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Worries over crime haunt Democrats ahead of the midterm elections

Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.) speaks outside the Capitol in May. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images)
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HENDERSON, Nev. — Sitting before a dozen police officers last week at a public safety forum, Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.) wanted to make clear that she will defend law enforcement in Congress.

“I always open these up and say I do not want to defund the police, and in fact have voted multiple times to increase funding to police departments,” Lee, who is on a list of House Democrats seen as vulnerable in November, told a group that included representatives from the two local law enforcement associations, which recently endorsed her reelection campaign.

Lee’s pledge of support for law enforcement is being replicated across the country as Democratic lawmakers up and down the ballot scramble to assure voters that they’re not soft on crime. It’s a sea change from two years ago when, amid the height of racial justice protests, some leaders on the left began to rethink their approach to criminal justice.

Fears that Democrats are losing ground on crime were compounded by Tuesday primary results, which included the recall of San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin, whom voters saw as overly lenient toward criminals. In the Los Angeles mayor’s race, billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso, a former Republican who ran as a Democrat and campaigned on a message of improving quality of life, was projected to go to a runoff with onetime favorite Rep. Karen Bass (D).

President Biden echoed the concern Wednesday. “The voters sent a clear message last night: Both parties ought to step up and do something about crime, as well as gun violence,” Biden said ahead of his trip to Los Angeles for the Summit of the Americas.

He noted that the American Rescue Plan, the first major bill he signed into law, included billions of dollars for policing but complained that some places haven’t used the money. “It’s time the states and the localities spend the money they have to deal with crime, as well as retrain police officers, as well as provide for more community policing,” Biden said.

Homicide rates in cities across the country have soared over the past two years, with officials blaming a combination of pandemic-related changes to the criminal justice system and in some places new, more lenient policing policies.

In response, Democratic candidates across the country are showcasing a tougher approach on crime. In D.C., a liberal haven with primaries later this month, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser is running on her record of bolstering police in schools. “You have to have a mayor who’s willing to make tough calls and not just go along with trendy words of the day,” Bowser said in a recent debate where another Democratic candidate also sought a tough-on-crime mantle.

Republicans are poised to capitalize on concerns about rising violence.

“Crime is the sleeper issue of this cycle,” said Chris Hartline, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the main group backing Senate Republicans.

He said fear about rising crime dovetails with inflation, still the top issue for voters, because quality of life contributes to a general sense of unease about the direction of the country. “It stretches beyond city politics to an issue that could move voters statewide,” Hartline said.

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) announced Wednesday morning that it will put $52.3 million behind political ads to back GOP House candidates in key races. The ads will use messaging that blames Democrats for spikes in violent crime in addition to inflation and poor management of the southern border.

“We’re going to relentlessly remind Americans they are worse off than a year and a half ago,” NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer said in a statement issued Wednesday announcing that “soaring violent crime” will be among the attacks against Democrats this fall.

In states where the field is settled, the issue is already seeping into general-election campaigns.

In an attempt to gin up online donations for author J.D. Vance, the Republican running for an open Senate seat in Ohio, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) praised Vance as “tough on crime.” In a posting on social media that links to a fundraising page, Cotton attacked Rep. Tim Ryan, the Democratic nominee in the Ohio race, for supporting the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House but has stalled in the Senate.

Tom Persico, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said he’s encouraging House Democrats to confront head-on concerns that Democrats want to defund the police. “Attack the charge, say what you’re for, and then you can move on,” he said.

Nationally, Americans give Republicans an advantage of 12 percentage points on handling crime, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll from April. That’s a marked shift from last summer, when Americans were about evenly divided on which party is better positioned to contend with crime.

In recent weeks, Lee and other Democrats have co-sponsored bipartisan legislation with Republicans that would invest in police departments to help recruit more officers and provide adequate resources to effectively train officers on safety, de-escalation and more. Other bills have also been proposed to incentivize national recruitment campaigns and reauthorize community policing grants to boost wages and increase police presence in rural towns.

Front-line Democrats, those representing swing districts and most at risk of losing their seats, have spent the past month pushing leadership to hold votes on these bipartisan bills. Even if the effort faces little to no chance in the Senate, members and aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss negotiations, said the votes are worth taking so they can return to their districts and have evidence that proves a majority of Democrats support funding the police.

Republicans are particularly hopeful that the heightened concerns about crime can help them with suburban voters, where they’ve lost ground in recent elections.

Tuesday offered some evidence that they might be right. In New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District, a suburban swath near New York City that the GOP views as a top target in November, law and order was top of mind.

“Crime is the number one issue,” said Gerhard Otto, who is originally from South Africa and voted for the first time in a U.S. election Tuesday in Scotch Plains, N.J. “Things have gone backwards since I first visited in 2012,” Otto said after casting a ballot for Tom Kean Jr., who prevailed in the Republican primary. The Cook Political Report rates the race “leans Republican,” even though the district is currently represented by a Democrat.

Otto blames inflation for the increased crime, which he thinks is spreading from New York City to his community. “I never thought it would happen, and just in the space of the last eight months there’s been incidents very close to the house — next door, on both sides,” Otto said.

Democrats have been weathering attacks on crime since the 2020 election cycle and expect more are coming.

“It’s a piece of the puzzle without a doubt in the midterms,” said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster who worked on Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign. “It’s going to be an issue that the Republicans try to use as a wedge issue, and we know it. And we’ll be prepared.”

Anzalone said that Democrats’ best defense is to make it clear that they don’t support defunding the police, as Lee and others have sought to do.

Biden made an effort to underline that message during his State of the Union address when he dedicated a major section to supporting the police. “We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police; it’s to fund the police,” he said, before ad-libbing: “Fund them. Fund them.”

But voters are making clear that the issue goes beyond funding for police departments, to include concerns about perceived failures throughout the criminal justice system that are affecting quality-of-life issues in cities still grappling with homelessness and economic disruption caused by the pandemic.

Exhibit A is the recall of Boudin in San Francisco, where his pledge to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison when possible became an animating issue. Ernestine Jensen, a 75-year-old clerical worker who has lived in San Francisco since 2009, said she’s tired of dodging needles and human feces when she walks her dog and wants to see a more robust police response.

“We want some law and order,” said Jensen, who voted to oust Boudin.

Republicans have said they will highlight this race, telling voters that Democratic policies are so radical they were rejected even by San Francisco voters, long considered among the most liberal in the country.

While Boudin’s recall epitomized the frustration Californians feel about crime and the unhappy state of many coastal cities, there was evidence that a “a tough on crime” message was not resonating everywhere.

In the state attorney general’s race, the incumbent, Rob Bonta, held a large lead in a field of five. Bonta, a Bay Area Democrat appointed to the job by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), is viewed as a liberal criminal justice reformer, although not to the same degree as Boudin.

Crime and quality of life also buoyed Caruso in Los Angeles. At Caruso’s election night party in Los Angeles, some voters hopefully compared him to Mike Bloomberg, the Republican billionaire and former New York mayor who was praised by many for reducing crime and presiding over an era of prosperity in that city.

“Bloomberg was able to grab the city by its reins and really lead it,” said a 43-year-old former New York City resident named William, who spoke on the condition that he not give his last name. “Now more than ever, if you were to walk down any street, you would feel that need and the need to really improve a beautiful city that has lost its way.”

In Nevada, Lee is facing a challenger in Tuesday’s primary but is expected to win handily. The larger challenge comes in the general election, where she is likely to face Republican April Becker, a lawyer who has earned the endorsement of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Shoring up her standing on public safety will be important in November, and officers at the meeting praised her for talking with them, even when they don’t always agree on how to address growing concerns about crime.

“I appreciate you, you know, somebody working up in Washington for us,” Clark County Park Police Sgt. Wade Barnhardt, who is also a member of the National Rifle Association, said to Lee. “I do believe that on any issue, no matter what it is, we can’t have both groups sitting in their two camps. … We’re all citizens of United States. Therefore, we need to work together to solve the problem.”

Scott Wilson in Santa Barbara, Calif.; Jack Gregory Wright in Scotch Plains, N.J.; Katherine Kam in San Francisco; Miranda Green in Los Angeles; and Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.