso, who garnered 36 percent, have precisely two months to convince voters that they are the one best equipped to lead Los Angeles for at least the next four years.

This means that the next 61 days of L.A. politics will be a slugfest. Although public polls give Bass a healthy lead, voters who were queried gave their answers during a period when Caruso kept an extremely low profile. That will change, and as the candidates shift into overdrive, voters will begin to pay attention; here’s what to watch out for as the race heats up. 

Caruso Will Load Up

The $41.5 million that Caruso shelled out during the primary campaign was unprecedented. Though many observers expected him to at least equal the outlay, that now seems unlikely—albeit not impossible. Through Sept. 1, Caruso had given his campaign about $3.6 million for the runoff, and he has yet to air a TV ad. Commercials were his biggest expenditure in round one and he was on the air—so much—for nearly four months. At most now, he’d be buying two months’ worth of ads.

Still, no one expects Caruso to take the pauper route. A $20 million or $30 million spend would be far less than the cash he’s shelled out so far but it would still dwarf whatever Bass is able to cobble together for an ad budget. The guy wants to be mayor and he has the cash. He’s not going to be pinching pennies.

Bass Will Appear at a Fundraiser Near You

Candidates who finish first in a primary tend to attract money during the runoff season—that makes sense, as donors and those who do business in the city want to curry favor with future elected officials. Bass has been holding a steady stream of fundraisers this summer; a glance at City Ethics Commission disclosures shows that the money is rolling in for the U.S. rep: $46,000 declared on Aug. 22; $48,000 on Aug. 29; nearly $50,000 on Sept. 1; this is what they call “up and to the right.” 

Again, Bass won’t approach Caruso sums but she will raise enough to spread her message. While fundraising is grueling, she has no choice but to attend events in living rooms across the city, where she will pose for photos and recite a speech designed to get attendees to write checks for the maximum individual amount allowed of $1,500. Yes, all candidates must endure this, but Caruso’s fortune means Bass has to participate more than most, and especially him. 

Caruso Will Launch a Grand Ground Game

Some argue that after blanketing the airwaves in the spring, finishing second was a failure for Caruso. The counter to this is that he made the runoff, which is all that was necessary and in a November election everything is different. This, of course, starts with strategy.

The incessant ads will return but Angelenos can expect a new prong from Team Caruso in a fresh and comprehensive ground game. Between now and Election Day, an army of paid door knockers will likely fan out across the city, armed with a script and a focus on establishing what they call personal connections with those who they view as high-propensity voters. This will almost certainly be augmented by extensive phone banking and targeted texting. The mall master’s fate may depend on an old-school door-to-door strategy.

Bass Will Try Not to Screw Up

In 2013, Eric Garcetti bested Wendy Greuel in the primary. Voters showed a clear preference for the current mayor and in the runoff, part of his MO was simply to avoid any dumb mistakes or unforced errors that Greuel could handily exploit. He played it conservatively and won handily that November.

Bass is in this same scenario nine years later. As she seeks to maintain her established momentum, the candidate must avoid saying or doing something that alters the course of the race. Debate moderators and others will press her; there could be disruptions on the campaign trail; something unforeseeable, like the squeal that torpedoed Howard Dean’s presidential bid, could befall Bass. Through it all, Bass’ best strategy will be to stay on script. Her answers could be boring, but being a snooze can sometimes be a pathway to victory.

Caruso Will Unleash Holy Hell

Bass winning a crowded primary by 7 percent indicates that a sizable number of voters believe in and like her style. Caruso needs to undermine that support, and merciless attacks will probably be a primary focus of his fall ads. Over the summer, he zinged Bass for supporting City Attorney candidate Faisal Gill, whose platform includes a moratorium on prosecuting certain crimes for 100 days if elected. Although Bass pulled her endorsement, Caruso will hammer this point as a means to question her commitment to public safety. His opposition research teams will dig deep and any vote in Congress that she made, or missed, could be highlighted in a grainy video set to a doomsday tune. And expect copious ads related to L.A. Times reports about Bass receiving a scholarship from USC, even if federal authorities clearly said she is not the target or a subject of any investigation.

Bass Will Cut Caruso With 1,000 Snips

Last week, the Bass campaign orchestrated a media event where Norman Eisen and Richard Painter, ethics advisors to presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, respectively, questioned Caruso’s promise to put his real estate holdings in a blind trust if elected. They suggested he sell off his property empire; while that’s never going to happen, it reveals the Bass squad’s thinking in its attempts to make voters question everything about her competitor in the coming months. There will be a concerted effort to point out and remind Angelenos of certain moves or practices, including his recent status as a registered Republican. This is all about planting doubt about Caruso.

There Will Be a Fight for the Valley

The San Fernando Valley gets short shrift in Los Angeles; it has been like this for decades. But there are a lot of votes here and the populace can lean more conservative than other portions of the city. If Caruso were to win, he needs to persuade these Angelenos to hit the polls. He knows this, but so does Bass, and she’ll repeat ad nauseum that she has the relationships in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento, to garner funds for Valley transportation and other projects. The Valley may be overlooked by the next mayor, but not until after Nov. 8.

The Bigger Fight Will Be for Latinos

The city of Los Angeles is approximately 48 percent Latino, though only about 30 percent of the voting population is Latino. Still, the bloc is big enough to shape the race. That’s why Bass has already held several “Latinos Con Karen Bass” events, and why Caruso ran frequent Spanish-language ads in round one. Caruso won the Latino vote in the primary and the absence of Kevin de León in this round means there is a new passel of voters to woo. Many English-only Angelenos may be unaware of what is happening, but there will be a war going on for the Latino vote.

Prepare for the Unexpected

Both the Bass and Caruso camps have internal maps for the final push, including where their events are held and when big-name endorsements will be rolled out. But things don’t always go according to plan, and at some point, the unexpected will occur. Perhaps it’s a natural disaster. Maybe it’s something that comes out of Washington, D.C. Whatever the case, the entire race can be rocked in a moment. You can have a plan in electoral politics, but sometimes you need to chuck it and react to the moment. Bass and Caruso must be prepared for literally anything.

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