GOP seizes on ‘defund the police’ to galvanize base
Republicans are seizing on calls to “defund the police” in down-ballot races across the country, taking their cues from President Trump’s criticism of the movement.
The attacks by Republicans in state and congressional races reflect their belief that a movement that has gained traction amid nationwide protests roiling the country will galvanize their base ahead of November, citing polling that shows Americans remain skeptical of taking funds away from police.
A Harvard CAPS/Harris poll released to The Hill this week found 72 percent of respondents saying police departments should not be defunded, while 28 percent said the departments should be defunded.
Meanwhile, 57 percent of voters said they opposed the term “defund the police,” but supported major reforms to departments, according to a Politico/Morning Consult survey released last week.
“It’s not the term that is not popular with people across the country, it’s the policy and the actual plan,” said Austin Chambers, the president of the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC). “The people we’re really after in the 2020 election that are going to determine these elections from the top of the ticket all the way down know exactly what defund the police means, and they’re scared to death of it.”
Those in favor of defunding police departments argue that police departments are currently over-funded and call for reallocating some of their funding to social services or push for alternative public safety forces.
Though initially a core platform of the Black Lives Matter movement, the policy has gained traction among a wider swath of protesters and progressive activists after the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.
Still, most Democratic leaders, including former Vice President Joe Biden, have expressed opposition to defunding the police, even as they call for police reform. Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.) referred to “defund the police” as “one of the worst slogans ever” in an event with The Washington Post this month.
Despite the opposition by many national Democrats, the move to defund the police has gained traction in some cities across the country. New York City and Los Angeles are among major cities looking into cutting funding for their police force. Meanwhile, Minneapolis’s city council voted earlier this month to dismantle the policy department in favor of a community-led public safety approach after Floyd’s death.
That has given Republicans eyeing Congressional and legislative races across the country an opening to seize on the issue.
Tamika Hamilton — a Black GOP Air Force veteran challenging Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) in California’s 3rd District — said she’s made hundreds of calls to voters within the last week to discuss her position on police reform, which she feels needs to protect “civil rights of the community, as well as the police officers and we also need to make sure that those bad apples are held accountable.”
Hamilton, who’s also married to a police officer, said the voters she’s spoken with have largely voiced support for law enforcement, adding that most of the negative comments directed at her over her support for police have been on social media from people who live outside the district.
“I feel like I’m in one of those crazy positions because I’m in the military had been for 17 years. And then my husband’s a police officer. And then on top of that I’m Black,” she told The Hill. “I’ve felt a lot of responsibility on all fronts to speak out on it. And it hasn’t affected my campaign negatively because people are like you are the best spokesperson for this,” she told The Hill.
Among the attack ads being used, the State Government Leadership Fund (SGLF), a policy group that works with the RSLC, released an ad targeting Democrats on defunding the police.
The ad, titled “Danger,” shows a mother portrayed by an actor calling the police amid a break-in and being told by a 9-1-1 operator that an officer was not available, as images of her husband and child flash on the screen.
“Radical liberals are fighting for a police-free future,” a narrator says. “Don’t let them put your family in danger.”
The spot was part of television and digital buys in Atlanta, Tampa, Charlotte, Minneapolis, Charlotte, Pittsburgh, and Dallas.
Will Douglas, a biracial GOP candidate running for Texas’s 113th State House District in Dallas, called the push to defund police departments “absurd” in an interview with The Hill.
“I haven’t spoken to any voter who thinks that defunding or abolishing the police is a rational idea,” Douglas said.
“I do believe that there needs to be reform around procedures and how confrontation is handled,” he said. “It’s something that I think both sides can agree on, but unfortunately those on one side of the aisle want to take money away from them.”
Shay Hawkins, a Black Republican candidate running for Ohio’s 6th State House District, said the responsibility for reform should lie with local politicians who oversee police departments.
“Politicians have failed and now their solution is to basically blame a group of employees [police], 99.9 percent of which are probably not bad actors,” Hawkins said. “This is their primary job, keeping their citizens safe.”
The Republican push to seize on defund the police as a campaign theme comes as polls show Trump falling behind to Biden in national polls and a slew of battleground states, as voters express misgivings about the White House’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and the racial protests hitting the country.
Trump’s declining standing has also raised fears that it would hurt Republicans in down-ballot races.
But Trump, and now down-balled Republicans, have doubled down on “law and order” as a campaign theme in recent weeks. Trump has also repeatedly vowed to protect the police and come down hard on protesters following instances of violence that have popped up amid the largely peaceful protests.
“It’s going to boil down to simply, do you want to fund the police department, and you want real leadership and you want to heal the divide in this country, or do you want to defund your police department and have lawlessness and chaos in this country,” Chambers, the head of the RSLC, said.
“This is going to create a huge divide on their side,” he added. “It’s going to create a great opportunity for Republicans to bring back the suburbs, win these key seats in the states we gotta win, and I think it’s going to benefit the president as well.”