LOS ANGELES — Voters in California delivered a stark warning to the Democratic Party on Tuesday about the potency of law and order as a political message in 2022, as a Republican-turned-Democrat campaigning as a crime-fighter vaulted into a runoff in the mayoral primary in Los Angeles and a progressive prosecutor in San Francisco was recalled in a landslide.
The two results made vivid the depths of voter frustration over rising crime and rampant homelessness in even the most progressive corners of the country — and are the latest signs of a restless Democratic electorate that was promised a return to normalcy under President Biden and yet remains unsatisfied with the nation’s state of affairs.
“People are not in a good mood and they have reason not to be in a good mood,” said Garry South, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist. “It’s not just the crime issue. It’s the homelessness. It’s the high price of gasoline.”
The West Coast contests were being monitored closely by strategists and leaders in both parties around the country, as Democrats seek to hold together a fractious and diverse political coalition that can be divided both by race and ideology over criminal justice.
In Los Angeles, Rick Caruso, a billionaire luxury mall developer, spent nearly $41 million telling voters how he would restore order in the city, vowing to add 1,500 officers to the police department and promoting the endorsement of William J. Bratton, the former police chief famous for his broken-windows policy. The race now heads to a November runoff. Mr. Caruso will face Representative Karen Bass, the Democratic former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Mr. Caruso had about 40 percent of the vote and Ms. Bass had around 38 percent early Wednesday morning.
In San Francisco, about 60 percent of voters recalled Chesa Boudin, a former public defender who became district attorney in 2019 in a huge win for the progressive left. He promised then that “the tough-on-crime policies and rhetoric of the 1990s and early 2000s are on their way out.” Instead, he is.
The elections on Tuesday showed the extent to which the political winds have shifted even in Democratic cities in the two years since George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer. The initial rally cry on the left then — “defund the police” — has since become so politically toxic that it is now more often used by Republicans as an epithet than by Democrats as an earnest policy proposal. And the crusading energy to overhaul policing in the face of rising crime has waned.
For Democrats, the issue of crime and disorder threatens to drive a wedge between some of the party’s core constituencies, as some voters demand action on racial and systemic disparities while others are focused on their own sense of safety in their homes and neighborhoods.
“People walking the streets, in many cases, feel themselves in danger and that’s got to be dealt with,” said Willie Brown, a Democrat who is the former mayor of San Francisco.
But Mr. Brown said too many Democrats do not want to talk about “what cops do” for fear of crossing the party’s activist class and offending “A.O.S. or A.O.C. or whatever that woman’s name is,” he said dismissively of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the influential progressive.
In a sign of how crime can divide the party in unusual ways, public and internal polling showed how the crime-and-homelessness campaign of Mr. Caruso, who is white, helped him make inroads with a large swath of Black men, even as he ran against Ms. Bass, who is Black. In one May survey, Mr. Caruso was performing more than 30 percentage points better among Black men than women.
Mr. Caruso found traction in the heavily Democratic city despite being a longtime Republican who then became an independent and only joined the Democratic Party just before running for office. He ran a campaign promising to “clean up” the city and hailed Tuesday’s results as “a great awakening.”
Jefrey Pollock, a pollster for Mr. Caruso, said the results should be a take-heed moment for the party.
“If the Democratic primary electorate is showing a shift toward the middle on police and crime issues, then it is an even larger concern when thinking about the November general elections,” said Mr. Pollock, who also works for at-risk Democratic congressional candidates in other states.
Turnout was low on Tuesday across California. And there is always a risk of over-interpreting local races where distinctly local dynamics are often at play. Mr. Caruso’s vast financial advantage — he outspent Ms. Bass by more than 10-to-1 — is not replicable in most races, and he still faces a fierce fight in the fall.
Steve Soboroff, a Los Angeles police commissioner who himself ran for mayor in 2001 and endorsed Ms. Bass this year, was unimpressed by Mr. Caruso’s “basic guttural knee-jerk messages” on crime and his final showing, given his vast spending.
“Caruso hit a glass ceiling made of Waterford crystal,” he said.
In her own election night speech, Ms. Bass referenced the tilted financial playing field. “All of us stood strong against an onslaught,” she said.
Still, Mr. Pollock noted that vulnerable congressional Democrats are already hearing about crime back home and racing to show how they differ with the “progressive trends on handling crime.” In Washington, House Democrats boosted funding and grants for local and state law enforcement by more than $500 million in this year’s appropriations package, delivering Democratic lawmakers a talking point to rebuff “defund” attacks from Republicans.
And at the White House, Mr. Biden has made a point of outright rejecting the most severe rhetoric embraced by the activist left.
“The answer is not to defund the police,” Mr. Biden said in February when he visited New York City, where Mayor Eric Adams, who won in 2021 primarily on a crime-fighting message, has been held up as an example of how to approach the issue.
Mr. Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, met privately with Mr. Adams this spring in part to strategize on approaches to public safety. “He was empathetic to the plight and the issue that we’re all facing,” Frank Carone, Mr. Adams’s chief of staff, said of Mr. Klain.
The extent to which crime is actually up depends on the category being measured and the particular jurisdiction. But strategists in both parties said that whatever the data shows, there is a widespread sense that daily life in big-city America is no longer as safe as it once was.
“There are voters in the suburbs and exurbs all across this country — they’re seeing what’s happening in cities,” said Dan Conston, who heads the leading super PAC for House Republicans. “They’re both aghast and concerned for their communities.”
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Mr. Conston, whose group has already reserved $125 million in television ads this fall, said he plans to treat crime as “a kitchen-table issue no different than inflation” and a core piece of the general-election campaign.
Democrats have sought to shift the focus of public safety to gun control in the wake of back-to-back mass shootings at a grocery store in Buffalo and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Mr. Biden and congressional Democrats are pressing for new gun restrictions and stiffer background checks — topics where voters tend to be more aligned with the party than on crime overall.
For months, the party’s tensions between the progressive left and law enforcement have been particularly acute in San Francisco.
The city’s mayor, London Breed, has sparred with Mr. Boudin and declared in an emotional speech at City Hall in December that “the reign of criminals who are destroying our city” was over. More recently, she announced plans to boycott this month’s Pride parade after organizers had banned law enforcement uniforms. The ban on uniforms was eventually reversed, and so was the boycott.
Across San Francisco, anecdotes abound of break-ins, encampments, street fires. Drug overdoses have been deadlier in the city during the pandemic than Covid-19.
Shortly before Mr. Boudin held a news conference south of Market Street on Sunday with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a passer-by carrying bags on a bicycle crashed. A small hand ax he was holding clanged on the ground. He quickly gathered his belongings, jumped back on the bike and pedaled away.
In an interview that day, Mr. Boudin did not deny the woes facing the city. But he said his opponents had tried “to scapegoat me for problems that exist in every single city in this country — and that have existed in San Francisco for decades.”
Mr. Boudin was part of a national movement of progressive prosecutors who have taken office in recent years with bold goals of overhauling the criminal justice system from the inside — reducing racial disparities, curbing mass incarceration, holding police more to account.
Mr. Jackson, the longtime civil rights activist and former presidential candidate, said the recall campaign was part of a Republican campaign to stop that movement. “There is no case against him,” Mr. Jackson said in a brief interview. “It’s ideology.”
Another progressive prosecutor, George Gascón in Los Angeles, who announced on his first day as district attorney eliminating cash bail and greater leniency for low-level offenses, is also facing a potential recall. Signature gathering to qualify the recall for a vote is well underway.
Democrats are already nervous, should it qualify for the ballot.
Because Democrats are fully in power in the city and state, Mr. South, the Democratic strategist, said, “The gum is on our shoe on this.”
He compared the sense of disquiet today to the tumultuous period in Los Angeles after the riots in 1992, when he worked on the next year’s losing Democratic mayoral campaign. “It’s a sense of déjà vu for me because crime and civil unrest was the central issue in 1993,” Mr. South said.
Representative Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, who oversees the political arm of House Democrats, said it was imperative for the party to figure out how to navigate the tricky politics of crime.
“We need to not fall victim to a false choice between public safety and criminal justice,” Mr. Maloney said. “We better do both.”
Jennifer Medina and Jill Cowan contributed reporting.