Democrats worry about voter backlash in suburbs

Democratic strategists are worried scenes of violence in Kenosha, Wis., and the “defund the police” debate could give Republicans and President Trump a boost with suburban voters.

The issue has come back to the forefront amid new incidents of violence, property destruction and protests this week after another unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot in the back by a police officer.

Some Democrats worry the continuing unrest could give Trump an opening with swing voters in Wisconsin and other key states that voted for Trump in 2016.

“Republicans are very wisely pouncing on this moment and using that language [of defund the police] that emphasizes everything wrong with what progressives do,” said a Senate Democratic aide, who argued that Democrats have failed to make clear that defunding the police is about getting around obstacles that unions pose to sensible reform and not shuttering police departments.

“I would imagine it’s a potential problem,” the aide added. “The riots in the streets and the destruction are not the only part of these protests. If you were to follow what Republicans have said about this protest movement and these moments, you would think that every single moment of these protests has been defined by violence, and they haven’t been.”

Trump at his convention speech Thursday sought to make civil unrest and support for law and order a defining issue of the final stretch of the campaign, declaring “the most dangerous aspect of the Biden platform is the attack on public safety.”

“Make no mistake, if you give power to Joe Biden, the radical left will defund police departments all across America. They will pass federal legislation to reduce law enforcement nationwide. They will make every city look like Democrat-run Portland, Ore.,” he warned.

Democrats had started to fight back before Trump’s address amid polls showing the presidential race tightening in battleground states.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the party’s presidential nominee, on Thursday accused Trump of “rooting” for more violence “because he views this as a political benefit to him.”

“He’s rooting for more violence, not less, and is clear about that. And what’s he doing? He’s kept pouring gasoline on the fire. This happens to be Donald Trump’s America,” he said during an interview with MSNBC.

In a statement, Biden underscored that the violence that Trump and Republicans are warning will be a part of a country led by Joe Biden is actually taking place as Trump presides over the country.

He and other Democrats also have pointed to the arrest of Kyle Rittenhouse, an Illinois teenager who has been charged with first-degree intentional homicide. Video from Kenosha shows Rittenhouse armed with a semi-automatic rifle, running through the streets of Kenosha. Rittenhouse is seen firing his gun at people pursuing him. Later, he walks with his arms up as police drive by him, but do not stop him, according to a report in The New York Times.

Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist who worked for the Clinton White House, said Biden has done a good job parrying Trump’s attacks by finding a middle-ground position in the Black Lives Matter debate.

“I think he’s handled it very well. I think most Americans, including Black Lives Matter protesters, most people, understand we need a balanced approach,” he said. “We need to figure this out over time. The vast majority of the protests have been peaceful, and there’s a lot of good back and forth in some communities between the police and protesters.”

Lux said Biden’s defense has been effective because he has credibility with voters as a moderate who helped author the 1994 crime bill.

“Nobody beliefs Joe Biden is a crazy socialist who will unleash anarchists in the street,” he said. “I think Biden in general has more credibility because people know him and know he doesn’t lie constantly like Trump.”

The aggressive effort by Biden underscores the worry within his party that the GOP attack lines could bear fruit, helping Trump and a Senate GOP struggling to hold its 53-47 majority.

Trump has made law and order and the battle for suburban voters a prominent theme of the Republican convention and throughout the summer, spending at least $20 million on ads earlier this summer hitting Biden on defunding the police.

Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the white St. Louis couple who pointed weapons at Black Lives Matter protesters outside their home and who now face weapons charges, spoke on the first night of the Republican convention.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is facing a competitive reelection race of his own, has run a series of ads highlighting the outbreaks of violence and looting during Black Lives Matter protests.

Incumbent Sens. David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) have attacked their Democratic opponents as being weak on law and order, an issue that GOP strategists are counting on to help win back disaffected older white voters in rural areas and white women in suburban areas.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) is running an ad against Gov. Steve Bullock, his Democratic challenger, that features images from Black Lives Matter protests while a county sheriff in a cowboy hat warns “these liberal attacks on law enforcement are a real threat to public safety.”

The officer says Bullock has “been silent while left-wing radicals try to defund our police” because he’s “bankrolled by the liberal mob.”

In Iowa, Kansas and Alabama, other battleground states, One Nation, a Republican-allied group, has run ads this summer promoting Republican candidates or hitting Democrats on anarchy in the streets and the need for law and order.

Senate Democratic aides say they worry about how the issue will play with independents and swing voters.

“There’s no question in my mind it’s their most potent issue. It gives Republicans the best chance to get who they need back in the tent,” said one Democratic aide. “That’s why they put that couple from St. Louis in the convention.”

Biden has sought to find a balance between offering support for protesters while denouncing violent protests and the burning down of buildings. On Wednesday, he condemned “needless violence” in Kenosha after Blake’s shooting and called for healing.

Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist based in Raleigh, acknowledged that Republicans are trying to use the defund the police movement and urban unrest as a “wedge issue” in North Carolina, but he said concerns over the economy and health care, which favor Democrats, are more powerful issues.

“They’re trying it again. It’s starting to come up again now. It’s really what Republicans are hanging their hat on. Frankly, one of the reasons they’re hanging their hat on it is because everything else they’ve tried hasn’t worked,” he said. “This is the latest and greatest of the newest scare tactic to try to change the dynamic right now because it’s not going in their favor.”

“Republicans are great at wedge issues. They spend a lot of time focused on them. They tried this one once or twice this cycle,” he added.

North Carolina is one of six big swing states along with Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona. Polls show tight races in all six states, and North Carolina seems the strongest of those states at this moment for Trump.

The race in the state between Tillis and Democrat Cal Cunningham could go a long way in determining which party wins the Senate majority. Cunningham is ahead by four points in the Real Clear Politics average of polls.

Trump earlier this summer ran a battery of ads in North Carolina depicting an older woman calling the police to report a possible intruder in her home only to get an answering machine message telling her the station is closed because of defunding and to expect a response in five days.

WFMY News in Greensboro labeled the ad “misleading” because it conflated Biden’s position on police defunding with the views of his most liberal supporters. Biden has said he does not support defunding the police.

“Trump has been effective in tightening up the race here in North Carolina, he’s got it within the margins. Cunningham still has a slight lead, but it’s just outside the margins,” said Brad Crone, a self-described centrist Democrat who is president of Campaign Connections, a Raleigh-based political consulting firm that is not affiliated with either party.

Jackson predicted races around the country will tighten as Election Day nears but predicted Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has damaged the GOP’s brand with suburban voters too much to be repaired by early November.

“Suburban college-educated women and college-educated men in the suburbs are saying Trump missed so grossly the COVID virus that he killed our economy,” he added. 

Tags Black Lives Matter Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Joe Biden Mitch McConnell police reform presidential election senate elections Steve Bullock Steve Daines Thom Tillis
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