California floats an idea to fight shoplifting that may even affect who controls Congress

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A California initiative to once again make shoplifting a felony for repeat offenders is developing into a contest over whether the state's Democrats are tough enough on crime to hang on to their seats in Congress.

A broad coalition of law enforcement and retailers aims to crack down on retail theft in the state, where videos of large groups of people brazenly rushing into stores and stealing in plain sight have gone viral. A proposal on the verge of appearing on the November ballot calls for harsher penalties for repeat shoplifters and drug dealers, among other things. The measure is set to be certified by the secretary of state Thursday.

Top Democrats are fighting to kill the proposal, citing concerns it would disproportionately incarcerate low-income people and those with substance use issues. But they are also motivated by the political implications of the tough-on-crime initiative bringing Republicans and conservative voters to the polls in droves.

“It is very clearly intended by Republicans to help drive turnout at the November election,” said Natasha Minsker, an advisor for a social justice coalition that opposes the initiative. “The Democrats are clear-eyed of the threat here.”

Leaders in both parties agree the outcome of California's congressional races could determine which party controls Congress in 2025. The tightest contests are concentrated in Republican-held districts in the Central Valley and Southern California carried by President Joe Biden in 2020.

“This ballot measure may literally have an impact on who controls the U.S. House of Representatives in the next two years,” Republican consultant Rob Stutzman said. “The Democrats are concerned, and the Republicans are hopeful, that it will skew turnout to be a little bit more conservative.”

With many California voters vexed over crime rates and drug abuse, the ballot measure could also turn out those who aren't typically interested in voting, said Wesley Hussey, professor of political science at California State University, Sacramento. Some of California's contested races could be determined by small numbers.

“There’s a lot of very marginal seats — seats that one party won by a thousand votes, or 2,000 votes, or 3,000 votes. and that might be enough to swing three, four or five House seats,” he said.

It’s hard to quantify the retail theft issue in California due to the lack of local data. But many point to major store closures and daily products such as toothpaste being locked behind Plexiglass as evidence of a crisis.

Crime is shaping up to be the major political issue in California's November’s election. San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón are facing tough reelection bids against challengers who have criticized their approach to crime and punishment.

The campaign committee representing House Republicans has attacked Democratic candidates in those swing districts, depicting them as indifferent to concerns over smash-and-grab robberies, auto break-ins and safe streets.

Facing tricky political calculus in a swing district north of Los Angeles, Democratic candidate George Whitesides broke with his party’s leadership last week and said he supported the ballot initiative on crime, which not only seeks to address retail theft, but some drug-related crime as well.

“It’s abundantly clear that we have to get these smash-and-grabs and attacks on our local businesses under control, and do more to keep our communities safe,” said Whitesides, who is attempting to oust Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Garcia.

Top California Democrats are pressuring law enforcement and business groups backing the ballot initiative to withdraw it. They argued that their option, a legislative package of 13 bills to go after professional online reseller schemes and auto thieves, would have more impact on crime without putting more people behind bars.

It's unclear whether the package has enough votes to pass.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom's office has tried to persuade business leaders to postpone their ballot proposal until 2026, the coalition said. But proponents said they cannot wait.

KCRA reported earlier this week that Democrats are now also weighing placing their own crime-related initiative on the November ballot to compete with the business groups' proposal. The deadline is next week.

“It’s not clear that anything will matter if its voters are already highly mobilized and motivated by a presidential contest,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. "These could matter at the margins, and elections are won and lost on the margins.”


Associated Press writer Michael R. Blood contributed to this report from Los Angeles.