Voters in at least three California counties appeared to have rejected district attorney candidates funded by a liberal consortium that includes New York billionaire George Soros and other wealthy political donors. (Francois Mori / Associated Press)

By Abbie VanSickle and Paige St. John
Jun 06, 2018 | 9:55 PM

  • Big spending by George Soros and liberal groups fails to sway D.A. races in California

As they poured millions of dollars into district attorney campaigns, New York billionaire George Soros and other liberal donors seemed poised for victory in California.

They enjoyed the political momentum, having helped elect more than a dozen prosecutors from Florida to Texas.

They had experience with the state’s voters, who overwhelmingly approved ballot measures in recent years to reduce the number of people behind bars.

And the prosecutor races were in counties that solidly backed Hillary Clinton for president less than two years ago.

But voters in three closely watched district attorney elections in California appeared to deliver a sharp defeat this week to the national network of wealthy donors and activist groups that is attempting to reshape the criminal justice system by electing liberal prosecutors.

Incumbent district attorneys in Sacramento, San Diego and Alameda counties were well ahead of Soros-backed challengers in unofficial results posted Wednesday.

In the only race where Soros backed an incumbent, the results were too close to determine whether the Contra Costa County district attorney managed to avoid a runoff in the November general election.

The results suggest the campaigns failed to energize like-minded voters to turn out against entrenched incumbents backed by police unions in a midterm primary election, in which conservatives historically are more likely to vote. And they appeared to underestimate the deeply rooted support that law enforcement enjoys in a state as politically blue as California.

The network’s past victories in Chicago and other parts of the country often relied on tapping voter anger over police shootings of African Americans or other hot-button issues. In Sacramento, the strategy didn’t work for a Soros-backed candidate who attempted to ride a wave of public outrage over the recent killing of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man shot by officers searching for a burglary suspect.

“People were angry enough, but it did not last to the polls,” said the Rev. Shane Harris, founder of the National Action Network’s San Diego chapter, who said he was speaking on his own behalf and not for the organization.

Harris faulted a reliance on television ads bought by Soros’ political action committee in San Diego, noting that the ads were pulled in the final week before the election.

“Soros, if you’re going to put money into something, put it into people and activists and groups and leaders who can really mobilize and get people to the polls,” Harris said. “You can pay for all the ads in the world, but if people don’t go to the polls, it really doesn’t matter.”

The campaign spent a significant effort to engage people who don’t normally vote, giving grants to the American Civil Liberties Union to craft and hone messaging. But in Sacramento, roughly 113,000 voters cast ballots for a district attorney candidate, compared with more than 183,000 four years ago, according to preliminary voting figures, though approximately 220,000 ballots remain uncounted.

Whitney Tymas, the strategist who directed Soros’ efforts in the campaigns, said she believed the final count in San Diego and other counties will show a higher level of engagement in the district attorney race there than four years ago.

“California reminds us that this is hard work,” Tymas said in a statement to The Times. “Across jurisdictions, prosecutor candidates are no longer competing to be toughest on crime, but smartest on crime.… The work continues.”

The elections, typically local affairs, garnered national attention this year after a consortium of liberal donors, headlined by Soros, pumped money into the races. Many of the players joined forces in California four years ago to pass Proposition 47, which turned drug use and most theft convictions from felonies to misdemeanors.

Targeting district attorney elections highlighted the enormous influence elected prosecutors wield within local criminal justice systems, deciding what charges to prioritize for prosecution and when to seek rehabilitation or lengthy incarceration. By supporting the election of like-minded district attorneys, the consortium hoped to secure many of the sentencing and bail policies they have struggled to realize through laws or ballot initiatives.

Soros-backed candidates pledged to reduce incarceration, crack down on police misconduct and revamp a bail system they contend unfairly imprisons poor people before trial.

The proposals alarmed some law enforcement officials who expressed relief Wednesday but said it was unclear what the results mean going forward.

“You expect incumbents to win absent some scandal,” said Michele Hanisee, head of the union that represents L.A. County prosecutors. “It’s hard to say if this is a rejection of Soros candidates or if this is just par for the course, but I think a larger policy issue needs to be asked…. Do we want big outside donors funding elections?”

Since 2014, Soros has spent more than $17 million in 18 races outside California, winning in all but a handful. Private foundations and donors provided another $11 million in largely unreported grants to nonprofit advocacy groups.

In California, Soros spent nearly $3 million. His heavy bet on California races drew money from other wealthy donors. The spouses of executives at Netflix, Instagram and Facebook rallied around the same candidates, joined by Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs.

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