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Tuesday’s results in California could have hardly been more unambiguous. Los Angeles’ voters reduced the number of candidates seeking to replace Eric Garcetti (term-limited), to a former Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and a billionaire ex Republican who ran with a tough-on crime platform. San Francisco voters voted out the district attorney. He was running in 2019 to reform criminal justice, but was seen as being too loose in keeping order.
Some Democratic strategists got beaten down by the two-punch. The Black Lives Matter movement has quickly sparked concerns about public safety and prompted efforts to reform the justice system. Even in liberal havens like California, many considered what they viewed as an unacceptable surge in public disorder—wanton homeless camps, smash-and-grab burglaries, needles on sidewalks—and voted accordingly.
The 2022 midterm elections have been viewed by Republican strategists as a referendum about security. Insecurity and the correlating fears and anxieties can do a number on an electorate’s psyche, and it clearly manifested that way in California, a state not exactly known for reactionary steps of late. The fact that real-estate developer Rick Caruso was leading Rep. Karen Bass by 5 percentage points was something of a shock in famously liberal Los Angeles, given Caruso’s recent history as a Republican. But Caruso was an unflinching advocate for adding 1,500 officers to the city’s police department and more broadly cleaning-up the city with its 60,000 homeless residents. (Caruso’s $39 million in out-of-pocket spending didn’t hurt, either.)
And the quick ditch of Chesa Boudin as San Francisco’s district attorney suggested voters blamed him for scenes of criminality unfolding more often in public view. While the city’s crime stats tell a more nuanced story, the perception was everything, and Boudin was on track for a 20-percentage-point drubbing. That sends a clear warning to Los Angeles’s district attorney, George Gascon, who soon could face his own recall effort over a similar reputation as soft-on-crime.
It’s easy to over-extrapolate national implications from local results, but the pattern has been emerging for some time. Both Eric Adams, the New York City mayor, and Kathy Hochul, New York’s governor, have witnessed their polling numbers drop on the East Coast. Three-quarters (75%) of Gotham residents told pollsters that they are concerned about their safety. According to national polls, there is a decline in support for both the Black Lives Matter movement and policing reform policies. And the recent slate of mass shootings has also taken its toll on the nation’s mood.
On his part, President Joe Biden is constantly warning against the Liberal slide of his Democratic Party regarding policing. He strongly opposed any attempt to discredit the police in his State of the Union address. His focus has been to reduce gun violence and increase the number of police officers, as well as try to defund them. His White House worked with the party organs to shift the conversation from leftist policies such as Medicare for All or blanket student loan forgiveness, towards a message of connection in the suburbs.
That doesn’t mean the broader Democratic Party is always listening to its leader. Iowa is the state where Democrats want to unseat Senator Chuck Grassley. Mike Franken (a retired Navy admiral) defeated Abby Finkenauer on Tuesday night. Finkenauer was a House member who has a history of getting support from independents and ran to her left. It was going to be difficult for Grassley to defeat in a red state, but the addition of a new nominee is a challenge. And just last month, Democrats in Pennsylvania went with an unconventional contender, John Fedderman, as their Senate nominee for a rare open seat, even as the party insiders had their hearts—if not their votes—with moderate Rep. Conor Lamb.
However, despite these wins for progressives there are indications that the wider Democratic electorate is returning to a pre-2025 mentality. This was what allowed Biden’s nomination in the most diverse and progressive presidential field history. Democrats see the obvious scenes of chaos in Washington and schools all around them and are eager to help. Normalcy seems triggered. It’s one thing to support a liberalized policing policy in theory, but it’s another to see elected officials supporting such shifts amid fears that crime and homelessness are surging in places long perceived as immune to those safety-net failures.
Tuesday provided the clearest sign yet that Democrats are in a NIMBYish mood—and it may save them from deep defeats this November.
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