Rick Caruso’s blockbuster bid to become LA mayor fails with voters
Caruso’s predicament is a reminder of a bitter truth about politics: Money can only get you so far. It reflects the fact that in a city that is deeply Democratic, many are apparently unwilling to support a former Republican turned Democrat who, despite his insistence that he supports abortion rights, has donated to candidates anti-abortion in the past..
There’s also the reality that Caruso faces a changing mood less supportive of her relatively conservative message — and a strong contender in Bass, a well-regarded congresswoman who nearly ended up as President Joe Biden’s vice president.
“The conversation has changed in a way that’s helpful for Bass,” said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor and election expert.
The Caruso campaign insists it’s far too early for an autopsy.
“It’s a little myopic to say, ‘Well, he spent $40 million and then came second,'” said Areen Ibranossian, a senior campaign adviser. “Anyone counting us isn’t really looking at the dynamics of the race.”
At the start of the year, Caruso looked set for a run in an office he had watched for years. He had money, powerful connections from his decades as a high-end mall developer, and celebrity friends like Kim Kardashian. He also had a moody electorate after two years of the pandemic that seemed receptive to his message, centered on fears of rising crime and the increased presence of homeless people around Los Angeles.
But the bubble burst on primaries night when Bass beat him by 7 out of 12 points. As neither won 50%, the top two candidates qualified for the general election. Recent polls suggest Caruso faces an even bigger defeat in November.
Caruso’s second-place finish in the primary and dismal polls underscores the fact that Los Angeles is still a city dominated by liberal Democrats who aren’t ready to embrace someone like Caruso, especially when the alternative is the progressive bass. The dynamic contrasts with the election in New York last year of Eric Adams, a moderate Democrat who pounded a crowded primary field with a message of law and order.
Bass gained 12 points over Caruso, 43% to 31%, according to a Los Angeles Times/UC Berkeley poll released Friday. The congresswoman widened her previous 7% margin by recruiting supporters of other primary candidates and nearly erased the mall developer’s lead in the largely suburban San Fernando Valley.
The MP had an 11-point advantage in an August 19 poll commissioned by Communities United for Karen Bass, a PAC supporting her campaign.
Candidates are jostling to run a city where, unlike, say, Chicago or New York, the mayor doesn’t even have much power. It’s a leading role, but one that requires working with a restless city council, every member of which is a Democrat. Bass, first elected to Congress in 2010, has extensive government experience; Caruso has relatively little.
The developer was a commissioner from 1985 to 1993 on the board of the Department of Water and Energy, appointed by the late Democratic Mayor Tom Bradley. He was also appointed to the Los Angeles Police Commission in the early 2000s, as chairman.
Much of his municipal experience stems from his role as one of the city’s most prominent developers, building high-end retail projects such as The Grove and The Americana at Brand.
He launched his campaign in February, the day before the filing deadline, arguing that crime and homelessness could only be tackled by an entrepreneur and a political outsider. After early polls showed him with just 8% support, he quickly overtook a group of Democrats.
Caruso campaigned earlier and at a higher volume than its competitors. He pitched more than $2 million in TV and digital ads, weeks before other contestants could even write a script. For much of early 2022, voters were bombarded with ads from Caruso denouncing his hometown as a hellish landscape of homelessness and violent crime.
In total, the real estate mogul spent an unprecedented $43 million of his own fortune on the campaign, including $28 million on advertising in the primary, according to spending tracker AdImpact. At their peak, before Election Day, its 30-second ads appeared 1,700 times in a week on Los Angeles airwaves. Actress Gwenyth Paltrow supported him. Then Kim Kardashian told his 313 million Instagram followers to vote for him. Rapper Snoop Dogg even chimed in to express his support.
The momentum behind the campaign was so great that some speculated that Caruso would emerge from the primary with more than 50% of the vote – giving him outright victory and negating the need for a runoff in November.
But when the dust cleared, he had fallen short.
That came as a surprise given the candidate’s track record as a developer savvy enough to understand the market, said John Shallman, a longtime political consultant who recently handled the unsuccessful Los Angeles City Attorney campaign. Mike Feuer.
“This one, on every level, was an epic failure,” Shallman said. “I think he learned a very hard lesson that a lot of people have learned in the past… You can buy companies, you can buy yachts, you can buy millions of airtime and glossy brochures , but you can’t buy electors.”
Caruso continues the crusade. He just added another $3.5 million to his campaign. More recently, he spoke with a group of Los Angeles businesswomen and organized a Filipino community event at one of its malls. Many expect him to spend big in the run-up to the general election.
But compared to his publicity blitz in the spring, Caruso had a relatively quiet summer. Since the end of the primaries, he’s spent a few thousand dollars on desktop and mobile ads, but nothing on television or video streaming, according to AdImpact.
The campaign says the early blitz was necessary for someone with relatively low recognition in politics and that the summer lull was meant to preserve resources for the fall.
“If there is another candidate who is advertising during the summer slump, I would like to see who he is and how he is able to spend this kind of money during the summer,” Ibranossian said. .
Shallman and other Los Angeles political consultants say it’s a sign that Caruso is finished.
“Rick Caruso is Humpty Dumpty, and there’s not a political consultant in the country who can put it back together,” said Trujillo, Buscaino’s former consultant.
Many of the city’s veteran campaign strategists say Caruso’s message and profile as a longtime Republican from LA’s upper class simply doesn’t connect with a diverse liberal electorate — no matter how much. he spends on advertising.
Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant who led incumbent Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s 2013 campaign, said Caruso’s portrayal of the city as a dystopian nightmare went too far, even with homelessness and crime in the spirits.
“To the extent that it sounds like a more conservative, Republican, Trumpian message, I don’t think that’s good,” he said.
Carrick also said Caruso did not sufficiently explain to voters why he registered as a Democrat, a decision he made a week before the deadline to enter the race. This left him exposed to attacks on his liberal credentials and polarized the race in a partisan fashion.
The threat to abortion rights following the Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade is also a factor. “When the ruling came out, that was really the first big moment where Caruso’s momentum stopped, where I think Bass and his supporters did a good job of reminding the public that Caruso was a Republican and that ‘he supported pro-life candidates and causes,’” Levinson said.
The recent Los Angeles Times poll found Bass holding a 40-point lead among registered Democrats, a fact Carrick argued makes the race much closer to a Democrat-vs-Republican contest.
“I don’t doubt for a minute that he’s a professional choice,” Carrick said. “I have no doubt that he is in favor of LGBT rights or that he is sensitive to immigrant issues. I don’t doubt it, but it’s kind of a check of your boxes.
Caruso seized on the same wave of tough anti-crime sentiments driving the effort to recall liberal city prosecutor George Gascón. He supported the recall effort early in his campaign with a $50,000 contribution, blaming the recent increase in crime on Gascón’s reform policies.
A recent LA Times/Berkeley poll found the recall had a good chance of succeeding if passed, with a 20-point lead in favor, but petitioners failed to gather the necessary signatures in time.
Bass’s campaign has made Caruso’s political background and adversarial rhetoric toward Democratic officials who dominate city government central to a strategy to combat its infinite resources.
His team in recent weeks promoted a video of a private fundraiser with Hillary Clinton, who discussed Caruso’s past donations to candidates opposed to abortion rights and compared in a not so subtle his professional background to former President Donald Trump.
Clinton is headlining a growing list of Democratic powerhouses who have endorsed Bass, including Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and local heavyweights Sen. Alex Padille and former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
“She’s running against a Republican, billionaire, mall developer who registered as a Democrat the week before announcing his mayoral campaign, and has torn down every Democrat he can find since,” a said Bass spokeswoman Sarah Leonard Sheahan. “There’s such a contrast in the race, and it’s a Democratic town. People just want to make it clear that there’s a real pro-choice Democrat in the race.
Even more cautious observers who aren’t ready to declare Bass the winner say Caruso’s chances of beating her are slim.
“I don’t think you can count it,” Carrick said. “But if someone says you have to bet $10,000 on someone, I wouldn’t bet it on Rick.”