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George Gascón survived the primary. Can Nathan Hochman unseat him as D.A.?

Left, Los Angeles County district attorney George Gascon meets with media in Grand Park on Tuesday, March 5, 2024 in Los Angeles, CA. Los Angeles County district attorney candidate Nathan Hochman smiles while talking to former California Governor Pete Wilson during primary night at Luxe Hotel on Tuesday, March 5, 2024 in Los Angeles, CA. (Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times, Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascon, left, and former federal prosecutor Nathan Hochman. (Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times, Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón had a rough Tuesday night, winning an alarmingly low share of votes for an incumbent after polls showed a majority of voters view him negatively.

But he may have also gotten exactly what he needed, experts say.

Read more: Primary election results: Los Angeles County

As of Thursday afternoon, Gascón led a crowded primary field with nearly 23% of the vote, followed closely by former federal prosecutor Nathan Hochman with 17%. Only Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonathan Hatami, with 13%, stood in long-shot striking distance of preventing a November showdown between Gascón and Hochman. But he conceded the race late Wednesday.

Consultants and political observers said Gascón's performance was weak for an incumbent in a countywide race. But the "godfather of progressive prosecutors" probably drew the opponent he wanted in Hochman — a former Republican whom Gascón can try to portray as a conservative in a November election during which some experts expect more liberals to turn out for the presidential contest of Joe Biden versus Donald Trump.

“This is not going to be a 'shades of gray' election," said Dan Schnur, a former advisor to Republican politicians who teaches political communications at USC. "The fact that Hochman has been one of the most conservative voices in the race does allow Gascón to draw a more stark contrast in a left-leaning city like Los Angeles. But the fact that Gascón’s numbers are so low suggests that he still starts at a considerable disadvantage.”

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Hochman — who launched an unsuccessful bid for state attorney general as a Republican in 2022 — has bristled at the notion that he's too conservative to compete in November, a point often raised by his opponents in the primary. He describes himself as a centrist who registered as both Republican and Democrat in the past, now running as an independent with a promise to depoliticize the district attorney's office. He says he's never voted for Trump, described his politics as "socially moderate" and says his campaign has attracted bipartisan support.

But a review of campaign finance donations shows Hochman received more than half a million dollars from Republican mega-donor Gerald Marcil. His campaign also has paid more than $100,000 to the Pluvious Group, a Republican firm that organized fundraisers for Trump's 2020 campaign.

Political consultant Brian Van Riper, who is not involved in the race, said Gascón’s strategy will be to "hang the likeness of Donald Trump over Nathan Hochman. They’re going to run against Donald Trump."

Gascón and his surrogates have wasted little time trying to paint Hochman as too conservative. Jamarah Hayner, a strategist for his campaign, said Wednesday that Gascón's primary showing was “to be expected with a packed field of opponents spending months and millions of dollars throwing everything they had against the D.A."

"Now, we have a clear Democrat-versus-Republican choice going into November, which we’re very optimistic about," Hayner said.

The Prosecutors Alliance of California — a group of progressive district attorneys run by a Gascón ally — also sent out an email blast Wednesday describing Hochman as "a longtime Republican claiming to be an independent in a clear effort to conceal a right-wing agenda."

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Hochman describes his policy platform as "the hard middle," with some positions that strike a moderate tone. He favors diversion for nonviolent low-level offenders and is a champion of CARE courts, which offer voluntary treatment and services to people experiencing homelessness. But his statements on public safety can border on the apocalyptic, such as when he compares L.A. to "Gotham City."

Hochman's fundraising ability could make him a formidable November challenger. He easily lapped the primary field in campaign cash, and after Gascón raised more than $12 million in his successful 2020 bid, any challenger will need a considerable war chest.

To win reelection, Gascón will have to overcome perceptions that he's soft on crime and has run the office in a way that his detractors say has sown discord. During his term, Gascón lost the support of nearly all of his own prosecutors, faced two recall attempts and took constant criticism for policies that severely limited when prosecutors could use sentencing enhancements or seek to try juveniles as adults.

In a case that revolved around California's “three strikes” law, a judge deemed Gascón's policy of not seeking those enhancements illegal. Gascón has appealed, and the matter will go before the state Supreme Court.

Hochman has vowed to carve up the progressive district attorney's policies and promised to serve as prosecutor in the "trial of George Gascón."

“The witnesses that we will be presenting will be the real-life victims of his policies," Hochman said in an interview Wednesday. "It will be the store owners who have been pepper-sprayed by smash-and-grab robbers, who watched their life savings and life’s work being destroyed. It’ll be people who had their houses robbed, their cars broken into. It’ll be parents who’ve lost their children to fentanyl poisoning.”

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Property and violent crime rose by about 8% in L.A. County from 2019 to 2022, according to California Department of Justice data. Under Gascón's policies, the office's misdemeanor filing rates plummeted, a decision critics have linked to increased property crime rates, especially car break-ins. And in some cases, critics have tied Gascón's policies to heinous crimes.

Criminologists, however, say its overly simplistic to blame short-term crime trends on a prosecutor's policies. LAPD data also show homicides and robberies have declined over the last two years.

Statistics may not matter much to voters who are already fearful of crime, Van Riper said. But Gascón could face a more favorable electorate in November. Data show just 20% of registered L.A. County voters had returned ballots as of Wednesday afternoon, and the returnees skewed older and conservative.

Hochman believes he will gain the support of virtually every voter who chose a candidate other than Gascón and says he plans to invite some of his opponents who ran to serve as part of a team "that can really restore the prominence to the D.A.’s office.”

Hatami did not immediately endorse Hochman when he dropped out Thursday, instead sending a message of appreciation to his supporters.

"Even though the vote count didn’t bring the results we hoped for in this election, I am so proud of all we have accomplished together," he said in a statement. "Our work to restore public safety, victims’ rights, transparency and accountability and bring real reforms to our justice system isn’t over. We ran an honorable and positive campaign that focused on the issues."

Schnur and Van Riper both noted that Hochman is not likely to parlay the entirety of the anti-Gascón crowd, as supporters of more moderate candidates may turn back to the incumbent. But the candidates who finished closest to Hochman in the primary — Hatami and Superior Court Judge Debra Archuleta — ran aggressive, tough-on-crime campaigns that may see their voters migrate to the former federal prosecutor.

In a November contest with Trump on the ballot, Van Riper said, Gascón may benefit if a larger number of liberal voters who would welcome the successes of his tenure — including a dramatic improvement in the office's handling of wrongful convictions and stepped-up efforts to prosecute police misconduct — turn out.

But Hochman said his plan is to run a campaign that brings together his primary rivals' supporters and law enforcement leaders, focused on public safety, not partisanship.

“The only way George Gascón can win is if he makes this about politics rather than about people’s safety," Hochman said. "He needs to distract the voters from looking at their own safety."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.