Democrats try to flip narrative amid barrage of ‘soft on crime’ attack ads
Democrats knew the attacks were coming. And like clockwork, just as their political fortunes appeared to improve earlier this summer, Republicans pounced, battering Democrats with a barrage of “soft on crime” attacks just weeks before election day.
With voters identifying crime as a top concern in recent surveys, Republicans have increasingly turned to an old playbook: centering their closing pitch of the midterm campaign on crime. Over the last several weeks, Republicans have ramped up their spending on crime-related messaging, blanketing the airwaves with grisly television ads that cast Democrats as “dangerously liberal”, “different” and enablers of lawlessness.
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Critics say some of the ads, particularly those targeting Black Democratic candidates, play on racial tropes, a charge Republicans deny.
It is part of a broader strategy to shift the political conversation to issues that Republicans believe play in their favor, after spending the summer on the defensive over abortion in the wake of the supreme court’s decision to reverse Roe v Wade.
But unlike in 2020, when many Democrats felt ill-prepared to respond as Republicans sought to exploit a backlash to the racial justice protests, party strategists say their candidates were ready this cycle.
“There’s an old trope in politics that you shouldn’t repeat the charge,” said Matt Bennett, the vice-president of public affairs at Third Way. “But that is not what you want to do when you’re attacked as being ‘soft on crime’. What you have to do is make clear to voters that what the Republican is saying about you is a lie.”
In ads, interviews and debates, Democratic candidates are countering what they say are Republican “lies” and distortions about their views on policing and criminal justice by emphasizing their support for law enforcement and highlighting endorsement from officers. They are also trying to flip the issue: accusing Republicans of endangering law enforcement and public safety by weakening gun laws and refusing to condemn the insurrectionists who attacked police officers and defiled the US Capitol on January 6.
“Let me say this to my Maga Republican friends in Congress,” Joe Biden said during an August speech in Pennsylvania, “don’t tell me you support law enforcement if you won’t condemn what happened on [January] the 6th.”
Whether their counter-offensive will work remains to be seen. Democrats already face a difficult political environment – the president’s party tends to fare poorly in the midterms. Decades-high inflation and rising gas prices have only deepened Democrats’ challenges this cycle.
Though the economy and inflation still dominate the midterm landscape, crime and public safety are also front of mind for voters. A Politico-Morning Consult poll found that nearly two-thirds – 64% – of respondents cited crime as a “major issue”.
Republicans hold a 15-point advantage over Democrats on handling crime, according to a Fox News poll, with 54% of registered voters saying they trust Republicans more on the issue while 39% say they trust Democrats more.
And in recent weeks, Democrats have received worrying indicators that Republicans’ crime-centered messaging may be resonating. In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the races for Senate have tightened after a crush of Republican advertising on crime, while the party’s candidates for governor in Georgia and New Mexico are similarly fending off such attacks.
What you have to do is make clear to voters that what the Republican is saying about you is a lie
In these competitive races, Republicans are attempting to tie Democrats to the defund-the-police movement, even though most candidates do not endorse the view, or to bash them for supporting liberal policies that would redirect police funding or reform the bail system.
But it isn’t only battlegrounds.
In New York, polling suggests the contest for governor has narrowed as voters rank crime as the “most urgent issue” facing the state – even more urgent than inflation and abortion. In Oregon, another blue bastion, crime has become a central issue in the messy, three-way contest for governor. Amid growing fears that Democrats could lose the Oregon governorship for the first time since 1982, Biden was dispatched to the state to campaign alongside the party’s nominee earlier this month.
“Democrats have to remind voters that they take this issue seriously – and they do,” said Navin Nayak, president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “It’s just that historically we have not been in the habit of leaning in when we’re talking about the effort we’re making to make communities safer.”
This year, Nayak’s group partnered with Democratic pollsters Hart Research, Global Strategy Group and Impact Research to better understand Americans’ views of crime and public safety. Among the findings: a majority of Americans – and the overwhelming majority of people of color – identified easy access to firearms as a driver of violent crime.
“What the research underscores is there’s a real path for Democrats to neutralize Republicans on this issue because voters increasingly see the connection between gun violence and crime,” Nayak said. “And if there’s anything Republicans have done it is weaken gun laws, making it easier for people who commit crimes to get their hands on guns.”
Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, a prominent gun safety group founded by the former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, reached a similar conclusion after surveying battleground state voters in the wake of the Uvalde school massacre. They found that naming gun control as a critical component of public safety helped build support for Democratic candidates among crucial swing voters.
We’ve got to connect the dots to all the other ways in which that party has become extreme and radical
Now the group is helping counter the Republican crime blitz with ads that tie gun safety measures with combating crime and improving public safety. One spot invokes Uvalde and accuses Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor in Arizona, of opposing gun safety measures that would help prevent mass shootings and domestic violence. “Kari Lake, she’s a threat that we can’t ignore,” the narrator says.
Republicans’ “extreme policies on guns and their willingness to flood our communities with guns are making people less safe,” Nayak said. “We’ve got to connect the dots to all the other ways in which that party has become extreme and radical.”
The issue of crime has vexed Democrats, particularly following the 2020 protests over racial injustice when they vowed sweeping police and criminal justice reforms. But they were caught off guard, some strategists say, when Republicans, led by Donald Trump, seized on activist calls to “defund the police” to cast Democrats as weak and ineffective on crime.
“Last time, you got a lot of silence,” said Bennett of Third Way, which is working through its political arm to defend Democrats in nine competitive House districts from charges that they are weak on crime and border security.
Bennett argues that the most effective response to such attacks is to emphatically and repeatedly denounce them. “‘I have never believed that we should defund the police,” he suggested a Democrat might say. “That is a terrible idea. We need the police to keep us safe.’”
Yet underlying much of the political debate over crime, critics say, is a disturbing phenomenon: much of the Republican attack isn’t really about crime at all.
Republicans have long been accused of using the crime issue to appeal to white suburban voters by exploiting racist fears. And some say this year is no different, particularly the rhetoric and imagery used in ads targeting Black candidates such as Mandela Barnes, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Wisconsin.
One ad against Barnes from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, shows video clips of the Black man convicted this week of carrying out the 2021 attack at a Christmas parade in Waukesha that killed six people to assail the Democrat’s support for ending cash bail. It ends with an image placing him next to progressive House members, all of whom are women of color.
Barnes’s supporters have called the ad racist, while some see parallels with the infamous Willie Horton ad run by the GOP in 1988 to paint the Democratic presidential nominee, Michael Dukakis, as soft on crime. It centered on Horton, a Black man who raped a white woman while on furlough from prison as part of a program established in Massachusetts while Dukakis was governor of the state.
It’s sort of a fright tactic, a way of saying to them that if you let this person [into office], then this crime problem is going to come into your white community
Republicans have denied the accusations and say the ads accurately reflect his views on issues of social justice and public safety.
Sharon Austin, a political science professor at the University of Florida who has been observing the role of race in campaign messaging this cycle, said many of the GOP ads appear primarily directed at white suburban voters.
“It’s sort of a fright tactic, a way of saying to them that if you let this person [into office], then this crime problem is going to come into your white community,” she said, adding that it’s all done in racially coded language. “You’re talking about race, but you’re not doing it explicitly.”
Lost in the campaign discourse on crime, Austin continued, is any discussion around solutions, and rarely is the conversation centered around the people most affected by the violence, who tend to be poorer, Black and Latino.
“If you look at the campaign commercials, they’re not presented in such a way to appeal to those people and those people’s concerns about crime that is most likely to affect their communities,” she said. “It’s directed at people who live in predominantly white communities in those cities or who live in suburban areas surrounding those cities.”
Nowhere is the conversation over crime more heated than in Pennsylvania, where the Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz has used the issue as a cudgel against his Democratic opponent, John Fetterman.
In the final weeks of the race, Oz has unleashed a barrage of ads attacking Fetterman as weak on crime. The commercials specifically target Fetterman’s leadership of the state’s board of pardons, where the lieutenant governor has overseen a significant increase in the number of recommendations for clemency and release among those serving life sentences. Oz’s strategy appears to be resonating with voters, as he has cut Fetterman’s polling advantage in half over the past month.
“I understood, at the beginning of becoming the board of pardons chair, that this was going to be weaponized,” Fetterman said in an interview with Semafor this month. “You’re talking less than 1% of individuals that are condemned to die in prison … they’re usually elderly. They’re most likely to be Black. And they are deeply remorseful for what they were involved in, or what they did directly.”
In that same interview, Fetterman was pressed on his views about Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s progressive district attorney who has become one of Republicans’ favorite punching bags as violent crime in the city has risen. Philadelphia has already witnessed 433 homicides since January, a rate that is only exceeded by the record set last year. As part of their crusade against Krasner, Republicans in the Pennsylvania house are now seeking to impeach him.
“There’s plenty of things that I agree with him about,” Fetterman said of Krasner, who he credited with getting innocent people released from prison. “But there’s other issues that we disagree on … I think we need to be having a better relationship with the police and making the police very much part of this conversation, and making sure that the police feel they feel supported by the DA.”
We’re talking about investing in it in a way that would make our community safer. We’re talking about addressing mental health crises in a more strategic way
Progressive organizers on the ground in Philadelphia confirm that they are hearing a lot from voters who are alarmed about the violent crime in their neighborhoods. Frederick Hollis, an organizer with the hospitality union Unite Here, said gun violence was frequently cited by voters as their top concern.
“Their main issue was just the violence in the streets,” Hollis said after leading a day of door-knocking in the Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby. “That was their main issue, and I would talk to them about [how] we need to elect and vote the right people into office. That’s going to help us handle this violence that’s in the streets.”
Supporters of criminal justice reform lament how Republican candidates have successfully weaponized the issue of crime, arguing that the campaign tactic has come at the expense of crucially needed changes in policing.
“The problem is, the slogan [‘defund the police’] gets in the way of the real conversation around policy,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the progressive group Our Revolution. “We’re not talking about defunding the police. We’re talking about investing in it in a way that would make our community safer. We’re talking about addressing mental health crises in a more strategic way … The challenge for us is, we don’t have a slogan that is as effective.”