Senate

The Memo: Republicans find traction with ‘soft-on-crime’ attacks on Democrats

Republicans are returning to an old playbook in the final stretch of the midterms campaign — and it looks like it’s working.

GOP attacks on Democratic candidates as being “soft on crime” look to be shifting two of this year’s marquee Senate races, in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, in Republicans’ favor.

Republicans believe Democrats are vulnerable on crime nationally, too — and haunted by “Defund the Police,” a politically counterproductive slogan from which most Democrats have tried to distance themselves with limited success.

“I mean, they are vulnerable because they are soft on crime — and voters say, ‘No, that’s not what we want,’” GOP pollster Glen Bolger told this column. Crime, he added, “may not be the top issue, but it is up there and it is definitely a concern for voters.”

Democrats believe their positions are being sensationalized or outright miscast by their opponents.

But the shift in the polls in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania has happened just as GOP attacks on Democratic candidates Mandela Barnes and John Fetterman have ramped up.

In Wisconsin, incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R) has attacked Barnes as being “dangerously liberal on crime” while the national Republican Party has sent out emails with subject lines like “9 times Mandela Barnes called for emptying prisons.”

Barnes does want to reduce the prison population, though his allies would argue that it is hyperbolic to accuse him of wanting to “empty” jails. He is opposed to cash bail, believing it to be fundamentally inequitable.

Barnes has accused the Johnson campaign of engaging in alarmist “lies” about his record.

Be that as it may, Barnes has seen the 5-point lead he enjoyed in the RealClearPolitics polling average in mid-September whittled away and then overturned. Johnson now leads by 3 points.

In Pennsylvania, Fetterman is holding onto his lead but it has been cut roughly in half, from about 8 points to 4 points since the summer, as his record on crime has been placed under a harsher spotlight by Republican competitor Mehmet Oz and his allies.

Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, also serves as chairman of its Board of Pardons. The board makes recommendations to the governor as to whether prisoners’ sentences should be commuted.

The board’s willingness to make such recommendations has increased exponentially during Fetterman’s tenure, which began in 2019.

During that time, the board has recommended 50 commutations of life sentences, having pushed for only about 12 such decisions in the preceding decade.

Fetterman has refused to yield in the face of attacks. His website describes the justice system as “too often unforgiving and vindictive” and notes his leadership of the Board of Pardons.

A recent ad from the Fetterman campaign includes a testimonial from Sean Kilkenny, the sheriff of Montgomery County, who declares himself sick of the crime-related attacks and insists “John gave a second chance to those who deserved it.”

But Oz’s attacks are not going to abate anytime soon. In a recent Fox News interview, the Republican branded Fetterman “the most pro-murderer candidate in America.”

Jabs against Democrats for alleged softness on crime have been thrown by Republicans for more than a generation. 

The most infamous example came in 1988, when Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis lost to Republican George H.W. Bush after having come under attack for his support of furlough programs as governor of Massachusetts.

A now-infamous ad from an outside group focused on Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who, while on furlough, raped a woman after binding up her fiance. Horton’s crime was horrific, but the ad itself was also widely decried as racist for playing directly into white stereotypes of Black brutality.  In retrospect, the ad has become a macabre emblem of racial ‘dog whistle’ campaigning.

The efficacy of ‘soft-on-crime’ attacks declined in subsequent years — partly because crime rates declined for roughly two decades from the early 1990s and partly because Democrats seemed to grow more adept at countering them.

That picture has changed, however, thanks to the rise of ‘Defund the Police’ as a slogan and a spike in murders.

According to FBI data, the murder date rose nationwide by a startling 30 percent between 2019 and 2020, and by an additional 4 percent in 2021. Many major cities have seen especially stark increases in homicide rates.

That has put the issue on the front burner for the first time in decades.

President Biden, for his part, has insisted more than once that wants to “fund the police,” boosting the resources available for the kind of training that could help law enforcement officers deescalate tense situations.

Last month, not long before the House rose for its preelection recess, Democrats overwhelmingly backed four bills to bolster police funding and anti-crime measures.

“This is going to send a very clear signal that Democrats support law enforcement,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), a prominent moderate, told The New York Times.

Other Democrats have been taking a similar stance.

In a Thursday interview, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) told NewsNation’s “Morning in America”: “‘Defund the Police’ was a very unfortunate three-word phrase that I wish had never come out.”

Bustos, who noted she is married to a sheriff, added that neither she nor “the vast majority of Democrats” ever believed in the slogan.

NewsNation is owned by Nexstar Media Group, the corporate owner of The Hill.

Some candidates in tight races are making their opposition to ‘Defund’ plainer still.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who is competing for a Senate seat with Republican J.D. Vance, recently ran an ad in which he threw a football at a television screen showing the slogan.

Veteran Democratic strategist Bill Carrick told this column he believes a nuanced stance on crime can work, insulating candidates from political danger.

“If you make the ‘tough on crime’ argument or the ‘police reform’ argument by themselves, they don’t score nearly as heavily as an argument that blends both those messages into the same thing,” he said.

Right now, however, it’s far from clear that the most prominent Democrats running for office this year are threading that needle.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Crime defund the police John Fetterman John Fetterman Mandela Barnes Mandela Barnes Mehmet Oz Mehmet Oz Pennsylvania Ron Johnson Ron Johnson Wisconsin
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