It was not inevitable that Republican candidates would spend the closing weeks of the 2022 midterm campaign running tens of thousands of harsh and often demagogic ads attacking Democrats on violence and policing. When summer began, Republicans figured that inflation, especially soaring gas prices, and a general disaffection with President Biden would let them glide to victory in the midterms.
But then prices at the gas pump started to fall, the conservative Supreme Court energized supporters of abortion rights by overturning Roe v. Wade, and Biden’s ratings started to improve as parts of his program came back to life and were passed by Congress.
“In an emergency, break glass,” the signs on old fire alarm boxes read. Republicans are hoping that this year, crime is their glass-shattering issue.
As Annie Linskey and Colby Itkowitz reported in The Post this week, GOP candidates and allied groups aired about 53,000 commercials on crime during the first three weeks of September, up from 29,000 crime ads in August.
Navin Nayak, president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, saw this coming. “There was no question that come fall, Republicans would go to the same sort of playbook that they’d been using for the last 25 years, which is trying to scare voters into the Republican column by blaming Democrats for crime,” Nayak said in an interview this week. “And, you know, at a time when crime rates have actually increased across the entire country, we knew that would be even more salient.”
So for the past five months, Democratic strategists have been quietly preparing for the Republican onslaught on crime. In the spring, Nayak’s progressive organization convened a group of Democratic pollsters — Hart Research, Global Strategy Group and Impact Research — to assess how Democrats should respond and which arguments might not only protect the party’s candidates but also allow them to go on offense.
Crime has been a go-to Republican issue since at least the 1968 presidential campaign, when Richard M. Nixon assailed liberal Supreme Court decisions on criminal justice for “weakening the peace forces as against the criminal forces in this country.”
And while Nixon criticized “those who say that law and order is the code word for racism,” a lot of GOP advertising around the issue over the past half-century — and into this year — has had what can (with in many cases excessive politeness) be called racial overtones.
Crime may be an especially potent issue for Republicans this year for an additional reason: its potential as a wedge to divide 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 murder of George Floyd in May 2020. That did not stop the GOP from hanging the idea on all Democrats. In any event, moderates and liberals have struggled with sometimes sharp differences over how much emphasis the party should put on crime-fighting relative to the urgency of fighting for sweeping reform in policing and the criminal justice system.
Nayak’s work is part of an urgent Democratic quest for consensus. He insists that the one thing the party’s candidates cannot do is ignore the public’s fear of rising crime.
“When you don’t speak to a concern voters actually have and the other side is speaking to them, that … amplifies your vulnerability on the issue,” he said. “It’s really important for candidates to remind them that we care about public safety in the first place, that we see an important role for the police and law enforcement in keeping communities safe.”
Once that threshold is met, Nayak said, his group’s research shows that voters are responsive to Democratic arguments that stress both “accountability” (for those who commit crimes) and “prevention” (including tougher gun laws and support for mental health and substance abuse treatment programs).
Republicans, the CAP research found, are highly vulnerable to arguments about crime prevention, particularly on guns. The case Democrats need to make against the GOP, Nayak said, is this: “They’re doing nothing to actually prevent crime from happening in the first place. They’re cutting programs that actually help people with mental health or substance abuse programs. They’re … flooding communities with guns and making it easier for people who commit crimes to get guns.”
The challenge campaigns face is how to avoid spending so much time pushing back against the other side’s issues that your own strongest arguments get lost. Nayak says he is not calling on Democrats to place “disproportionate” emphasis on crime. They should, he says, continue to press their advantage 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 that can happen on preventing street violence. “We have no business feeling defensive about this issue,” he said. “Democrats are concerned about crime. We have to talk about it more.”