Reviews | How Democrats can win on crime in the midterm elections

It was not inevitable that Republican candidates would spend the final weeks of the 2022 midterm campaign running tens of thousands of harsh and often demagogic ads attacking Democrats on violence and policing. At the start of the summer, Republicans believed inflation, especially soaring gas prices, and a general disaffection with President Biden would drag them to midterm victory.

But then gas pump prices began to drop, the conservative Supreme Court boosted abortion-rights supporters by overturning Roe vs. Wadeand Biden’s ratings began to improve as parts of his platform came to life and were passed by Congress.

“In an emergency, break glass,” read signs on old fire alarm boxes. Republicans are hoping crime will be their biggest problem this year.

As Annie Linskey and Colby Itkowitz reported in The Post this week, GOP candidates and allied groups ran about 53,000 crime ads in the first three weeks of September, compared to 29,000 crime ads in August.

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Navin Nayak, president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, saw this coming. “There was no doubt that in the fall, Republicans would go for the same type of playbook they had been using for 25 years, which tries to scare voters into the Republican column by accusing Democrats of crime” , Nayak said in an interview this week. “And, you know, at a time when crime rates were actually going up across the country, we knew that would be even more salient.”

Thus, for five months, Democratic strategists have been quietly preparing for the Republican attack on crime. In the spring, Nayak’s progressive organization assembled a group of Democratic pollsters — Hart Research, Global Strategy Group and Impact Research — to assess how Democrats should react and what arguments might not only protect party candidates, but also empower them. to go on the attack.

Crime has been an inescapable Republican issue since at least the 1968 presidential campaign, when Richard M. Nixon attacked the Supreme Court’s liberal criminal justice rulings for “weakening the forces of peace relative to the criminal forces of this world.” country “.

And while Nixon criticized “those who say law and order is the code word for racism,” many GOP ads around the issue over the past half-century — and this year — have had what can (with in many cases excessive politeness) be called racial overtones.

Crime may be a particularly potent issue for Republicans this year for an additional reason: its potential as a wedge to split the Democratic coalition.

Democrats, led by Biden, overwhelmingly rejected the “defund the police” slogan that arose in response to police killings of unarmed black men dramatized by the May 2020 killing of George Floyd. didn’t stop the GOP from snagging the idea at all. Democrats. Regardless, moderates and liberals have come up against sometimes stark differences over the importance the party should place on tackling crime versus the urgency of fighting for radical police reform. and the criminal justice system.

Nayak’s work is part of an urgent democratic quest for consensus. He insists the one thing party candidates cannot do is ignore public fear of rising crime.

“When you’re not talking about a voter concern and the other side is talking to them, it… amplifies your vulnerability on the issue,” he said. “It’s really important for candidates to remind them that we care about public safety first, that we see an important role for police and law enforcement in keeping communities safe.”

Once that threshold is reached, Nayak said, his group’s research shows that voters respond to Democratic arguments that emphasize both “accountability” (for those who commit crimes) and “prevention” ( including tougher gun laws and support for mental health and addictions treatment programs).

Republicans, according to CAP research, are highly vulnerable to arguments about crime prevention, especially about guns. The case Democrats have to make against the GOP, Nayak said, is this: “They’re not doing anything to actually stop crime from happening in the first place. They are cutting programs that actually help people with mental health or addictions programs. They… are flooding communities with guns and making it easier for people who commit crimes to get guns.

The challenge facing campaigns is how to avoid spending so much time pushing the other side’s issues that your own strongest arguments get lost. Nayak says he’s not calling on Democrats to give “disproportionate” importance to crime. They should, he says, continue to push their edge on abortion rights, Medicare and Social Security.

But sometimes the art of political judo can turn an opponent’s perceived advantage into a weakness. Nayak thinks this can happen to prevent street violence. “We have no reason to feel defensive about this issue,” he said. “Democrats are concerned about crime. We need to talk about it more. »

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