Primary takeaways: Crime concerns in California deal blow to criminal justice reform push

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A chorus of calls for law and order outweighed the push for criminal justice reform in California, the largest of seven states from coast to coast where voters cast ballots in primaries on Tuesday.

The progressive prosecutor in the heavily blue city of San Francisco was recalled in a contest that grabbed outsized national attention, and a Republican turned Democrat who’s vowed to quickly tackle crime and homelessness in the Democratic stronghold of Los Angeles is headed to a runoff election in November.

In congressional races across the country, a handful of Republicans who crossed former President Donald Trump survived challenges from the right. In New Jersey, a couple of political dynasties were winners, while a one-time rising star in Iowa went down to defeat.

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Here are four takeaways as California – where the vote count still has a ways to go – Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, New Jersey and South Dakota held primaries. 

Crime plays super-sized role in California’s key contests

The recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin appears to be a stinging defeat for progressive supporters of the criminal justice reform movement. Three years after the former public defender won office vowing to hold police officers more accountable for wrongdoing, voters ousted Boudin from office. And it could serve as a warning for other Democratic prosecutors in big cities where crime and homelessness are on the rise.

Primary takeaways: Crime concerns in California deal blow to criminal justice reform push

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin hugs a supporter Tuesday, June 7, 2022, in San Francisco.
(AP Photo/Noah Berger)

That’s the argument organizers of a recall effort targeting Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón made.

“Tonight showed that voters from every community and every walk of life, regardless of political ideology, are rejecting pro-criminal policies that are masked as criminal justice reform,” a representative of the Recall Gascon Campaign said.

PROGRESSIVE SAN FRANCISCO DISTRICT ATTORNEY RECALLED BY VOTERS

But it’s far too early to tell if Boudin’s recall is a sign of things to come in major liberal cities. 

New Yorkers last November elected progressive prosecutor Alvin Bragg as the district attorney in the nation’s largest city. And Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, another prosecutor pushing for reform, won re-election.

In his defeat on Tuesday night in San Francisco, Boudin said “this is a movement, not a moment in history.” And Boudin, who could run for his job once again in November, touted that “the coalition that we built… it is broad, it is diverse, it is strong. And it is a coalition that is deeply committed to justice.”

In southern California, a law-and-order candidate is headed to a runoff in November in Los Angeles, the nation’s second most populous city.

Primary takeaways: Crime concerns in California deal blow to criminal justice reform push

Rick Caruso, a Democratic candidate for mayor, celebrates at his primary-night gathering in Los Angeles, Tuesday, June 7, 2022.
(AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

Rick Caruso, a pro-business billionaire developer who ran as an outsider and who dished out tens of millions of his own money to flood Los Angeles with campaign commercials, will face off against longtime Rep. Karen Bass, who enjoyed the backing of many in the Democratic establishment. 

Caruso told supporters as the results were still coming in that voters “sent a message. We are not helpless in the face of our problems. We will not allow this city to decline. We will no longer accept excuses. We have the power to change direction of Los Angeles, and that’s the way we’re voting.”

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And he emphasized that the city’s residents are “upset about the problems of homelessness, they’re upset about the problems of crime and corruption, but they’re also upset that our city government seems to accept these problems as if life has to be this way. What voters are saying tonight is, ‘No, it doesn’t.’”

Bass, who’s also pledged to tackle the soaring issues of crime and homelessness, highlighted her resume as a state and federal lawmaker, telling supporters, “We’re seeing the voters make a clear choice. They want leadership who is battle tested, mission driven, and who always fights for LA’s values.”

Primary takeaways: Crime concerns in California deal blow to criminal justice reform push

Rep. Karen Bass speaks during her election night party Tuesday, June 7, 2022, in Los Angeles.
(AP Photo/John McCoy)

California-based Democratic consultant and communication strategist Bill Burton, ahead of the primary, emphasized that “crime and homelessness combined are the most important issues to voters and are more intensely focused on than any issue I’ve ever seen before in politics.”

“People feel like politicians have fundamentally failed the people of California on these issues and it’s having a huge impact on politics here,” noted Burton, a veteran of the 2008 Obama presidential campaign and President Obama’s White House who later co-founded the Democratic powerhouse super PAC Priorities USA.

Republicans who’ve crossed Trump survive primary challenges

Thirty-five House Republicans last year voted with Democrats create a commission to investigate the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol by right wing extremists and other Trump supporters who attempted to disrupt congressional certification of President Biden’s 2020 Electoral College victory. Five of those lawmakers were on the ballot in Tuesday’s primary and it appears all five will survive to face voters again.

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Veteran Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey easily defeated a challenge by Republican podcast host Mike Crispi, who was backed by former Trump adviser Roger Stone. Last November, Trump called for a primary challenger to take on Smith, but he didn’t end up endorsing any candidate in the race.

GOP Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota crushed challenger Taffy Howard, who criticized the incumbent for his vote on the Jan. 6 committee as well as his support for anti-Trump Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming.

Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa, who also voted for the commission, ran unopposed in Tuesday’s primary.

Votes are still being tabulated in Mississippi, but it appears Rep. Michael Guest will advance to June 28 runoff primary election with Republican challenger Michael Cassidy, who targeted Guest over his vote in support of the commission.

And with less than a quarter of the votes counted in the open primary in California’s 22nd Congressional District, GOP Rep. David Valadao was trailing Democratic candidate and state lawmaker Rudy Salas, but slightly ahead of far-right Republican challenger Chris Mathys. In California, all the candidates regardless of party identification are listed on the same primary ballot and the top two finishers move on to November’s general election.

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Longtime GOP Sen. John Thune of South Dakota faced Trump’s ire after the number two Senate Republican criticized the then-president’s attempt to overturn his 2020 election loss to Biden. Trump slammed Thune as a “RINO” – which stands for Republican in name only – and tried to find someone to primary challenge the senator. But no credible challenger appeared, and Thune easily annihilated a lesser-known rival in Tuesday’s primary.

The vote count continues in Montana’s GOP primary in the state’s 1st Congressional District, where Trump-backed Ryan Zinke holds a razor-thin lead over rival Al Olszewski. Zinke is a former congressman who served as Interior secretary in the Trump administration. 

A Republican consultant who asked to remain anonymous to speak more freely said Tuesday’s results – following the drubbing a handful of high-profile Trump-backed candidates in Georgia’s May 24 primary – shows that “while Trump remains the most popular and influential person in the party, incurring his wrath doesn’t necessarily dictate defeat.”

Family political dynasties survive in New Jersey

Robert Menendez Jr. easily topped his rivals to win the Democratic nomination in New Jersey’s 8th Congressional District. Menendez is the son of longtime Sen. Bob Menendez.

In the 10th Congressional District, incumbent Rep. Donald Payne Jr. defeated a progressive challenger. Payne succeeded his late father to represent the North Jersey seat a decade ago.

And in the 7th Congressional District, Tom Kean Jr. bested a bunch of GOP primary rivals to win his party’s nomination. 

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Kean – the son of former two-term Republican Gov. Tom Kean, who remains popular among nearly all Garden Staters three decades after he left office – will face off in November in a rematch with two-term Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski. 

Rising star not shining so brightly anymore

Abby Finkenauer was a politician on the rise when she won election to Congress in the 2018 midterm elections, as the Democrats rode a blue wave to retake the House majority. But two years ago, she narrowly lost her bid for a second term.

And on Tuesday, she was soundly defeated by retired Navy Adm. Michael Franken in the race for the Democratic Senate nomination. Franken will now face longtime GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley in November.

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While the former congresswoman enjoyed the backing of such national progressive groups as Emily’s List and the League of Conservation Voters, Franken racked up local endorsements, including the support from more than a dozen state Democratic lawmakers.

Finkenauer launched her Senate bid last summer, but earlier this year she almost didn’t make the primary ballot, after a pair of Republican activists challenged her nominating petitions. The Iowa Supreme Court eventually ruled in Finkenauer’s favor.

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