The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The midterms showed Democrats don’t need to pander on crime

Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman takes the stage at an election night party in Pittsburgh on Nov. 9. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Here’s another positive outcome of the surprising midterm elections: They should put an end to the crime scare.

I don’t mean the public concern about crime, which is still at unacceptable levels, but the fearmongering by Democratic pollsters, operatives and politicians about the political issue of crime and its effects on the Democratic Party.

In the run-up to the elections, Republicans went all in charging Democrats with being weak on crime and tying Democratic candidates to the “defund the police” slogan. The GOP spent more ad money railing about rising crime than about the economy or inflation. Pre-election Washington Post polls showed Republicans with a double-digit advantage on the issue, far larger than their edge on the economy or immigration.

In response, Democratic Party operatives began rending their garments. Paul Begala agonized that “I have never seen a more destructive slogan than ‘defund the police.’ ” Pollster Stanley B. Greenberg warned that “the 2022 midterms will be remembered as a toxic campaign, but an effective one in labeling Democrats as ‘pro-crime.’ ” New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall even recycled Elaine Ciulla Kamarck and William Galston’s updated version of their infamous 1989 “Politics of Evasion” essay, which argued that the Democratic brand was poison, and that the party “is in the grip of myths that block progress toward victory.”

The only hope, these voices said, was to do a Bill Clinton: Pander on the issue. Take it away from Republicans. Clinton ended up supporting the death penalty and calling for putting another 100,000 police officers on the street. (Unmentioned was the horrific result of his 1994 crime bill, which helped usher in a new era of mass incarceration that he later apologized for.)

Then came the election, and the results were clear. CNN exit polls showed that voters ranked inflation as the top factor in their vote, followed closely by abortion. Only 11 percent mentioned crime. Democrats — including many calling for criminal justice reform — fared better in the midterms than any incumbent party since 2002, when Republicans benefited in the wake of 9/11. In stark contrast, though Clinton had succeeded in winning a small edge for Democrats on the crime issue by 1994, the party was routed in that year’s midterms, losing 52 seats and control of the House.

The candidate seemingly most vulnerable to the crime scare this year was John Fetterman, running for the open U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania. As lieutenant governor, Fetterman had devoted much of his energy to working on getting nonviolent offenders released from prison. Republicans poured money into attacking him on the issue — spending nearly $12 million on crime ads, according to AdImpact, compared to $2.5 million on the economy and inflation. Fetterman not only won, he picked up a Senate seat for the Democrats.

Reform candidates fared well nationwide. As noted in a summary by Chloe Cockburn of the criminal justice reform group Just Impact, Mary Moriarty, a career public defender who clashed with local police and prosecutors, will become the next prosecutor of Minnesota’s Hennepin County, beating a Republican who denounced reform as endangering public safety. In places as varied as Memphis, Dallas, San Antonio and Polk County, Iowa, reform candidates for prosecutor won against law-and-order types. Tina Kotek won the Oregon governorship as a reformer defending spending on public health, treatment and recovery capacity.

Voters aren’t as stupid as the political pros think. African Americans, for good reason, are much more likely to say that violent crime is important to their midterm vote than Hispanic or White voters. Yet more than 8 in 10 Black voters went for Democrats. African Americans see criminal justice reform as a priority and are, also for good reason, less trusting of the police than White Americans.

The crime scare did make a difference in some races. Incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson eked out reelection in Wisconsin by waging what many saw as a shameless race-baiting campaign against his African American opponent — with crime as a major theme. In New York congressional races, Republican ads on crime — reinforced by New York Mayor Eric Adams’s alarmist rhetoric about rising crime — helped the GOP pick up several congressional seats (although the Democratic fiasco around reapportionment might have had a greater effect). Minnesota’s Democratic attorney general, Keith Ellison, who prosecuted Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd and championed police reform, won reelection by only a small margin, having to overcome door-to-door canvassing by the police union.

And, with Trump in the field, crime will surely be a major theme for Republicans in 2024. But the midterm elections showed that Democrats need not panic. They don’t have to attack progressives or compete with Republicans on locking people up. Voters will respond to a common-sense agenda on dealing with crime and police reform. Young voters, scarred by mass murders in schools, care deeply about gun policy. If moderate Democrats want to address the “poisoned” Democratic Party brand, they might best look in the mirror and stop echoing Republican fearmongering in their desire to discredit progressives.