Why 'Defund The Police' Attacks Were So Potent Against Democrats

Republicans spotlighted an unpopular activist slogan, but it's not all the fault of progressives.
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A protester in New York City wears a face mask calling to "Defund Police." The activist cry is now the subject of fierce debate among Democrats.
John Nacion/Getty Images

This time, Emily Skopov thought she had a good shot at winning a state legislative seat in Pennsylvania. 

A former TV screenwriter in the North Hills just outside Pittsburgh, Skopov first ran in 2018 and had a surprisingly competitive showing against the Republican state House speaker. Now she had more experience as a campaigner, and she was going for an open seat. Democratic Party leaders eyed her as part of their plan to take over the state House this cycle.

Skopov ended up losing by eight percentage points ― a similar margin to her loss two years ago, even though she enjoyed a fundraising advantage over her Republican opponent, Rob Mercuri.

She has no doubt what doomed her campaign: her association with the “defund the police” slogan. “I don’t think the role that it played can be overstated,” she said. “It was unexpected that it was so huge.” 

Like many other Democrats, Skopov clearly has been moved by the growing outcry against racist policing and police brutality, and she spoke in support of a group of local public school graduates who want the county school board to adopt “anti-racist” practices, such as a greater commitment to diverse hiring. 

But after consulting with a range of people in her district, including Black and Latino families, she found widespread opposition to efforts to reduce funding for their suburban police departments. And she said she believes it is up to every community to determine how they want to allocate their resources.

Skopov nonetheless endured relentless claims that she supported “defunding” the police. Mercuri seized on Skopov’s signature on the policy “pledge” by the national group Future Now, which outlines a series of broad progressive principles and had the support of more than 1,000 Democratic legislative candidates. The pledge itself only commits signers to ending “mass incarceration” and racial profiling, but Future Now’s library of model legislation includes a proposal to “improve public safety by reinvesting policing savings in community-based and prevention programs” that Republicans spun as “defund the police” by another name. 

“We used ‘defund the police’ everywhere in everything we did,” said Mark Harris, a Pittsburgh-based GOP strategist who worked with Mercuri and other state legislative candidates across the country. “That sort of stuff is toxic in the suburbs.”

One of Mercuri’s attack ads against Skopov tied her supposed support for defunding the police to her work as a screenwriter, saying her “Hollywood politics” were “extreme.”

The attacks, which reached voters in multiple formats, succeeded in defining her in a negative light with the moderates she needed to win, according to Skopov. In phone calls and doorstep conversations with Republicans and independents, she was at pains to disabuse voters that she backed “defund the police,” she recalled. 

“Most folks didn’t even ask the question, ‘Do you want to?’” she said. “It was already assumed.” 

Future Now co-founder and executive director Daniel Squadron said in a statement that Democrats up and down the ballot “faced dishonest and often racist attacks on positions they did not hold.

“Lies tend to be as effective as they are credible, and for local candidates the lack of media focus and not being able to knock on doors made it harder to dispose of this trash in the garbage can where it belongs,” Squadron continued.

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Emily Skopov, a Democrat who lost a bid for a state House seat in suburban Pittsburgh, said she believes that the "defund the police" slogan undermined her campaign, even though she didn't support it.
Elect Emily 4 PA/Facebook

Democrats in competitive congressional races have been sounding similar notes, prompting a national discussion about the political costs and benefits of some progressive rhetoric. In a House Democratic caucus conference call two days after the Nov. 3 election, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat and former CIA analyst who won a tight race, said “defund the police” was the top issue voters brought up with her. She blamed her progressive colleagues and activists for pushing it so heavily. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the left-wing New York Democrat who was the thinly veiled subject of this centrist sniping, and her ideological comrades have fought back, arguing that some party members are scapegoating a progressive wing that it needs to win elections in lieu of reckoning with their own strategic and philosophical failings.

The “defund the police” message opened down-ballot Democratic candidates up to attack from Republicans. But it wasn’t just a vulnerability because progressive lawmakers and organizations amplified it, as some more moderate Democrats have claimed. Multiple factors ― including right-wing distortions, a lack of other Democratic messaging and President-elect Joe Biden’s ability to circumvent the whole debate ― amplified its effectiveness.

“The Democratic establishment got to control their messaging and they shouldn’t blame progressives if they are frustrated with the results,” said Sean McElwee, whose firm Data for Progress conducts polling for left-wing candidates. “Biden’s theme of ‘restoring the soul of the nation,’ at the end of the day, while a very compelling message to defeat President Donald Trump, doesn’t give people a reason to vote for Senate and House Democrats.”

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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who embraced the "defund the police" message, has pushed back against assertions that the slogan is to blame for the underperformance of Democrats in so many down-ballot races.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Among the great majority of its advocates, “defund the police” never meant completely taking away all funding from local law enforcement agencies, as Republicans liked to claim.

Shortly after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in late May, opponents of racism and police brutality who took to the streets in protests upped their longstanding demands for change. A vocal group of Black Lives Matter activists included a call to “defund the police,” and a minority faction among them used it literally ― as a synonym for zeroing out police funding or abolishing the police altogether. 

But most progressives who adopted the slogan meant it as police reform ― a call to shift funding away from law enforcement toward social services of the kind that would reduce violent encounters with police and address the underlying causes of crime. Much in the way that a government with a large military justifies that military’s existence by engaging in unnecessary wars, these activists argued that so, too, cities with overfunded police departments use armed officers in situations when other responses would work better.

Ocasio-Cortez said in June that a country with “defunded police” would look like “a suburb.” To her, likely the most prominent figure to get behind the activist chant, “defunding” means reducing police budgets ― and increasing social spending ― in diverse, mixed-income cities to their levels in whiter, more affluent communities.

Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of the call reflected a broader mainstreaming of the phrase among Democratic progressives. Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) also endorsed the idea, as did Reps.-elect Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.) and Cori Bush (Mo.).

Officials in New York City and Austin, Texas, framed police budget cuts as a gesture of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, even as they relied on budgetary gimmicks to make changes look bigger than they were.

The Minneapolis City Council tried to go a step further, expressing its will to dismantle its police department and start over.

The “defund the police” cause swept the progressive organizational world, as well. The Working Families Party, the Center for Popular Democracy and NextGen America all promoted the slogan. The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate activism group, declared that “defunding the police is just one step towards abolition” in a tweet promoting a 4-day seminar on the policy. Even the pro-choice groups NARAL and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which generally focus on women’s reproductive rights, backed defunding the police.

“What other movement would take a set of policies that an overwhelming number of Americans support and slap an unpopular label on it?”

- Danny Barefoot, Democratic campaign consultant

To Maurice Mitchell, a veteran of the Black Lives Matter movement who is now national director of the Working Families Party, the rapid spread of the slogan was a sign of its success.

“The movement for Black lives was and is doing its job by articulating ‘defund the police,’” said Mitchell, whose Twitter avatar still displays a graphic that became common after Floyd’s death and has the phrases “#DefundthePolice #DefendBlackLife.” “It’s one of the reasons that we’re talking about it right now, because of how sharp a demand it is.”

But to Democrats concerned about how Republicans would distort the slogan to paint all of the party’s candidates as radical opponents of police officers as a whole ― one of the more trusted professions in the country ― the trend became a source of consternation. Those concerns grew as police accountability protests gave way to riots in a number of American cities over the summer. 

Support for the Black Lives Matter movement in Wisconsin, a key swing state where a police shooting in the summer prompted rioting and retaliatory violence, dropped 13 percentage points ― to 48% ― from June to August.

“I’m not sure why, at any point, we allowed this conversation to be defunding the police and we didn’t just call it police reform,” said Mark Nevins, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist. “I’m not even sure I’m 100% clear on what defunding the police means.”

As of June, just 27% of Americans supported “defunding the police,” compared with 57% who opposed it, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll. At the same time, more moderate reforms ― such as banning chokeholds by law officers, creating a federal registry for complaints about police misconduct and developing a national use of force standard ― all had the support of large, bipartisan majorities of Americans.

“What other movement would take a set of policies that an overwhelming number of Americans support and slap an unpopular label on it?” asked Danny Barefoot, a Democratic consultant who worked on some Senate and state legislative races.

Sure enough, Republicans saw an opportunity. Painting Democrats as supporters of “defunding” the police became the focus of campaign literature, TV and digital ads, and live televised debates. That forced Democratic candidates to divert resources that might otherwise be used discussing COVID-19 relief, health care or education to be used disavowing themselves from the slogan and otherwise defending themselves. 

Out of 31 broadcast TV ads that Trump and other allied campaign groups used to attack Biden and other Democrats for being soft on law and order, 11 spots ― that aired a total of 77,647 times ― explicitly mentioned “defund the police,” according to an analysis Kantar Media/CMAG conducted for HuffPost. And out of 216 Republican broadcast TV ads in congressional races blasting Democrats, 157 spots that aired 103,000 times used the phrase. 

Overall, broadcast TV ads hitting Democrats for their records on policing made up 21% of the total number of Republican presidential campaign ads and 11% of GOP ads in congressional races.

Congressional Democrats and groups supporting them, by contrast, invested in 78 broadcast TV ads ― 4% of the total number of pro-Democratic TV ads in congressional races ― discussing the issues of race and policing that aired 60,000 times. Of that total, just 24 broadcast TV ads ― 1% of the total number of pro-Democratic TV ads in congressional races ― that aired 21,960 times rebutted charges that Democrats wanted to “defund the police,” according to Kantar Media/CMAG.

For Biden, who had a larger budget and a larger presence in the media, the charge was easier to dispense with. Although he never felt the need to address “defund the police” in broadcast TV ads, he used his public platform to make clear where he stood. He proposed a plan to reform policing while increasing law enforcement funding. And Biden’s pre-election remarks flatly condemning rioting in Philadelphia without reference to the police killing that precipitated the unrest was so redolent of 1990s centrist messaging by Democrats, including then-President Bill Clinton, that it angered progressive activists. 

The comments ― and Biden’s consistent efforts to distance himself from more radical elements of the Black Lives Matter movement that gained new life after Floyd’s killing ― emerged from his awareness of polling that showed even the slightest suggestion of disrespect for law enforcement or approval of rioting were politically toxic, according to someone familiar with Biden’s thinking.

But down-ballot Democrats were more vulnerable than Biden to charges of sympathy for the “defund the police” slogan. Such a term “puts more Democrats in marginal districts on the defense,” Nevins said. 

Whether they lost or prevailed in competitive races, these candidates were forced to rebut usually unfounded claims that they were sympathetic to defunding the police. Even when they successfully dispelled the idea, merely needing to do so was a drain on resources and oxygen that could have been used to amplify their positive messages. 

Among Democrats who won tough races, Reps. Conor Lamb (Pa.), Matt Cartwright (Pa.), and Jared Golden (Maine) all cut TV ads formally refuting the suggestion that they want to “defund” the police. Cartwright and Golden enlisted law enforcement officials to help with the task, while Lamb, who accidentally posed with a protester holding a “defund the police” sign at a rally, leaned on his service as a Marine for credibility with voters.

And while Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) fell short in his Senate bid, some Democrats in the state said his investment in a TV ad highlighting his support for law enforcement helped him outperform Biden in the state by more than 6 points. The 30-second spot touted Bullock’s refusal to endorse the national party platform because it called for “reimagining the police” and promised Bullock would fight defunding efforts as a senator.

The spot, which aired 2,336 times, was the second-biggest ad buy addressing the “defund” slogan by any Democratic congressional candidate. (The biggest such ad buy was from Jon Ossoff, the Georgia Democrat headed to a runoff with Sen. David Perdue (R) in January in one of the two such races in the state that will determine control of the Senate.)

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and the GOP’s Senate campaign arm hit her Democratic opponent, Sara Gideon, in a TV ad for links to a “defund the police” billionaire. The basis for the ad was Gideon’s attendance at a fundraiser hosted by an environmental coalition that includes NextGen America. NextGen, funded by liberal billionaire Tom Steyer, supports defunding the police. 

Collins also falsely seized on Gideon’s vote as a state legislator in favor of consolidating two small towns’ police dispatching services as evidence that the Democrat “defunded” the police.

Gideon, who led in virtually every pre-election poll but also was beset by a number of challenges, ended up losing by eight points. Her campaign did not respond to requests for comment about the impact of the “defund the police” allegation on her race.

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Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), shown here greeting a supporter of President Donald Trump while on the campaign trail last month, repeatedly touted his opposition to police funding cuts. He lost anyway.
Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Broadly speaking, the Democrats successfully targeted by “defund the police” attacks can be divided into two categories: those whose errors gave greater oxygen to their Republican opponents, and those who worked hard to distance themselves from the slogan and still got pegged with it.

An example of the first category is Cameron Webb of Virginia, who lost his race for an open U.S. House seat. 

Webb, a Black medical doctor running in a southside Virginia district drawn to favor Republicans, faced a barrage of ads using snippets of video that made him sound like an advocate for defunding. Democrats objected to the characterization, singling out one ad in particular for using racist innuendo, and Webb, whose father was a cop, insisted that he did not support reducing police funding. 

He even aired an ad that sought to turn the tables on his opponent, Republican Bob Good, for cutting police funding while serving in county government. Webb still ended up losing by about 5 percentage points.

“The association of some candidates with protest movements probably did open up the possibility of people believing they were for defunding the policies and that was a problem for them,” said Diane Feldman, a Democratic strategist and former pollster. “It becomes more of a problem for candidates of color because people are willing to believe they are part of the far left.”

In other cases, though, there was little that candidates could do to distance themselves from the smear, as Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) illustrates.

The first-term lawmaker was dogged by charges of association with “defund the police” proponents and lost his reelection bid in his conservative-leaning Staten Island district.

Rose, who has long made a show of bucking Democratic pieties, was pummeled for the mere act of marching in a Black Lives Matter rally where some participants reportedly advocated defunding the police. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Rose ran ads expressing his objections to defunding the police in general, and to progressive New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, in particular. (He even recorded a six-second digital spot declaring de Blasio the “worst mayor in the history of New York City.”)

None of it ended up saving Rose, who was down by double digits when he conceded to Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis last week.

“They weren’t attacking us on our voting record,” said Jonas Edwards-Jenks, a spokesperson for Rose’s campaign, who noted that Rose’s vote for the Justice in Policing Act did not come up in Republican ads. “They were attacking us for something he opposed and it did have an impact here.”

But Edwards-Jenks is unsure even if the “defund the police” slogan had never surfaced, Rose would have been spared defeat in a district where the Black Lives Matter movement itself is unpopular and where many active and retired police officers reside. 

“It would have been different,” he said. “Would it have made a difference? I don’t know.”

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Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee (D) is among those who rejects the idea that activists should tone down their rhetoric.
Bastiaan Slabbers/Getty Images

In pushing back against assertions that “defund the police” should bear the blame for Democrats’ disappointing performance in so many of the non-presidential races, progressives say it’s not their job to please the party. They’ve been pressuring Democratic-run cities to deal with racism and police brutality for decades, with limited success, and no evidence has emerged that moderating their tone or demands has served their cause, these activists say.

“Black and brown people are daring to demand ― so vocally ― liberation, safety, protection and equity,” and they are under no obligation to slow or tone down that push to please moderate Democrats, progressive Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee said.

She added, “It becomes very easy to shift the blame instead of doing the introspection about the things that lead up to this.”

Lee, who is Black and ousted a more moderate Democrat in a 2018 primary,  has registered her public objection to Skopov’s suggestion that “defund the police” hurt her campaign.

“When you hear moderate Democrats pin their losses on ‘defund’ or the movement for Black lives … it shows how little they care about police violence actually and how little they care about Black death.”

- Maurice Mitchell, Working Families Party

Mitchell of the Working Families Party was more explicit. “When you hear moderate Democrats pin their losses on ‘defund’ or the movement for Black lives … it shows how little they care about police violence actually and how little they care about Black death,” he said.

What’s more, Lee, Mitchell and others noted that Democrats were more than happy to capitalize on social movements to foster enthusiasm for their candidates. There’s even evidence that the Black Lives Matter movement helped Democratic candidates in quantifiable ways. The street protests after Floyd’s death corresponded with spikes in youth voter registration in Georgia and California, according to data collected by Target Smart, a Democratic data firm.

And it’s clear that other factors may have played as large of a role ― or larger ― in sinking Democratic fortunes. A dearth of door-to-door canvassing likely hurt numerous candidates; some candidates invested too little in digital advertising; and party leaders, led by Biden, could have stressed a clearer economic message.

Indeed, in a Nov. 10 memo aimed at countering centrist attacks, Justice Democrats, the Sunrise Movement, the think tank Data for Progress and the communications firm New Deal Strategies noted that the economy was the top concern of voters in exit polls.

Democrats “failed to fill the void with anything resembling a coherent economic message,” the memo said.

Still, the left ― as exemplified by Ocasio-Cortez and the Black Lives Matter movement ― punches above its weight in the national press. Sometimes it’s thanks to their social media prowess, but more often it’s involuntary, due to the inordinate attention showered on them by right-wing media outlets. As a result, comments by left-wing figures can shape the public’s perception of the Democratic Party as a whole, just as attention-grabbing Republicans color people’s impressions of GOP lawmakers who are not as strident as the media darlings.  

Skopov said she understood that what activists want may not always align with the immediate interests of the Democratic Party. Expressing sympathy for their goals, she also said that if getting more people like her in power is what they want, she would ask them to take her opinion about the political impact of certain tactics under consideration.

“It is not for me to tell Black people or people of color how to protest. It’s not for me to tell them what words to use,” Skopov said. “But what I can tell them is the consequences it will have for someone like me. And then it’s up to them whether or not they care to accommodate that.”

Before You Go

Scenes From Capitol Hill
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Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), shoots a video selfie as he heads to the House floor for votes on March 4, 2015. (credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
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Former Congresswoman and handgun violence survivor Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) speaks during a news conference about background checks for gun purchases at the Canon House Office Building on Capitol Hill on March 4, 2015. (credit: Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images)
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U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) (left) speaks as Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) listens during a news briefing after the weekly Senate Democratic Policy Luncheon on Feb. 24, 2015. Reid was wearing glasses following a recent eye surgery. (credit: Alex Wong via Getty Images)
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Naomi Sherman, 4, right, along with her father, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.); mother, Lisa; and sisters, Lucy, 2, and Molly, 5, prepares to board a bus that will take House Democrats and their families to a retreat in Philadelphia on Jan. 28, 2015. (credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
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Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), left, and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) talk before a news conference in the Capitol's Senate studio to "respond to the Obama administration's efforts to lock up millions of acres of the nation's richest oil and natural gas prospects on the Arctic coastal plain and move to block development of Alaska's offshore resources" on Jan. 26, 2015. (credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
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U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), left, reacts as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) brings out a giant gavel while making remarks during an executive business meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 22, 2015. Leahy ceremonially passed the gavel to Grassley who has taken up the chairmanship after the Republicans won the majority in the Senate. (credit: Alex Wong via Getty Images)
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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) holds a news conference on the budget on Jan. 16, 2015. (credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
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Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and his wife, Laura, have their luggage inspected by a police dog before boarding a bus that will take Republican senators to a retreat in Hershey, Pa., January 14, 2015. (credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
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Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) walks by immigration protesters on his way to one of the buses outside the Rayburn House Office Building as House Republicans prepare to head to Hershey, Pa., for their retreat with Senate Republicans on Jan. 14, 2015. (credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
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From left, Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) make symbols that spell "Ohio" on Jan. 13, 2015, as the result of a football bet. Ohio State beat the University of Oregon 42-20 in the NCAA national football championship. (credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
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Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) leaves a church service on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2015, the first day of the 114th Congress. (credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
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