California is issuing a warning to Democrats. But how big is it?

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“Even liberal San Francisco.” “Even liberal San Francisco!”

It’s the mantra du jour for political watchers, stunned by the results of an effort to recall the progressive prosecutor from the deep blue city. Chesa Boudin (D) entered office in 2020 promising a different approach to tackling crime and, in a lopsided vote, San Franciscans rejected that approach. Even in liberal San Francisco, some leftist policies go too far.

But then there was the bigger city to the south. In Los Angeles – even Democrat dense Los Angeles! – a former Republican was one of the first two runners-up for mayor. In journalism, we say that three makes a trend. When pressed, however, two will do, so: Democrats stumbling in their strongest state spells horror for the party!

Look, there’s definitely no sense in which these results are good news for the party. It is useful, however, to consider how bad they actually are.

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We should start by establishing baselines. It is true that San Francisco and Los Angeles vote more heavily Democratic than the rest of the country. But the two are not blue in the same way. San Francisco has always voted much more heavily Democratic than Los Angeles. If LA is blue, SF is a kind of iridescent blue that was specially developed in the laboratory.

That the two cities moved to the left is not in itself exceptional. Overall, cities have, as measured at the county level. A central story of recent decades is how cities and rural areas have diverged, with the leftward shift of urban areas offset by the greater rightward shift of less populated rural counties.

Notice this drop in major cities in 2020, by the way. It’s an established area of ​​concern for Democrats: Are urban voters — especially nonwhite urban voters — easing in their support for the party? This issue is largely separate from Tuesday’s results.

There is another way in which San Francisco and Los Angeles diverge. The emergence of the information economy has caused incomes to soar in San Francisco (and elsewhere in the Bay Area). The city is no longer the hippie, vagrant wonderland it once became famous for.

This has an immediate practical effect: rising housing costs in particular have contributed to homelessness, a central feature of discussions of the failure of Boudin and the city’s leadership. It’s no exaggeration to assume that wealthier residents who have made substantial investments in real estate in the city are more wary of threats to property values. When Donald Trump announced he planned to focus on homelessness in the blue state during his presidency, he cited complaints from real estate investors.

So that’s the context, which is particularly important for considering Boudin. As district attorney, he was naturally responsible for immediately tangible quality of life issues in the city, such as crime and homelessness. And crime has increased in the city in 2021 compared to 2020, but not exceptionally compared to other major cities. The number of crimes recorded in 2021 was also still lower than in 2019.

In February, a member of the oversight board noted that the police department’s clearance rates had dropped – that is, the number of crimes solved – and linked this to the “political rift between the police department and the district attorney’s office,” which she said was “causing a deliberate work stoppage of your Department.

Boudin hasn’t been the only successful recall in San Francisco in recent months. Earlier this year, a number of school board members were also recalled. As with the race for district attorney, the situation was complicated, a mix of frustration with leadership, pandemic-era changes and political expediency. But there was a similarity between the two: recall supporters spent far more money than opponents. In Boudin’s recall, the margin was more than 2 to 1 in favor of Boudin’s recall.

It was also part of the history of Los Angeles. The former Republican running for mayor, developer Rick Caruso, who changed his registration from “no party preference” to Democrat ahead of the primary, has spent nearly $34 million on the effort. Rep. Karen Bass, the runner-up to face Caruso in November, spent a tenth of that amount.

Caruso’s success carries that asterisk which Boudin’s defeat does not. He made the second round…but still has to win in a head-to-head contest. Los Angeles has nonpartisan elections, which may have also benefited Caruso’s candidacy. In November, the broader electorate and the Democrats grouped around Bass could change the order of arrival. Boudin was likely similarly hurt by the nature of the election: low turnout overall, suggesting a more conservative electorate, with recall supporters more motivated to vote.

Those are all consolations for Democratic leaders Wednesday morning, much like Gov. Gavin Newsom’s practical loss to his own recall effort last year. But they should not obscure the larger problem. Democrats are in charge in Los Angeles, San Francisco and America at large, given their control over the White House and Congress. And in all of those places, people are really concerned about how things are going. One can point to mitigating circumstances or subtleties of the data or the role of the media in amplifying concerns. But the results in Los Angeles (Caruso emphasized crime and homelessness) and more directly in San Francisco reflect frustration with existing leaders who are likely largely independent of the party.

The results in California on Tuesday may not bode well for a long-term collapse of the Democratic Party. But they reinforce the imminent danger the party faces in November.


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