California’s test on crime, House members in danger and more: What to watch in Tuesday’s primaries

Gabrielle Lurie/San Francisco Chronicle via AP
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Concern about rising crime is overtaking key elections in California Tuesday, where liberal voters are putting pressure on Democrats around the state to address a growing sense of lawlessness spurred during the pandemic.

In key statewide races and local contests in the Democratic strongholds of San Francisco and Los Angeles, tough-on-crime messaging and calls to remove homeless encampments are taking hold, testing the staying power of the criminal justice reform movement that swept the nation in recent years.

The issues have sparked a recall election targeting San Francisco’s district attorney, driven the campaign of a billionaire mayoral hopeful in Los Angeles and shaped the state attorney general contest. Crime and public safety were among the top three concerns of the electorate, according to an April UC Berkeley poll, outranking race relations, health care and the coronavirus pandemic.

Tuesday’s elections also see three Republican House members fighting primary challenges, as well as a slate of battleground-district voters preparing to choose nominees for November races that could decide control of the House.

Also on the ballot this week is the potential end of Roe v. Wade, as well as a spotlight on guns following several mass shootings. Abortion rights and gun safety have reignited Democratic fervor in California and elsewhere, and many candidates are seizing the moment to position themselves as the moral choice for liberals. Those issues may sway voters in several key House races and others around the country.

Here’s what we’re watching across seven states with big primaries and other elections on Tuesday night:

House incumbents in danger

National Republicans have spent eye-popping sums to prevent GOP Reps. Young Kim, in Orange County, and David Valadao, in the Central Valley, from getting shut out of the general election in two battleground districts. A loss by either would be a disaster for Republicans.

Kim's challenger, Greg Raths, is a pro-Donald Trump local council member who was recently accused of making anti-Semitic comments. Valadao, one of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, is trying to beat back a challenge Chris Mathys, a businessperson who ran for Congress last cycle in New Mexico. (House Majority PAC, Democrats’ flagship congressional super PAC, has been trying to boost Mathys on TV.)

Biden won both of those districts in 2020 — running up a 13-point margin in Valadao's seat. Democrats are targeting both districts and would much rather face Raths and Mathys than the two incumbents, who have large campaign accounts and known crossover appeal.

Another incumbent to watch on Tuesday: Rep. Dusty Johnson, the two-term Republican representing South Dakota's at-large district. He's facing a challenge from the right by state Rep. Taffy Howard, who says the incumbent has not been supportive enough of Trump.

Johnson voted for the creation of a bipartisan Jan. 6 commission and against stripping Trump-critical Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from her leadership position. Two super PACs are spending big in the race, one for Johnson and one for Howard.

Progressive prosecutors

In San Francisco, residents appear to be on the verge of ousting their district attorney, Chesa Boudin, a leader of the national movement for criminal justice reform. Boudin became a target of a campaign buoyed by deep-pocketed tech and real estate interests that has tapped into voters’ anxieties about crime.

Concerns about the rising rates of homicide, assault and property crime have put an uncomfortable spotlight on California’s Democratic leaders, who in recent years have favored policies that reduce sentencing and aim to lower the population of overcrowded prisons.

The number of homicides in California increased by more than 500 statewide in 2020 — the largest increase since the beginning of consistent crime recording in 1960, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. More recent data shows a decline in homicides and aggravated assaults since July 2021, but that hasn’t placated voters.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta, a Democrat and criminal justice reformer, is also under pressure — but likely won’t feel the heat until the general election this fall.

It’s almost certain Bonta will make it to the top-two runoff, so the real contest tonight is which of his rivals will capture most of the conservative votes. Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, a former Republican running unaffiliated, has garnered widespread support among moderates for her record of prosecuting perpetrators of some of Northern California’s grisliest crimes — including the infamous Golden State Killer.

But the path to the runoff is looking narrow for Schubert: a recent poll put her in a distant fourth place behind Bonta and the two Republicans in the race. Nathan Hochman, former Assistant U.S. Attorney General, is the GOP endorsee. But Eric Early, an avowed Trump supporter, is polling above Hochman. The Republican has received a boost from a pro-Bonta PAC that is running radio spots to elevate Early as the “pro-Trump, pro-guns, pro-life” candidate.

Homelessness takes center stage

The political discourse in Los Angeles has been dominated by debates over how to curb homelessness and clamp down on crime, and the region’s overwhelmingly liberal electorate will have the chance to show just how far to the right it’s willing to move on these issues.

The Los Angeles mayoral race has shaped into a showdown between Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, the longtime congresswoman and community activist, and billionaire businessperson Rick Caruso, a former Republican who vaulted into contention after spending $40 million — most of it from his own fortune — on campaign ads. Both say the tens of thousands of people who live on the streets daily indicate a city that’s in a state of emergency, but they offer divergent views of how to solve that problem.

Caruso’s campaign has used a massive funding advantage to spread its message across television and social media. His proposals to put 1,500 new officers on the street and require that people move out of encampments and into shelter beds has struck a chord with some voters, but recent polling shows he faces long odds of reaching the 50 percent threshold to win the seat outright — and is likely headed to a runoff with Bass.

Voters across Los Angeles County could also decide the race for sheriff, another public safety-focused contest that has captured national attention. This campaign has proven to be less about policy and more of a referendum on incumbent Sheriff Alex Villanueva, whose rhetoric has taken a sharp shift to the right since being elected as a progressive reformer in 2018.

Villanueva’s tenure has been marked by a series of scandals, including attacks on county supervisors and watchdog agency officials, along with a recent threat to investigate a Los Angeles Times reporter who wrote about a cover-up of an incident where a deputy knelt on an inmate’s head. The question isn’t whether those incidents will stop Villanueva from advancing to the runoff, but rather if he will maintain his seat by winning reelection in the primary outright.

Battleground districts set up November face-offs

House races that could tip control of the House of Representatives in November are all over Tuesday’s primary map.

In New Jersey, Tom Kean Jr. is seeking a rematch against Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski in one of the GOP’s best pickup opportunities of 2022. They also have an inviting target in Iowa, where Republicans will choose a nominee to face Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne in the most competitive seat in the state. The names to watch are state Sen. Zach Nunn and businessperson Nicole Hasso.

Democrats are looking to flip battlegrounds as well: In New Mexico, Democrats will choose a candidate to take on Rep. Yvette Herrell in a seat that became more favorable to them in redistricting. The top contender is Gabe Sanchez, a former Las Cruces city council member.

But the bulk of the action is in California.

First elected in 2020, GOP Rep. Michelle Steel in California’s 45th District will easily make it past primary night, but in November she could be vulnerable to a challenge from Democrat Jay Chen in a district Biden won by 6 points two years ago. Rep. Mike Garcia will also learn the identity of his challenger in a tough Biden +13 district, while Rep. Ken Calvert is protecting more GOP-friendly territory.

On the Democratic side, the GOP is looking to target Reps. Julia Brownley, Katie Porter, Mike Levin and Josh Harder.

And Republicans are also going after the open seat that Democratic Assemblymember Adam Gray and 2020 candidate Phil Arballo are seeking.

A handful of marquee races in other states

Republicans will also choose a nominee to take on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico, a state Biden carried by 9 points in 2020. Trump won the state of Iowa by nearly the same margin, but the GOP shift in the political environment since then means GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds and Sen. Chuck Grassley are on even safer ground now.

In Montana, former Trump-era Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is vying for a congressional comeback in the state’s newly drawn, heavily Republican House district. But he faces opposition from fellow Republicans and ethical issues in his past.

And in New Jersey, Sen. Robert Menendez’s son — Rob Menendez Jr. — is seeking the open, heavily Democratic congressional seat currently held by retiring Rep. Albio Sires.