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.”