Caruso, Bass play for endorsements in election endgame

As LA’s mayoral campaign enters its final stretch, Karen Bass leads Rick Caruso on endorsements — and in the polls

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Karen Bass, Elon Musk and Rick Caruso (Getty Images)
President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Karen Bass, Elon Musk and Rick Caruso (Getty Images)

In early August, eight weeks after primary voters whittled L.A.’s crowded mayoral field down to just two very different Democratic opponents, the race got a surprise midsummer jolt: The White House was endorsing a candidate — and it certainly wasn’t the real estate titan and former Republican Rick Caruso.

“Karen Bass has our friendship,” read part of a joint statement from President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, “and she has earned our respect.”

Caruso has also scored notable public support, including from the Los Angeles Police Protective League and celebrities such as Elon Musk and Kim Kardashian. But as the city’s highest-profile mayoral race in years heads into its final stretch, it’s Bass, with the support of not only the White House but seemingly California’s entire Democratic establishment, who has a commanding lead on endorsements.

The question is whether such endorsements actually matter in November.

“The answer,” said Fernando Guerra, a political science professor and director of Loyola Marymount’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles, “is yes and no.”

‘Operationalized’ support

TRD spoke with three L.A. politics experts, including Guerra, who all emphasized the same basic point: Endorsements can and do, in fact, matter to voters, but their impact is highly nuanced. While one endorsement may not do much at all or can even backfire, another that “can be operationalized,” in Guerra’s words, can be greatly helpful.

“Operationalized,” Guerra continued, means endorsements that translate into additional money or campaign volunteers, or are symbolic in a way that can be effectively touted by the candidate.

Endorsements that hold sway with broader constituencies — teachers, police, Latinos — are particularly useful. So are those that come from seemingly outside a candidate’s wheelhouse, and thus help demonstrate a diverse base of support.

“What you want to be thinking about,” added Matt Barretto, a political science professor at UCLA, “is, ‘Is this person going to bring new people into my campaign?’”

Some of Caruso’s highest profile endorsers almost certainly don’t.

The real estate candidate’s endorsement from the PPL, the city’s powerful police union, which threw its support behind Caruso back in February — even though another then-candidate, Joe Buscaino, is a former LAPD officer — was likely the most important endorsement of the entire race, said Guerra. Especially during the primary, the issue of rising crime was expected to be a major factor in November, so the support of the city’s police union was highly symbolic.

The endorsement also meant a potential army of campaign volunteers and, perhaps even more important, financial resources. While Caruso has already poured more than $40 million of his own fortune into the race in the form an ubiquitous ad blitz, during the primary the PPL took a different tack by airing dark, highly negative commercials against Bass on its own.

“And you will probably see that again,” said Guerra. “It allows Caruso to stay above the fray.”

But many of the developer’s other endorsements likely amount to little — and some may have actually hurt him.

Sign Up for the undefined Newsletter

Musk’s endorsement, which came days before the primary and by Twitter, called Caruso “awesome” and emphasized the candidate’s “executive competence.” Caruso responded by simply thanking Musk for his support.

But the endorsement of the world’s richest man — who’s often described as a political libertarian and notoriously fled California — likely plays much better in Texas than heavily Democratic L.A. It might have even been a net loss for Caruso, who already has a problem trying to convince voters he’s actually a Democrat.

“I think he was already going to win the people who [like] Elon Musk, and Elon Musk is not a popular figure among most Democrats,” said Barretto. “So I don’t think that’s a good one.”

Another Caruso endorsement, from ex-mayor Richard Riordan, the city’s last Republican mayor, also doesn’t help Caruso with progressives he needs to win, even if Riordan was a generally respected public official. Nor does the support of Buscaino.

Caruso, unsurprisingly, also has support of much of the real estate community, including an official endorsement from the landlord group Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles. Other powerful industry groups, such as the California Apartment Association, are barred from endorsing candidates but have been bankrolling their own ads, a tactic that could have some impact. Likely reading the city’s political tea leaves, the developer, who has said he supports rent control, has not boasted about the support from property owners. His team did, however, point to an endorsement from a Korean contractors’ group, as part of a broader effort to demonstrate support from the Korean American community.

Celebrity power

Caruso also has plenty of support from the stars, including the most L.A. celebrity of all — Kim Kardashian — who announced her support on Instagram in May. “I recently met with Rick Caruso, who is running for mayor in Los Angeles, and I don’t typically endorse anyone in politics,” Kardashian wrote. But the reality television queen believed Caruso could really make a difference on crime. “Also, the homeless issue. It’s such a problem, and I think that, with him, he can offer a better path to a better life.”

The post was widely noticed, of course — Kardashian has more than 300 million followers on Instagram. It’s possible her star power did in fact sway some Angelenos into Caruso’s camp, and even more likely it clued in others to the fact that a mayoral race was happening at all. Over the summer other celebrities also publicly joined Caruso’s camp, including Wolfgang Puck, Scooter Braun and Caruso’s Brentwood neighbor Gwyneth Paltrow.

Yet even if they have big names, those endorsements, the experts said, likely have relatively little impact. Even in L.A., voters don’t necessarily identify with or assign any political credibility to the stars (as the Internet quickly pointed out, Kardashian famously lives in Calabasas anyway), and then there’s the question of their impact on the image Caruso, a billionaire who owns a 216-foot yacht called Invictus is actually trying to project — and the risk that endorsements from Hollywood A-listers only reinforce the public’s perception of the candidate as a rich and connected white guy.

“The reality of local politics is that it’s local,” said Tom Hogen-Esch, a professor of political science at California State University – Northridge. “And if you’re seeming to be kind of out of touch and identifying with wealthy people — I just don’t think that’s going to [translate] in the minds of voters into, ‘Oh, if I elect Caruso my streets are going to be paved more.’”

One notable exception might be Caruso’s endorsement from Snoop Dogg, which would be particularly useful if the iconic rapper were to get more involved by, for example, hosting campaign events geared at generating turnout.

Bass’ endorsements present a stark contrast. The White House announcement nailed home the point, but her endorsements already signal that she’s the clear choice of the national and state Democratic establishment, with dozens of party supporters who include Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, Alex Padilla and Adam Schiff. She also has the backing of former L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, five sitting City Council members and four school board members. Her wide labor support, which includes endorsements from local teachers’, nurses’ and teamsters’ unions, however, could prove even more useful, because of the groups’ built-in fundraising and volunteer networks.

As the race enters its final stretch, if Bass — who had a double-digit lead in a recent UC Berkeley poll — becomes even more of a clear-cut favorite, her endorsement advantage will likely widen too, as potential supporters see less and less downside to adding their names.

Yet there are still two even bigger Democratic stars Guerra, at least, is waiting for: “Former president Obama and Michelle Obama … my instinct is that there is a chance that her team’s working on it.” Or the Bass team could in fact already have the Obamas in tow, he added, and simply be holding its card.

Read more