As the votes were being counted after the Los Angeles mayoral primary in early June, one of the hot topics of discussion among local political nerds was when mall master and surging candidate Rick Caruso would unleash his next major round of campaign ads. It was a natural topic, as days after declaring his candidacy in February, he kicked off a TV commercial blitz the likes of which Los Angeles has never seen.
You likely remember them well because they were inescapable on television for nearly four months: Caruso, sitting in a director’s chair in a light blue sweater, referencing the city’s homelessness crisis and telling us that he’d work for $1 a year; Caruso, here in a dark blue V-neck sweater, delivering his “I can clean up L.A.” message; Caruso being praised by a multi-ethnic coalition of Angelenos, including Snoop Dogg, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Parents of Watts founder Sweet Alice Harris.
Some of the aforementioned political nerds guessed the billionaire would be on air about 48 hours after the polls closed. Others predicted that he would take a few weeks off, then unroll a new ad avalanche right after the July 4 pyrotechnics displays.
No one who I know that’s watching the campaign closely expected Caruso to be TV-quiet through late August—particularly after he dropped a mind-boggling $41.5 million in the primary. But it’s now less than three months until the runoff, and the mall man has been pretty low-key.
This is curious. After all, the force behind high-end retail meccas The Grove and the Americana at Brand has more money than he can ever spend, and campaign mastermind Ace Smith, who has worked campaigns for Gavin Newsom and Hillary Clinton, continues to helm his team. This summer, and especially right now, feels like the calm before Hurricane Caruso overtakes the Southland.
And there are rumblings that the storm is approaching quickly. Last week, Caruso gave his campaign almost $3.6 million, according to documents filed with the City Ethics Commission. While that is mere play money compared with what he shelled out in primary season, it’s still nearly equivalent to the $3.65 million that his rival Karen Bass raised from donors during the entirety of the primary.
Speaking of Bass, she’s had a very good summer. As I wrote last week, the U.S. rep took her seven-point win in the primary race and expertly built on her campaign’s momentum. She’s held a steady stream of private fundraisers and public events during the past two months while securing endorsements from prominent figures including Clinton, U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, President Joe Biden, and Vice President Kamala Harris. She avoided hitting coast mode, as she fell into in the spring. Now, her war chest should swell.
Meanwhile, it’s been something of a summertime slog for Caruso. A recent Los Angeles Times article may have dampened his enthusiasm among business supporters, as it detailed his empire’s opposition to a developer seeking to build job-creating sound stages near The Grove. Meanwhile, the failure to qualify a recall of embattled District Attorney George Gascón for inclusion on the November ballot has been cast as a blow to Caruso; although he was not involved with that effort, he vocally supported it. A Gascón recall would likely drive conservative voters to the polls on Nov. 8 and Caruso would more than likely benefit.
Then there was the Aug. 19 release of a poll that asserted Bass has an 11 percent lead over the billionaire. It came from an independent expenditure group supporting Bass, so one must consider the messenger. Still, until there is a compelling counter-narrative, it’s an extra helping of gravy for Bass.
Caruso has not been completely silent, though. He recently announced the endorsement of outgoing Councilman Gil Cedillo—the second Council rep to back his mayoral campaign (after former mayoral rival Joe Buscaino), and a leader who could help on inroads with Latino voters. Earlier in the summer, he also dinged Bass by questioning her backing of Faisal Gill, a progressive candidate for city attorney who has proposed not prosecuting certain misdemeanors for 100 days. Bass then yanked her endorsement, making Caruso appear ahead of the curve.
That criticism, by the way, could be an indicator of what’s to come in Caruso’s forthcoming ad slate. When a candidate loses in round one, they often go negative in round two. And Caruso already threw mud at his opponent. Things could now get very, very nasty.
If Caruso has been generally quiet, then it is 100 percent strategic. Perhaps this should not be surprising. The takeover of every TV screen in L.A. during the primary, along with copious Caruso Facebook and YouTube ads, earned reams of attention, but when the ballots were tabulated he had just 36 percent of the vote. While this allowed him to achieve his minimum goal—get by the plethora of City Hall contenders and reach the runoff—following the same script would be foolish. Maybe full saturation isn’t always best.
Campaign teams, like football and basketball coaches, have to make adjustments at halftime, and indeed, this is where the race stands. A mere 30 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot for mayor in June, and in addition to those who did not participate, more than 135,000 voters picked someone other than Caruso or Bass. So it’s hard to know in August what people will do come November.
Caruso has a new opportunity, as well as the money to unleash whatever strategy he and his team deem best. The counter, of course, is that Bass connected with voters in the first stage, and she, too, has room to build.
The summer has been a muted battle, but the war runs for another 75 days—and it certainly feels like things are about to explode.
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