Six Ways Karen Bass and Rick Caruso Can Win L.A.’s Mayoral Race

Cityside Column: The candidates advanced to the runoff but each needs to step up their game. This is how they can do it
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When the results of the Los Angeles mayoral primary were certified on July 1, the state of affairs for the Democratic mayoral hopefuls were pretty much where people expected the campaigns to finish — U.S. Rep. Karen Bass and billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso had outlasted 10 other candidates and advanced to a winner-take-all November runoff. And of course, turnout stunk, with around 30 percent of Angelenos casting a vote.

In the end, Bass captured 43.1 percent of the vote and Caruso secured 36 percent. Each can now spin the results as some type of victory but neither has an overwhelming mandate from L.A. voters, as both fell short of the 50 percent needed to win outright on June 7.

While Bass and Caruso can both boast of a strong base, each has an uphill battle, as the November election will bring a larger pool of voters. In the coming months, both mayoral hopefuls must execute on a strong strategy as they vie for the top seat at City Hall. Here are some ideas for both candidates.

Caruso Must Spend…and Spend

The mall magnate spent a staggering $41 million through June 1 to shatter primary records; in the end, the candidate dropped approximately $176 for each vote he received. That’s about 15 times the $11.79 the Bass campaign spent per vote.

As his modest election-night lead melted into a seven-point deficit, some speculated that Caruso spent too much—particularly on TV ads—and oversaturated the market. That’s nonsense. It was precisely Caruso’s tapping of his personal fortune that allowed him to surge from polling at about 8 percent in February to a position in line with Bass, a well-liked career politician.

For Caruso, $40 million in the next round probably won’t be enough. So don’t be surprised if he surpasses $60 million in campaign spending—not only to stand out from Bass but also to rise above all the ads from candidates in other races and the statewide ballot measures. After all, the guy has the cash, and what’s he going to do—get to $80 million altogether with two weeks until the election, then decide he’s hit the budget ceiling? Of course not. Caruso’s path to victory involves spending more than anyone thinks is possible. We can expect to see a flurry of new, sharp and well-tested TV and web ads soon.

Bass Needs to Remind Voters of Caruso’s Republican Past

Throughout much of the campaign, little was made of the fact that Caruso has been a longtime Republican. He switched from a no-party preference to becoming a registered Democrat in January but it was only close to Primary Day that Bass supporters began to make a concerted effort to remind voters that Caruso donated to GOP boogeymen like Sen. Mitch McConnell.

This is a potential Achilles’ Heel for Caruso, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v Wade. Bass should be mentioning this regularly on the stump and during every interview and televised debate. She needs to be clear and fierce because that will help define the key difference between the two. Reminding voters that she is the only longtime Democrat vying to run an overwhelmingly blue city should prove to be a simple but effective tactic.

Caruso’s Homelessness Crisis Message Needs Refining

During the primary, Caruso’s strategists were smart to recognize that the defining issue for L.A. voters is the ongoing homelessness crisis in the city. So, time and again he stated that as mayor he plans to open 30,000 beds in an effort to get people off the streets and into homes.

The message resonated but Caruso has been frightfully unclear as to how this would happen, where the beds would be, how it will be funded and if this is a long-term housing solution. Some first-round candidates scoffed that the only way to get to 30,000 beds is with huge congregate shelters (and good luck making that work in L.A.). The housed and unhoused both want humane, efficient and long-lasting solutions for those experiencing homelessness. Yes, Caruso delivered a crafty headline but now the mall man needs a detailed plan on how it will be executed.

Bass Needs to Define Her Message

I recently had lunch with a couple of folks who, like me, nerd out over local politics. During the meal, we all realized that even after following the election closely we have little understanding of what kind of mayor Bass wants to be aside from being Karen Bass. Caruso has defined himself around three issues: homelessness, public safety and public corruption. But what’s the core mission of candidate Bass?

This matters. In the 2013 mayoral election, Eric Garcetti built his successful campaign on the theme of “Back to Basics,” understanding that after a flashy and flailing Antonio Villaraigosa administration, Angelenos wanted a refined focus on basic city services. This is not to say that Bass needs a snappy slogan—but then again, that wouldn’t hurt if it helps define her agenda for voters.

It seems that everyone likes Bass. But likability only goes so far and voters want to know what a candidate is about intuitively.

Caruso Must Go (Very) Negative 

It is unseemly when one candidate attacks another; like clockwork, the throwing of mud is subsequently bemoaned en masse. But as GOP strategist John Thomas told me during the primary season as Bass was being buffeted by a wave of attack ads from Caruso and the Police Protective League, there’s a reason we still see such mudslinging: “We use them because they work. We don’t use them because we like them.”

Bass’ first-place finish demonstrates that she was able to withstand his pummeling but it also hints at where Team Caruso is willing to go in the coming months. November will probably bring at least 100,000 voters who either chose someone else in the first round or didn’t cast a ballot. Caruso must not only convince this crowd that he deserves their vote but persuade them that Bass does not. Any uncertainty about Bass the billionaire can create for low-information voters is a win. So expect incessant political negativity the likes of which L.A. has never seen.

Bass Has to Persuade Hollywood to Invest 

In this election cycle’s first round, Bass spent about $4 million and saw another $2.2 million in independent expenditures dropped on her behalf. Her first-place finish should usher in more donations to her campaign but when the maximum amount to give is $1,500, her financial ceiling won’t even approach that of Mr. Mall.

That’s why Bass will need independent expenditure groups to treat the election like the final table in a Texas Hold’em tournament and go all in. It’s also why Jeffrey Katzenberg, who is at the helm of the leading Bass IE, is the third most important person in this race. If Bass hopes to win, she needs Katzenberg to rally the Hollywood crowd to help level the playing field.

There are complications: Candidates by law may not coordinate with an independent expenditure committee and IEs pay a higher rate for TV ads than official campaigns. Still, if Bass is to succeed Garcetti then she needs a lot of money thrown her way. And in this town, that starts in Hollywood.