Let’s Stop Pretending That Karen Bass Taking the Mayor’s Race Lead Changes Anything

Cityside Column: The U.S. Rep. will finish first in the primary, but the runoff is a different and uncertain beast than the November election

Last Tuesday afternoon, the Los Angeles political world abruptly flipped upside down. The impetus was the latest update in the molasses-slow counting of votes in the mayoral primary. Although U.S. Rep. Karen Bass had been trailing mall master Rick Caruso 40.5 percent to 38.8 percent, a new ballot dump from the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder put her in the lead.

Bass ascended to about 41 percent, nearly three points ahead of the billionaire developer. The gap widened significantly on Friday, with Bass now sitting at almost 42.9 percent of the 623,373 ballots that have been tabulated. Caruso’s trolley stopped at 36.3 percent. Most votes have been counted and another update is scheduled this Tuesday.

Perhaps the only thing more unexpected than the ballot flip-flop was how the standing of the two frontrunners was instantly re-interpreted. In a matter of moments, all the election night takeaways were, well, taken away.

Whereas Bass on June 7 had seemed to disappoint supporters, now crowds are crowing that overly blue Los Angeles is standing behind the longtime stalwart Democrat. Whereas Caruso’s election night lead was spun as affirmation of his assertion that L.A. is tired of political lifers, suddenly there were questions about whether the former Republican had hit a ceiling.

Hot takes are being dished out faster than the no. 19 at Langer’s. One holds that Bass’ advantage, plus a larger and more liberal voter base in November, essentially guarantees that she’ll succeed Eric Garcetti. A related harrumph is that the $41 million Caruso spent just served to oversaturate TV audiences, and Angelenos were kicking back at him for interrupting all their favorite shows with his mug and V-neck sweater.

It’s tempting to look at the results and think you know the future. But that’s premature. If the weeks since Election Day have provided a lesson, it’s that the Los Angeles political scene is now similar to how screenwriter William Goldman once famously described the motion picture industry: “Nobody knows anything.”

There are plenty of educated guesses, and strategists and observers can find evidence in the returns, as well as ammunition in the geographic analysis of votes. But ultimately, there are no guarantees. The best move at the moment is to stop pretending that Karen Bass winning the mayoral primary says anything definitive about what will happen in November.

Sure, there is a strong chance that Bass builds upon her momentum and finishes first in the November runoff. But there is also a legit chance that Caruso repositions his campaign and comes out on top.

A runoff is the ultimate reset, and all we have now is a snapshot of how approximately three in every 10 eligible city voters felt on June 7. Bass could end up leading by 6 percent or 2 percent or 9 percent, but it doesn’t matter—everyone starts the next round 0-0, and unless it turns out that Caruso had shifted all his wealth to the nose-diving crypto market, he remains formidable.

Probably the best thing for Bass about finishing first is that it should pry open the checkbooks of skittish donors and independent expenditure groups. In the primary Bass raised $3.6 million, and IEs, which by law cannot coordinate with her official campaign, dropped about $2.2 million supporting her and attacking Caruso. That was fine, but many political observers thought much more cash would flow her way, especially on the IE side. Nothing persuades affluent folks to give like thinking their money will go to a winner. Expect the Bass fundraising machine to hit a new gear as soon as yesterday.

On the other side, we may learn that politics hath no fury like a Caruso stuck in second, and if he gave his campaign more than $38 million of his own money in the first round, don’t be surprised if he cuts personal checks for $50 million this time. The dude can afford it.

Caruso also has some of the best campaign strategists around, and they’ll be taking a business-minded approach, analyzing what worked, identifying what didn’t, and redirecting spending. They’ll be even more ruthless in round two.

The other problem with trying to predict November results in June is that no one knows what the voter base will look like. A month ago, the shifting of city election dates from odd- to even-numbered years, combined with California mailing a ballot to every voter, sparked predictions that participation would be at least double the 21% in the 2013 L.A. mayoral primary. Right now, the votes of just 27.6 percent of county residents have been counted, and while the figure will creep up a bit, that doubling seems as fantastical as Garcetti being the next U.S. Ambassador to India.

Turnout may increase in November, but there is little fuel at the top of the ballot to compel people to the polls. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s re-election is secured, as is that of Sen. Alex Padilla. If this were a presidential election year things would be different, but it’s not, so don’t fall into the trap of automatically predicting that a lot more liberals participate. Both Bass and Caruso likely have a heck of lot of supporters who stayed home before and could again.

Plus, as I wrote before, the five months between the primary and the runoff is a political eternity. Scandals can surface. Social upheaval can roil the landscape. Don’t underestimate what months of rising inflation can do to the voting population’s collective mindset.

If your name is Karen Bass, right now you have to be happy with where things stand. If your name is Rick Caruso, you’re probably both fuming and strategizing while eating lobster Thermidor on your $100 million yacht that is registered in the Cayman Islands. But no matter who you are, the only thing you have accomplished is getting through the primary. Congrats, but that doesn’t even come with a set of steak knives.

The next round will be a lot more difficult and bitter, and nothing is assured.

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