WASHINGTON — Some Democrats in tough re-election campaigns have tried to inoculate themselves on crime ahead of the midterm elections, hoping to counter brutal Republican ads on the issue. It may not work.
In Minnesota's hotly contested race in the 2nd District, based in St. Paul, Rep. Angie Craig proposed requiring that new members of Congress accompany police on ride-alongs.
Reps. Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger, both of Virginia, and Jared Golden of Maine — all of whom represent key swing seats — are among roughly a dozen House Democrats featuring ties to law enforcement in their ads.
"Defunding the police is flat-out wrong," Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio says in a spot that features a clip of her talking to police officers.
And late last month, the Democratic-controlled House passed a package of police funding bills following a protracted intraparty fight. Ultimately, the politics of demonstrating support for police proved more urgent than the reservations of progressive lawmakers who want to overhaul law enforcement.
The rush to flash pro-cop credentials shows that Democrats anticipated a fresh wave of Republican attacks on crime and policing that are landing in House, Senate and state-level races. But candidates and party operatives are split over whether to fire back at the GOP or stay silent on crime and stick to more favorable issues for Democrats.
In short, it's not at all clear that pre-emptive strikes and counterpunches will be enough to neutralize an issue that has bedeviled Democrats since the summer of protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in 2020 — including progressive calls to “defund the police."
Republican operatives say the economy is still the party's top issue across the country — and voters list it as their highest priority — but they contend homing in on crime and policing can help them capture the House majority and pad their margin in the chamber.
"There are certain places that crime has an outsized importance because of their local experiences with it," said Calvin Moore, spokesman for the Congressional Leadership Fund, an outside-spending group aligned with the House GOP. "In other places, it's because we have [Democratic] candidates dead to rights on the issue [who] said things two years ago that were out of step with where the country is."
Out of the 50 districts in which the CLF is advertising, law enforcement is the featured issue in 13 of them — a figure that doesn't include ads where crime and policing are mentioned but not the focus of the message — Moore said. Aside from the economy, no other specific policy area has gotten as much attention from the group as crime, and Republican candidates across the country are using it in their own attacks on Democratic rivals.
"This is an economy election, but we need to have other messages beyond just 'the economy sucks, vote for us,'" said one Republican strategist involved in midterm races who requested anonymity to candidly discuss strategy. "There is a sense the economy is baked in. [Crime] is that next avenue."
In New Mexico's 2nd District, represented by Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell, the CLF is running a spot that shows video of Democratic challenger Gabe Vasquez advocating for "serious police reform" in the U.S. "It’s not just about defunding police, it’s about defunding a system," Vasquez says in a June 2020 interview with KVIA-TV in El Paso during a racial-justice protest in Las Cruces.
He is one of the Democrats who ran his own ad touting support for law enforcement early in the campaign. In it, a sheriff praises Vasquez for voting to increase budgets for the police as a City Council member.
“If you were smart about this, you understood what the hits might be,” said Matt Corridoni, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “And your average Democrat is not anti-cop, so it was very easy for them to get ahead of it and be pro-active.”
The fight is a familiar one in recent politics, and Republicans telegraphed their plans to use crime in this year's midterms long ago.
During the 2020 election, then-President Donald Trump warned voters that Democrats would be soft on crime and endanger communities. His aides said that the line of attack motivated base Republican voters and helped swing voters — particularly Latino voters in Florida and Texas — in the GOP’s direction.
His rival, Joe Biden, walked a tightrope between the Democratic base’s calls for police reform and his own instinct to show support for law enforcement. Despite pressure from some of his own campaign aides, Biden refused to abandon his pledge to boost funding for local cops and touted it on the campaign trail to make clear that he did not want to “defund the police.”
"More candidates should take a page out of President Biden’s playbook and make it very clear that they do not support defunding the police, because that’s a slogan that, whether it’s accurate or not, has caught wind," said Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist and former Biden aide.
But some Democrats have decided the best answer this year is silence: Polls show crime just isn't a good issue for their party. Many Democratic candidates continue to focus on policy areas where more voters trust Democrats than Republicans to do a better job, including abortion, education and protecting democracy.
That reflects a tacit acknowledgment of what some in the party see as a long-term trust deficit on public safety that is hard, if not impossible, to fix with a few clever ads. Compounding the problem for Democrats: Big-dollar donors like to see hard-hitting ads that attack Republicans rather than the kind of positive spots that can build credibility for the Democratic Party and its candidates on an issue such as policing.
Republican consultant Brad Todd said the Republican edge on crime, combined with public concern about safety, makes it an obvious topic for GOP messaging and one that's less attractive for Democrats.
"You only put issues in ads when you have an advantage, your opponent has a disadvantage and voters find it relevant," Todd said. "We’ve gone through a period of time the last three years where Democrats have advocated consistently further left positions on crime than at any time in our memory."