The L.A. Mayoral Race Has Gone From Sprint to Marathon

Citywide Column: The mammoth 154-day span between elections presents opportunities and challenges for Karen Bass and Rick Caruso

In March 2013, nearly 378,000 Angelenos voted in the mayoral primary when then-Councilman Eric Garcetti finished first with 33 percent, about four points ahead of City Controller Wendy Greuel.

As no one had surpassed the 50 percent threshold, the two candidates advanced to a runoff,  which took place 77 days later. The timeline to that May 21 vote was so tight that even before the race had been certified, planning and strategizing were in high gear. A primary is a whole different beast than a runoff, and the candidates and their campaigns that year had to swerve from navigating through an eight-person field to the combat of a one-on-one contest.

“It was an all-out sprint,” recalls Jeff Millman, a veteran strategist and political consultant who worked on Garcetti’s campaign. “There were multiple fundraisers every day, press conferences almost every day.”

The Garcetti-Greuel throwdown was nine years ago but since then, the Los Angeles electoral scheduling framework has been given a complete makeover. This year, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass and real estate developer Rick Caruso finished one-two in the June 7 primary, but they literally have twice as much time as their predecessors before round two: There are 22 weeks, or 154 days, between the initial election and the Nov. 8 runoff.

Not only that, but the waiting game spreads through July and August when only the nerdiest of City Hall followers (raising my hand) pay close attention to local politics. Although the two traded barbs on Friday over Bass’ support of City Attorney candidate Faisal Gill, who has proposed a 100-day moratorium on prosecuting certain misdemeanors (Bass said she withdrew her endorsement on Wednesday), the candidates could feasibly have a summer vacation. Heck, Caruso should and just may take his whole family for a week aboard his $100 million yacht, Invictus.

The cycle’s scheduling shake-up stemmed from civic embarrassment. In the 2013 mayoral primary, less than 21 percent of eligible voters hit the polls. The runoff wasn’t much better—turnout was a mere 23.3 percent. Editorial writers bemoaned the lack of participation while talk show hosts mocked the city for its political apathy.

To reverse course, city leaders put the kibosh on March and May voting in odd-numbered years and shifted primary and general election dates to align with state and federal ballots in even-numbered years—for all city seats. The hope was that turnout would increase. Results are mixed; a total of 646,035 people cast a vote for mayor in the June primary or about 30% of those eligible. The voting pool now is larger than in 2013.

The additional time provides both advantages and challenges for the candidates. Perhaps the biggest plus is that a five-month gap allows much more time for fundraising. This probably doesn’t matter to Caruso, who dropped more than $40 million of his own fortune in the primary, but it could be crucial for Bass. While she will still have to spend hours every day in the soul-sucking practice of dialing for dollars, she has more breathing room than Garcetti and Greuel did.

Millman points out that in 2013, campaigning began about 18 months before the primary. But a viable candidate needs to sway even more voters in round two, and that comes with a price increase.

“You had to raise more than in the primary, but in much less time,” Millman says.

Bass and Caruso will also benefit from having an opportunity to dig into voter data, analyze what neighborhoods and voting blocs supported them, and refine their strategy; all of this is crucial for Caruso after Bass finished seven points ahead of him in June. Sure, it’s something of an equal-field sword fight, as each team will be privy to the same information, but 154 days is plenty of time to map out campaign strategies and determine the best ways to appeal to specific communities and constituencies.

The extended timeframe also presents hurdles. While Garcetti emerged from 2014’s primary with major momentum, which he was able to build upon and carry for 11 weeks, that becomes harder when one needs to keep engagement high and be an exciting contender for nearly half a year, including the months when many leave town or spend their days at a beach.

Bass has sought to keep attention high with a series of recent media events. On Friday, she announced the endorsement of 48 state and federal officials, including 18 members of Congress.

But November is eons from June and more than 100,000 of those who cast ballots in round one picked someone not named Bass or Caruso, putting a whole new pool of voters in play. Turnout in the general election is also expected to be larger, though by how much is debatable—Gov. Gavin Newsom and U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla both face token opposition, and tepid top-of-the-ticket races do not tend to drive people to the polls.

Five months also provides plenty of time for something to go wrong, and political candidates are no stranger to sudden scandal. Or, the world can flip. As I have referenced before, in the 2020 primary (then in March), incumbent District Attorney Jackie Lacey finished far ahead of challenger George Gascón, who gained less than 30 percent of the vote. But after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis there was a political sea change, and Gascón rode a progressive wave to victory in November.

Who knows what the future will bring? Five months gives twice as much time for the unexpected. Bass and Caruso are in uncharted territory—and so are L.A. voters.

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.