Crime is rising in the United States, and for Republicans, that seems like a golden opportunity. Not only does fear sometimes push voters toward conservative candidates, but the GOP has been arguing since last year that Democrats are promoting an agenda of dismantling police so criminals can run rampant, burn down cities and towns, and murder you and your family.

It’s an old playbook. But what if precisely because the GOP hasn’t updated it in decades, it won’t work anymore?

That’s one way to interpret the Democratic win in a special House election in New Mexico. Republicans had hoped it would demonstrate that harsh attacks on Democrats over crime will be so potent that they’ll sweep Republicans back into power in the 2022 midterms. But they failed.

To be clear, there was almost no chance Republicans would win — the 1st Congressional District in Albuquerque, previously held by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, is Democratic territory. But their candidate, state Sen. Mark Moores, had hoped to make inroads by charging that the Democratic nominee, Melanie Stansbury, was so soft on crime that her election would plunge the nation into a dystopian nightmare of chaos and violence.

The pulsing heart of Moores’s campaign was an absolutely horrific TV ad warning of the danger Stansbury posed, showing video of a woman being assaulted in a dark alley while the sound of children screaming played in the background. It could have come right from the early 1990s.

But here’s the surprise: It didn’t work. The vote in the New Mexico election turned out to be exactly in line with the district’s recent history. In 2018, Haaland got 59 percent of the vote, in 2020 she got 58 percent of the vote, and Stansbury got 60 percent of the vote.

Might it be that voters won’t respond to fear-based, “tough on crime” rhetoric in the same way they used to?

Stansbury didn’t counter the “soft on crime” attacks as Democrats have in the past, by trying to prove that they’re even tougher than Republicans. She stressed issues such as hunger, climate change and economic development that are important to her constituents. She had her own ads touting support from law enforcement — but they weren’t about supporting punitive measures to lock up more people.

One shouldn’t extrapolate too far from one special election in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. But it does suggest that even though Republicans seem determined to rerun their tough-on-crime campaigns from the 1990s, Democrats don’t have to approach the issue the way they did back then.

At the time, Democrats were motivated most strongly by fear — fear that the public was eager to reject them and the only way to keep that from happening was to adopt the Republican approach to crime: more spending on police and prisons, harsher sentences, and an allergy to any policy idea that could be caricatured as “soft.”

But right now, even as crime has gone up and become more politically salient, Democrats don’t seem to be reverting to that program. They’re still advocating for progressive solutions to crime, and so far they aren’t paying a price at the ballot box. While many predicted that progressive prosecutors elected in the past couple of years would be tossed from office if crime went up, that hasn’t happened either.

For instance, in Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner’s reelection race was seen as a referendum on the progressive approach to law enforcement; he has battled the police union and his challenger blamed him for a recent spike in crime. Yet in the Democratic primary (the real election there), Krasner beat that opponent by 34 points.

Unless there’s a sharp reversal of the recent increase in crime — which is certainly possible as we emerge from the pandemic and the economic recovery gains steam — crime will likely be a significant issue in next year’s midterms. It’s already clear that Republicans have little more to say than what they said 30 years ago.

While there are a few Republicans who have proposed some modest police reforms, they don’t have much of a crime agenda to present. What they have to say is all negative: We sure shouldn’t defund the police, I’ll tell ya that! It might work sometimes, but it depends on Democrats being as afraid of Republican attacks as they used to be.

Which, to be clear, some Democrats are. Many centrists continue to believe the party’s disappointing performance in 2020 House races can be blamed on left activists advocating “defunding the police,” an assertion backed up by almost no evidence.

In fact, almost every Democrat who lost that year did as well or better than you would have predicted given the ideological makeup of their district. The ones who lost were mostly members who rode into office in Republican-leaning districts in the Democratic sweep of 2018 and would have always been vulnerable in a high-turnout presidential year.

So this is the challenge Democrats face: They can fall back into the defensive crouch with which they are so familiar, convinced that every Republican attack must be turning voters against them. Or they can believe the evidence we’ve seen that those attacks don’t necessarily work, and keep talking about the approach they believe will produce a safer and more just society.

An increase in crime does risk a reversion to the bad old politics and policies of the past. But it doesn’t have to be that way — if Democrats can have the courage of their convictions.

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