LOS ANGELES — Progressive Democrats were knocked on the defensive in their own party over crime and homelessness Wednesday after voters in two high-profile California races delivered a stark warning about the potency of law and order as a political message in 2022.

The landslide recall of a progressive prosecutor in San Francisco, Chesa Boudin, and the strength of a Republican-turned-Democratic mayoral candidate in deep-blue Los Angeles, Rick Caruso, who ran relentlessly as a crime fighter eager to clean up the streets, showed the extent to which voter anxieties about public safety have taken hold — even in some of the most progressive corners of the nation.

The results offered fresh evidence of the depths of voter frustration in major American cities about quality-of-life issues. They were also the latest signs of a restless Democratic electorate that was promised a return to normalcy under President Joe Biden and yet remains unsatisfied with the nation’s state of affairs.

On Wednesday, the day after the California elections, Boudin’s ouster and Caruso’s strong showing — he is currently the top vote-getter — were being parsed and picked apart by the Democratic Party’s moderate and liberal factions, as the party tries to hold together its fractious coalition in an increasingly brutal 2022 political environment.

“What’s clear is that Californians want the streets to look differently than they look today,” said Anne Irwin, founder and director of Smart Justice California, a criminal justice advocacy group. But she disputed the notion that the results were a rebuke for progressive policies. “We will lose battles here and there. That doesn’t mean we’re losing the war.”

For Democrats, the issue of crime and disorder exposes the party’s racial and ideological divisions, threatening to drive a wedge between some of the party’s core constituencies: Some voters are foremost demanding action on systemic disparities while others are focused on their own sense of safety in their homes and neighborhoods.


“People walking the streets, in many cases, feel themselves in danger, and that’s got to be dealt with,” said Willie Brown, a Democrat who is a former mayor of San Francisco.

But Brown said too many Democrats did not want to talk about “what cops do” for fear of crossing the party’s activist class and offending “AOS or AOC or whatever that woman’s name is,” he said dismissively of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, an influential progressive.

In 2019, Boudin’s victory was hailed as a watershed moment for the progressive prosecutor movement. A former public defender who had switched sides of the courtroom, he became a symbol of success as he vowed to shrink racial disparities, curb mass incarceration and more aggressively hold police accountable. He promised then that “the tough-on-crime policies and rhetoric of the 1990s and early 2000s are on their way out.” Instead, he is.

In Los Angeles, Caruso, a luxury real estate developer, spent $41 million to advance to a runoff against Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat and former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Two elections in two cities, of course, do not fully capture the dynamics of an issue as complex as crime politics. And even Tuesday, the left did not only suffer losses in prosecutor contests but scored a few victories. But the sheer fact that fears for public safety were central drivers in such heavily Democratic bastions is an ominous sign for the party in November, strategists in both parties said.

“If the Democratic primary electorate is showing a shift toward the middle on police and crime issues, then it is an even larger concern when thinking about the November general elections,” said Jefrey Pollock, a pollster for Caruso who also works for at-risk Democratic congressional candidates in other states.


Progressives blamed the media, outside money, Republican politicians and Caruso’s wealth — he outspent Bass 10-to-1 — for the setbacks.

But there was also introspection about the backlash.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., leader of the House Progressive Caucus, said multiple factors led to the urban anguish: soaring housing costs that have exacerbated homelessness, shuttered storefronts in downtowns that have not recovered from pandemic lockdowns, lawlessness to a degree and the perception of rampant criminality stoked by Republican politicians.

She also suggested that the “defund the police” phrase had oversimplified the Democratic message.

“I don’t in any way want to dismiss the concerns that people have around public safety,” she said, adding, “We should not be putting all of this at the feet of law enforcement. We should be supporting efforts to address public safety that go to the root causes — and we should be holding law enforcement accountable.”

Another test could be looming: George Gascón, a progressive district attorney of Los Angeles who moved to eliminate cash bail and impose greater leniency for low-level offenses on his first day, is also facing a potential recall. Signature gathering to qualify for a vote is well underway.

Centrists and former law enforcement leaders hailed the successful San Francisco recall as a crushing blow to progressives, while more liberal activists and members of Congress dismissed it as an only-in-San Francisco phenomenon that said more about Boudin’s missteps, money or the peculiarities of the recall.


“It’s clear that the toxic Defund the Police movement is dead and is being replaced by a movement of ‘Defund the Progressive District Attorney,’” Bill Bratton, a former New York police commissioner and former Los Angeles police chief who had endorsed Caruso and appeared in ads for him, wrote on Twitter.

Whitney Tymas, president of the Justice and Public Safety PAC, which spends heavily in district attorney races on behalf of progressive prosecutors, strongly disagreed.

“Rumors of the demise of the movement to support forward-thinking prosecutors are greatly exaggerated,” she said, citing the success in another Bay Area race on Tuesday. In that race, the Contra Costa County district attorney, Diana Becton, who is the state’s only Black prosecutor, was far ahead of a tough-on-crime challenger, Mary Knox, a deputy prosecutor who is white.

In another Los Angeles contest, the county’s tough-on-crime sheriff, Alex Villanueva, was forced into a runoff after winning little more than one-third of the vote.

The criminal justice landscape has been fast changing.

In the two years since George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer, the initial “defund the police” rally cry has since become so politically toxic that it is now more often used by Republicans as an epithet than earnestly by Democrats. The once-crusading energy for police reform has waned, too, as political strategists say that voters — especially in major cities — feel less safe, an emotional reality far more powerful than any crime statistic.

“People are not in a good mood, and they have reason not to be in a good mood,” said Garry South, a Democratic strategist in Los Angeles. “It’s not just the crime issue. It’s the homelessness. It’s the high price of gasoline.”


The results in California are not exactly a wake-up call in Washington. Top Democrats have been scrambling for months to address potential vulnerability on crime.

House Democrats raised local and state law enforcement funding by more than $500 million in this year’s appropriations package, delivering Democratic lawmakers a talking point to rebuff “defund” attacks from Republicans.

And at the White House, Biden has made a point of outright rejecting the most severe rhetoric embraced by the activist left.

“The answer is not to defund the police,” Biden said in February when he visited New York City, where Mayor Eric Adams, who won in 2021 primarily on a crime-fighting message, has been held up as an example of how to approach the issue.

Republicans say the issue represents a deep vulnerability for Democrats — on par with inflation and the economy.

“There are voters in the suburbs and exurbs all across this country — they’re seeing what’s happening in cities,” said Dan Conston, who heads the leading super PAC for House Republicans, which has already reserved $125 million in television ads this fall. “They’re both aghast and concerned for their communities.”


Rep. Ro Khanna, a San Francisco Bay Area Democrat, conceded that Democrats needed to rethink the way they talk about crime and urban violence as part of a broader messaging recalibration to avoid sounding elitist to voters whose three favorite television programs are “Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football and Thursday Night Football.”

“We need to be nonjudgmental and show we love the things that the people love,” Khanna said.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, who oversees the political arm of House Democrats, said it was imperative for the party to figure out how to navigate the tricky politics of crime.

“We need to not fall victim to a false choice between public safety and criminal justice,” Maloney said. “We better do both.”