LOS ANGELES — Rick Caruso had a bad primary night and a rough summer as he faced off against Democratic Rep. Karen Bass to be the next mayor of LA.
But he’s having a good fall.
Caruso has erased a double-digit deficit with Bass in the final weeks of the most expensive mayor’s contest in city history. The billionaire shopping mall developer, who has spent tens of millions from his personal fortune in his first run for political office, is in a tight race with the veteran politician, according to at least one recent poll and political analysts.
The six-term congresswoman’s campaign is feeling the heat, pleading for money and volunteers to knock on doors in a late Thursday email blast. “We need that now more than ever,” it said.
The most likely culprit in the turnaround is money. Lots of it. Caruso has blanketed the airwaves in one of the most expensive media markets in the U.S., spending more than $81 million compared to $11 million by Bass, according to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.
“Walk away from the morning news, get in the car, and you still get inundated with ads,” said Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant who led outgoing Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s 2013 campaign. “The overwhelming majority are for Caruso. He’s on Spanish-language television. He’s on the Asian media platforms. He’s everywhere.”
An unknown factor is the scandal at LA City Hall, caused by the release of a leaked recording in which council members are heard scheming to manipulate district boundaries while using offensive and racist language. Some observers think it could help Bass but Caruso has sought to exploit the revelations as evidence that local government — and by extension established politicians like the congresswoman — are tarnished.
“The fact that there’s more chaos at City Hall does, certainly, seem to me to say to voters that new leadership is necessary,” said Peter Ragone, a Caruso campaign spokesperson.
In any case, it’s a surprising turnaround. Analysts were writing Caruso’s political obituary in the summer, following his poorer-than-expected showing in the primary followed by dismal polling numbers. It was hard to imagine he once had the wind at his back, drawing celebrity endorsements and national media coverage as he presented himself as the candidate who could tackle a dramatic increase in homelessness, the high cost of living and anxiety about crime in America’s second-largest city.
Then came the June primary. Caruso outspent Bass 11-to-1, but he finished seven points behind her. Weeks later, the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade opened the billionaire, a former Republican, up to criticism for past donations to opponents of abortion rights — an unpopular move in this deeply blue city.
Political analysts still give the edge at this point to Bass, a community activist who became speaker of the California Assembly and then a congresswoman on the shortlist to be President Joe Biden’s VP. But a recent poll from the Southern California News Group came as a shock to many.
The poll, released this week, showed the two locked in a statistical dead heat, with a large portion of voters — nearly 25 percent — still undecided. The findings are considered credible by polling experts despite the small sample size of 400 likely voters.
The upshot is there’s a lot of uncertainty. “I think everybody ought to be worried,” Carrick said. “We’re two weeks out and, clearly, it’s going to be a very important two weeks.”
Caruso’s rapid comeback can be attributed in large part to his advertising dominance, which has allowed him to take advantage of the City Hall scandal and push more people into the undecided column, analysts say.
“That’s probably the main cause of most of the movement you’ve seen,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll. “The Caruso campaign has been the dominant source of providing new information to voters.”
The imbalance has left the Bass campaign fuming.
“It’s not surprising that $80 million of deceitful attack ads and mailers, and a 400 person paid canvassing team spreading lies have helped Republican Rick catch up to us,” the campaign said in the email. “If this makes you angry, we understand — it’s morally and ethically wrong and no one should be able to buy their way into City Hall!”
Marshaling outrage may be the best they can do. The Bass campaign doesn’t have access to the resources of a developer best known for creating high-end shopping centers in LA such as The Grove.
Their efforts in the final weeks will largely rely on text messages and social media, along with high-profile endorsements, said Mark Gonzalez, chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, which has endorsed the congresswoman. Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Hillary Clinton have all appeared alongside Bass in recent weeks, and her backers also include popular LA natives like Sen. Alex Padilla and former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
The election is expected to set a new record for turnout, an outcome that would likely draw younger and more ideologically left-leaning voters, benefiting Bass. But the recent poll has forced many to recalibrate their views on the race.
“You can’t ignore it. It’s one thing to be up a dozen points. It’s another thing to be tied, at least, in the polling. You have to take it for what it’s worth,” said Mike Trujillo, who advised Councilmember Joe Buscaino’s unsuccessful mayoral campaign.
Caruso’s money has allowed him to have the undivided attention of Angelenos. He’s gone both positive and negative, bashing Bass on a full-ride scholarship she received from USC and a speech she made at a Scientology event, while also highlighting his plan to build 30,000 shelter beds in a year. It’s also given him the luxury of going after low-propensity voters whom others have chosen not to court in the past, said John Shallman, a political consultant who ran City Attorney Mike Feuer’s unsuccessful campaign for mayor.
But Caruso may also be reaching the saturation point. It could be, Shallman said, that all that money has done whatever damage it could do among the crucial undecided voters.
“There’s no chance these folks don’t know who he is right now,” he said. “They know him, and they’re not choosing him. And that would suggest that the undecideds are more likely to break for Karen, regardless of their demographic.”
Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.
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