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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Where the GOP’s ‘Crime Wave’ Meme Flunked….and Worked

Samantha Michaels has one of the more nuanced assessments of the effect of the GOP’s “crime wave” meme in the 2022 midterm elections. As Michaels writes at Mother Jones,

Leading up to the election, Republicans relentlessly blasted voters with campaign ads about crime, offering them brutal images of shootings and assaults and suggesting that if progressives got their way, murderers would run rampant on the streets and sex offenders would approach their children at barbershops. Journalists, too, fanned the flames, quoting voters across the nation who seemed terrified about the prospect of becoming victims. The only way to deal with the threats, some Republicans intoned, was to mount an aggressive and unforgiving campaign against criminals before the country devolved into chaos.

But amid the fearmongering, some Democratic candidates opted away from “tough on crime” messaging to focus instead on how they would change the criminal justice system, to make it more fair and effective. And on Tuesday, a substantial number of voters seemed willing to embrace their proactive vision: Perhaps to both parties’ surprise, many reform-minded candidates scored victories in the midterms.

In Pennsylvania’s closely watched Senate race, Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman beat Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz after underscoring his work on the state pardons board, where he gave second chances to some incarcerated people serving lengthy sentences. In New York, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul staved off Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin’s allegations that she hindered public safety by supporting bail reforms. And in Minneapolis, in the first election for a county attorney since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, a former public defender and longtime critic of the police department won by a large margin over a former prosecutor with law enforcement endorsements.

Although Republicans with traditional “law and order” platforms triumphed in plenty of races, Tuesday did not bring the kind of election sweep they’d hoped for. “Fears that the crime-wave rhetoric would take down Democratic candidates just didn’t materialize at the national level,” says Insha Rahman at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit think tank focused on criminal justice issues. “Voters saw past the scare tactics.”

Michaels adds that “Democrats jumped on the defense, putting out their own tidal wave of TV spots on the subject. All together, both parties spent an estimated $85 million on crime ads after Labor Day, more than in recent years. And voters seemed to absorb these messages, with poll after poll showing that crime was a key issue as they prepared their ballots.”

Michaels provides other examples of the failure of the ‘crime wave’ meme, but also notes,

That’s not to say crime didn’t matter, or that Republicans who fearmongered had no impact. In Wisconsin, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson won reelection after attacking Democratic challenger Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes for being “dangerously liberal on crime,” in a tight Senate race that could help determine which party takes majority control. And in Georgia, another battleground state, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock lacked enough votes to avoid a runoff against Republican Herschel Walker, who falsely claimed that Warnock disrespected police and cut their funding.

“Tough on crime” rhetoric scored other victories, too: Ohio and Alabama voters passed ballot measures that make it easier to jail people before their trials, while those in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Arkansas rejected drug legalization measures. In San Francisco, moderate District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, who took office after the recall, maintained a big lead on Thursday despite criticisms that she hindered prosecutions of police.

And in some cases, progressive wins were too close for comfort. In Democratic strongholds that previously enacted controversial justice reforms, such as Oregon, where a 2020 ballot measure decriminalized the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs, or New York, where lawmakers enacted bail reforms the same year, Democrats found themselves in unusually tight races against Republicans. New York Gov. Hochul, for example, won by only 5 percentage points. “You have to wonder,” says Rahman, “are these candidates either losing ground or losing entirely, as we’ve seen with the sweep of the New York House races,” because they did not do enough to assure voters that reforms and public safety can go hand in hand?

Michaels writes that “Going forward, Democrats still have a lot of work to do on crime. They “may have dodged a bullet by avoiding the anticipated red wave” this year, says Rahman, “but this issue will continue to rear its head,” and “they need to seize the opportunity with a more proactive approach.”

Noting a Vera Institute study about public safety taken before the midterm elections, Michaels says the study found that “voters across the political spectrum gravitated away from ads that focused on fear and toward ads that highlighted concrete fixes….The vast majority of respondents wanted politicians to prevent crime, not just react to it. “Democrats should continue to lead with how they are supporting fairness, transparency, better use of resources, and why that improves public safety, and not just respond to these ads and say, ‘I’m tough on crime too,’ because that’s not the answer,” says Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior director at the Brennan Center for Justice, another think tank.”

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