In California, Democrats Square Off in Fierce 2022 Warfare

LOS ANGELES — The mailers and online ads vividly paint David Kim as a right-wing extremist, accusing him of running for a House seat in California “with QAnon-MAGA support” from “QAnon Republicans.”

But Mr. Kim is not a Republican. He’s a progressive Democrat who supports “Medicare for all” and a Green New Deal. And the attacks come from a fellow progressive Democrat, Representative Jimmy Gomez, who is fighting to keep his seat in Congress.

The vitriol in what is normally a quiet race for a decidedly safe Democratic seat illustrates how liberal California, of all places, has become home to some of this year’s most vicious political mudslinging — and not across party lines.

Unlike a vast majority of the country, where voters are mulling the yawning ideological gaps between Republicans and Democrats on their midterm ballots, California has a top-two open primary system, which means two Democrats can — and often do — square off against each other in general elections. And in many cases, those candidates prove strikingly similar on policy, forcing them to dig deep to distinguish themselves.

Lately, it’s grown pretty nasty.

Democrats are running against Democrats in six House races, 18 state races, and dozens of municipal and local elections around California in November. In many contests, the candidates have resorted to extreme and divisive language, in a reflection of the growing polarization of American politics.

Mr. Mejia’s campaign manager, Jane Nguyen, called Mr. Koretz’s accusations “ridiculous smears” and said he was “out of touch.” Since the leak this month of a recording of City Council members in a discussion that involved offensive comments, she and other allies of Mr. Mejia have sought to portray Mr. Koretz as a racist, accusations he denies.

Some Democrats worry that the poisonous environment is bad for party unity.

“There are wild charges going back and forth about whether one candidate is a closet conservative and one is a closet Marxist,” said Garry South, a longtime Democratic strategist. “I just don’t think these runoffs between Democrats should turn into a derby about who can accuse the other of being the most extreme. That’s not a healthy debate to have.”

Mr. South and other consultants pointed out several other races where the animosity was at full pitch, including a contest for a City Council seat on the wealthy Westside of Los Angeles. One candidate, a centrist Democrat with a background in employment law, has tried to link her progressive opponent, a criminal defense lawyer, to pedophiles and rapists. That lawyer, in turn, has called her a racist.

But Mr. Gomez ended up winning the 2020 general election by a surprisingly slim margin of six points. In April 2021, he asked the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to inject money into the contest for what has traditionally been a safe seat for the party, telling donors he was “in a very tough race,” HuffPost reported.

This past August, Mr. Gomez’s campaign unveiled a website titled “Who Is the Real David Kim?” that accuses him of failing to support democracy and of hiding a “QAnon MAGA endorsement”; a core falsehood of QAnon is that a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles is trying to control politics and the news media. In October, Mr. Gomez has sent out three mailers juxtaposing photos of Mr. Kim with an image of Jan. 6 rioters climbing up the walls of the Capitol, and has paid for internet ads with side-by-side pictures of his rival and former President Donald J. Trump.

The QAnon reference, explained Steven Barkan, a consultant for Mr. Gomez’s campaign, stems from the fact that, in 2020, Mr. Kim asked for and received endorsements from the losing candidates in the primary. One of them, Joanne Wright, a Republican, turned out to have embraced conspiracy theories, and had a “Q” image on her Twitter page before being kicked off the platform. Mr. Barkan said that Ms. Wright’s views were exposed before the primary, and he argued that Mr. Kim either knew or should have known whom he was dealing with. (Ms. Wright did not respond to requests for comment.)

“It is correct to say we don’t think he’s QAnon,” Mr. Barkan conceded. “But he ran with QAnon support. It is serious when people like Kim give credibility to QAnon.”

Some of the Gomez campaign’s attacks have also centered on the fact that Mr. Kim was once a registered Republican; Mr. Kim says he was raised in a Republican family but long ago changed his registration.

Mr. Kim called the advertising campaign a dirty tactic and said the endorsements, which included one from a Democrat he defeated, showed that he was “a unifying candidate and leader” willing to work with people who hold different viewpoints. He also pointed out that the endorsement occurred in the 2020 race, yet was being misleadingly presented as if it happened in the current campaign.

Some political observers note that it has scarcely been a decade since California moved to an open primary system, and say that some adjustment is necessary. But Mr. Przylucki argued that the hostilities emerging in the current system called for a complete rethinking of traditional Democrat-versus-Republican politics.

“Democrats are trying to figure out what it means to be a party in a place like Los Angeles,” he said. “Or whether it even makes sense.”

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