The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Wisconsin, a complex debate on crime foreshadows a midterm fight

Protesters walk past police with their arms up in Kenosha, Wis., in 2020 as a building burns after the police shooting of Jacob Blake a day earlier. (Joshua Lott/For The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

MILWAUKEE — In a safer time, Lynn Quirk says, she would put more stock in public safety reforms promoted by Democrats, including changes embraced by her family members who have marched through the streets of Milwaukee and Kenosha to protest police violence.

But Quirk — who lives on Milwaukee’s east side and places herself in the “mushy middle” of politics — says she is now informed less by ideology than by her direct experience with crime, including in 2017 when she was robbed by a 12-year-old girl. A few weeks ago, a woman was punched and robbed outside Quirk’s home, and now Quirk won’t take her garbage out without slipping a can of Mace into her pocket.

“I was a basket case the last couple years,” she said. “With the crime around here, I’m like, I can’t take it anymore. I used to love Milwaukee. It can be beautiful. There’s many, many beautiful things about it. But it’s gotten to the point where I don’t know if I can stay here.”

In this section of southeastern Wisconsin, a battleground state won by Joe Biden in 2020 and Donald Trump four years earlier, politicians from both sides of the aisle are trying hard to convince Quirk, and millions of other voters, that they can keep them safe. With the midterm elections looming, Republicans in particular are inundating the state’s airwaves with images of burning buildings, boarded-up stores and chanting protesters.

Crime and racial justice were front and center in 2020, as well. But this year, public safety is part of a multifaceted Republican message that the country has fallen into chaos under Democratic rule, from soaring prices to out-of-control schools to surging immigration.

“Crime is a page in the playbook — it’s not a playbook by itself,” said one Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss GOP persuasion tactics. “The argument in Wisconsin is that the status quo isn’t going so well, but it’s got to be part of a broader argument that, under Biden and [Democratic Gov. Tony] Evers, our way of life has been falling apart. You can’t pay your bills anymore. You don’t know what your kids are going to be learning in school. You don’t know if your community is going to be safe.”

That has left Democrats, nationally and in Wisconsin, divided over how much to emphasize their own police-friendly credentials and how much to stick to the racial justice movement that erupted anew in 2020.

Evers, for example, has unilaterally funneled more than $56 million in federal funds to law enforcement, a move that enables him to circumvent a legislative maze controlled by Republicans who some Democrats worry are hesitant to give Evers a win in an election year. “We anticipate it will make a difference throughout the state,” Evers said in March when he announced the funding.

But Rep. David Bowen, a Democratic state legislator who represents Milwaukee and is running for lieutenant governor, warned that the many people who marched against police brutality “all over Wisconsin, even in some of our smallest, rural towns” have not gone away. He worried that moving too quickly away from police accountability would sour voters on Democrats who promised change.

Bowen said voters “want to be respected and dignified by their law enforcement agencies, and for them to truly protect them — that’s as important in this state as it is across the rest of the country.”

Washington Post reporter Whitney Leaming described how the night of Aug. 25 unfolded in Kenosha, Wis., and her close encounter with Kyle Rittenhouse. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

A recently released Marquette University poll eyed closely by Republicans and Democrats showed that crime was among Wisconsin voters’ top concerns. Just as notably, 56 percent — the highest figure since early 2020 — felt that their state was on the wrong track, a vague but pervasive sense of unease that Republicans hope will color voters’ perceptions of Democrats in power.

While the debate over crime and policing is playing out nationwide, in Wisconsin, it has hit home in especially stark ways.

In August 2020, after a police shooting paralyzed a Black man, Jacob Blake, protests turned into riots, and some participants intentionally set fires at night, part of the larger racial unrest that marked the year. A teenager named Kyle Rittenhouse, who traveled to Kenosha saying he wanted to protect local businesses, fatally shot two people and wounded a third, although a jury found he acted in self-defense.

Later that year, as then-President Donald Trump decried lawless cities controlled by Democrats, Kenosha was one of his final campaign stops.

In Waukesha in November, a man drove his SUV through a Christmas parade, killing six people and injuring dozens more. The driver had recently been released on $1,000 bail after being accused of hitting his ex-girlfriend with the same SUV, setting off a heated debate over the role of bail in keeping communities safe.

Now those debates are playing out in the midterm campaigns. The National Republican Senatorial Committee recently attacked Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes — one of the Democrats who hopes to challenge Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) in the fall — for refusing to say whether he still supports cash bail. “He was asked three times by the anchor if he still supports the elimination of cash bail,” its email said. “Barnes danced around the answer all three times.” The email said Barnes “also refuses to oppose defunding the police.”

Barnes’s campaign declined to comment for this article.

One of the earliest campaign ads for Rebecca Kleefisch, one of the Republicans trying to unseat the state’s Democratic governor, begins with an image of Kenosha in flames.

“One year ago, Kenosha burned while Tony Evers failed to lead,” Kleefisch says in the ad, at one point walking past a boarded-up business. “Lives were lost, and small businesses were burned because our governor sided with rioters over the people of this community.”

Strategists for both sides say it is too early to predict for certain which issues will be salient in a midterm election six months from now and whether crime will still be a top concern. Nationally, Republicans have sought to hammer President Biden and the Democratic Party on the rising cost of gas and food, while a Supreme Court decision expected to overturn Roe v. Wade could upend the political landscape.

But matters of public safety, often intertwined with race, have historically made for resonant political messages, and Republicans are betting they will again.

This has not been solely a Republican-on-Democrat attack. Trump recently released a statement deriding Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, accusing him of, among other things, failing to do more to reduce crime. The former president has criticized Kemp for not acting to overturn Biden’s 2020 victory in Georgia.

Still, Democrats in Wisconsin and across the nation, recognizing a potential weakness, have sought to inoculate themselves.

A Democratic strategist said vulnerable House members cannot afford to ignore the labels that Republicans affix to them. In 2020, slogans like “Defund the police” and “Abolish ICE” (short for Immigration and Customs Enforcement) were embraced by a small handful of Democrats but used by the GOP to tar the party more broadly. Some Democrats, especially moderates in swing districts, say that dynamic contributed to the loss of about a dozen House races.

Last month, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) attended a roll call of the Culpeper, Va., police department, flew a police drone and went on a ride-along with officers. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) recently touted $1.3 million that will go to the Lansing Police Department for training in de-escalation and crisis intervention techniques.

Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) was flanked by five Iowa law enforcement officers as she touted the bipartisan Invest to Protect Act, which would provide $250 million for small police departments nationwide. Another centrist, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), also embraced that measure, taking the opportunity to reject the notion of defunding the police.

“I’ve also realized that if you want to make something better, and there’s always room for improvement, whether that’s a road or a school, you don’t get there by cutting or defunding,” Gottheimer said in a statement. “You need to make smart, targeted investments. In other words, you need to invest, not defund.”

And Biden himself has sought to distance his party from the activists calling for far-reaching police reform. “We should all agree the answer is not to defund the police; it’s to fund the police,” Biden said during his State of the Union address on March 1. “Fund them. Fund them. Fund them with resources and training, resources and training they need to protect our communities.”

Part of that funding has come from the American Rescue Plan, Biden’s pandemic aid package. The administration has told municipalities that money from the measure can be used to fund policing initiatives or simply put new officers on the beat. And Biden has asked for $30 billion in new police spending in his proposed budget.

Across Wisconsin and the country, activists have warily eyed the changing edges of the debate.

“When we heard the State of the Union and President Biden said we need to fund the police, it feels like those are just very lazy solutions, unfortunately,” said Angela Lang, an activist and political organizer who founded Black Leaders Organizing for Communities in 2017. “It really just feels that sometimes the Democratic Party is performative in how it says it shows up for Black lives, and that they kind of do this performative dance ahead of midterms and presidential elections and just come to our communities to extract our votes.”

But many Democratic strategists say the political challenge of rising crime is real. In 2021, a dozen major cities, including Portland, Ore., Louisville and Philadelphia, set homicide records. Through the first three months of this year, the number of homicides in Milwaukee doubled, compared with the same period last year. The spasm of violence included police responding to 20 shootings in the last full weekend of April, three of them fatal.

And as crime has increased, support for some criminal justice changes has softened.

In June 2020, amid nationwide racial justice protests after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, about a quarter of Americans supported reducing police funding by a little or a lot, according to a Pew Research Center survey. By October 2021, that support had fallen to 15 percent. There were even starker drops among voters who leaned Democratic.

Quirk, for her part, said she doesn’t favor harshly punitive law enforcement measures, but she also worries that Democrats, from the White House to Milwaukee City Hall, are not tough enough on crime and have been overly influenced by racial justice activists. “He means well,” she said of Biden. “But I think he’s saying everything that a lot of people want to hear, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Quirk said she wants to see more punishment for lawbreakers but also wants her community to tackle the root causes of crime, particularly for young people on the wrong side of the law. She followed her preteen assailant’s journey through the court system — they even embraced before one hearing — and she wonders what would have been if the girl had had more opportunities or better guidance.

Although she has been stunned by police killings of Black men, she said, she also worries that talk of police reform will hamper efforts to cut crime.

“I’m dumbfounded, like everybody else, but I personally think we need to be harsher,” Quirk said. “I was all for people marching. If there’s something bad going on, there needs to be a change. Definitely the voices have to be heard. But you have to teach the kids to do right, or they grow up to be older, nasty, even worse criminals.”

Marianna Sotomayor and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.