Democrats are increasingly confident in their ability to fend off GOP attacks focused on fear of rising crime across the country, with the White House quietly focusing on policies aimed at driving down crime and political allies of the president working to counter Republican talking points and recruiting candidates with crime-fighting backgrounds.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, shootings began to increase, a trend that accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic. Homicide rates in large cities across the country increased by nearly a third in 2020, and have continued to climb so far this year.
While homicide totals remain well below the historic highs many cities reached in the 1990s, the rise in shootings has nonetheless sparked concerns among liberals that President Joe Biden and other Democrats could pay an electoral price. Progressive New York Times columnist Ezra Klein worried late last month rising crime rates could create a “political crisis” for Democrats, and many party strategists ― who already blamed claims that the party wants to “defund the police” for some 2020 losses ― privately shared similar feelings.
The public is clearly concerned with violent crime: A Yahoo News/YouGov poll found 49% of Americans described violent crime as a “very big problem” in the country, a higher percentage than said the same of the economy, the COVID-19 pandemic or race relations. The same poll found that just 36% of Americans approved of how Biden was handling crime, while 44% disapproved. (Biden’s overall approval rating in the survey was 49%.)
Republicans are not hiding their eagerness to attack Democrats over the issue. “It is impossible to ignore that these terrible trends are coming precisely as so-called progressives have decided it’s time to denounce and defund local law enforcement,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a recent Senate floor speech.
But a Democratic victory in a crime-focused special election in New Mexico last week — paired with a newfound determination to push back on GOP allegations that the party is weak on crime and the administration’s efforts to highlight ways it is funding law enforcement — nonetheless has strategists surprisingly optimistic.
“[Biden] has a story to tell about the money he’s spent through the American Rescue Plan that he wants to use to help communities and law enforcement do the job to tackle crime,” said John Anzalone, the lead pollster for Biden’s presidential campaign, told HuffPost. “Republicans don’t have that story.”
Anzalone noted that pundits often assumed the crime spike during the pandemic would benefit Trump, when polling indicated the Republican had little-to-no advantage on the issue. Even now, the Yahoo/YouGov poll found voters essentially split on who would better handle crime between Biden and Trump.
“Republicans love their wedge issues, and they always go back to the same well,” Anzalone said. “It was going to be school reopenings, it was going to be immigration and now it’s going to be crime.”
To that end, Democrats are expecting the White House to highlight cities and states that are using American Rescue Plan funding to hire or retain police officers and to emphasize that Biden has proposed increasing funding for federal programs that help local governments hire officers in his budget and proposed funding for violence intervention programs as part of his infrastructure plan.
Democrats are also expected to emphasize that violent shootings have driven the crime increase ― preliminary numbers indicated many other types of crime actually fell during the pandemic ― and will to point Biden’s efforts to clamp down on so-called “ghost guns” and his nomination of the first permanent director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in nearly a decade.
“President Biden knows that the troubling rise in violent crime ― particularly gun violence — since the beginning of the pandemic is unacceptable and needs to stop,” said White House spokesman Michael Gwin. “That’s why he’s taking a comprehensive approach to reducing violence, from increasing funding for cities to hire more effectively-trained, accountable, police officers to engage in community oriented policing, to investing heavily in life-saving community violence intervention programs.”
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a trustee at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said cities around the country would have had to lay off police officers without the federal aid included in the pandemic relief package Congress passed earlier this year.
“But for these [federal] dollars, cities small and large would be laying off employees, would be hard-pressed to hold on to their police officers and firefighters,” he said. “Public safety issues would be exacerbated but for these dollars.”
Turner also directed about $25 million dollars in federal money to mobile crisis units, which the city will use to respond to mental health crisis calls instead of police officers. “This is going to go hand in hand with our police reforms,” Turner said.
While some progressive activists continue to push for large-scale cuts to police funding or the abolition of police departments, both ideas remain unpopular in public polling, and Democratic strategists expressed little worry about pushback from the left.
Crime has emerged as a top issue in multiple elections this year, including the New York City mayor’s race, where progressive and moderate candidates have repeatedly clashed over the department’s $6 billion budget. In Philadelphia, police unions backed a failed challenge to reformist District Attorney Larry Krasner.
But the race that gave Democrats renewed confidence in their ability to fend off crime-related attacks was a victory by Democrat Melanie Stansbury last week in a congressional special election in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a city where crime was high even before the pandemic.
At the beginning of the race, during a meeting with Black Lives Matter activists, Stansbury said she supported the BREATHE Act, a far-reaching criminal justice and prison reform legislation backed by only two progressive members of Congress. The endorsement gave her GOP opponent, a state legislator and businessman named Mark Moores, space to accuse Stansbury of wanting to release violent criminals en masse.
Stansbury responded with an ad featuring a retired sheriff’s deputy talking direct to camera, calling the attacks “lies.”
Stansbury’s victory was never truly in doubt, but she ended up winning by 25 percentage points ― a margin even greater than Biden’s victory in the district in 2020. That’s given Democrats confidence that Stansbury’s approach ― not backing down from police reform, but also enlisting law enforcement to give your positions credibility ― could be a model for the midterms.
“The playbook is: Don’t stop standing for racial justice, but respond aggressively to Republican lies with specific reforms you support,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney said in an interview. “You need to do both. I think that will work all over the country.”
Maloney, who represents a swing district in the New York City suburbs, was also optimistic the party could turn the “defund the police” attack back on Republicans.
“If there’s a party that’s for defunding the police, it’s the party that voted against the American Rescue Plan,” Maloney said, referring to the coronavirus relief legislation that congressional Republicans unanimously voted against.
Democrats are also looking to recruit and run candidates with built-in immunity to the GOP attacks. Rep. Conor Lamb, a former prosecutor, is expected to run for an open Senate seat in Pennsylvania, though he’ll have to win a crowded Democratic primary first. In Florida, Rep. Val Demings, the former Orlando police chief, is the party’s leading candidate to challenge GOP Sen. Marco Rubio.
In a campaign launch video released Wednesday, Demings repeatedly highlighted her police background, with clips of news anchors noting crime dropped significantly in Orlando during her tenure.
But even Demings’ 27-year law enforcement career can’t stop Republican attacks. Not long after Demings announced her run, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out a press release attacking her. The first bullet point? A claim that Demings supported “defunding the police.”