Jul 18, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Democrats embrace law enforcement to hit GOP on crime

Illustration of a political lawn sign shaped like a police car

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Just two years after calls to defund the police erupted in the wake of George Floyd's murder, Democrats in states like Ohio, Georgia and Florida are spotlighting law enforcement to boost their credibility on fighting crime.

Why it matters: The new effort to ward off Republican attacks comes after the defund debate damaged Democrats' reputation on crime — leading to party infighting and internal reflection over how to best message on police reform.

  • Some party strategists fear a voter perception that Democrats don't recognize the problem with violent crime and don't respect the role police play in keeping communities safe.
  • The recent spate of mass shootings in places like Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, has given fresh urgency to the issue — as well as a new opportunity for Dems to go on the offensive by linking rising crime rates to gun violence.

What's happening: A new analysis from the Center for American Progress found that in seven states (Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, Arizona, Iowa, Texas and Missouri), law enforcement groups have publicly opposed bills spearheaded by Republican governors and lawmakers.

In Georgia, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams has released several campaign ads in the last few weeks using criticism from law enforcement officials to attack her competitor, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, over crime and safety issues.

In Ohio, the Democratic nominee for Senate, Rep. Tim Ryan, enlisted the help of a sheriff for an ad last month accusing his Republican opponent J.D. Vance of attacking law enforcement.

  • "Tim Ryan knows defunding the police is ridiculous," the sheriff says, while criticizing a proposal by Vance to eliminate the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
  • Nan Whaley, the former Democratic mayor of Dayton now running against Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, told Axios: "We've been very clear since before I was running for governor that I thought 'defund' was a terrible idea. This isn’t a campaign thing — it’s just terrible governance."
  • Whaley has used her campaign platforms to highlight instances in which Ohio police felt ignored by DeWine and state GOP lawmakers on their proposals to expand gun access.

In Florida, Democratic Rep. Val Demings — who's running against Republican Sen. Marco Rubio — has leaned heavily on her experience as Orlando's former police chief in campaign ads and events, including hosting a rally last month headlined "Meet the Chief."

  • "When he says I want to defund the police — I am the police!" Demings has said of Rubio. "Does that make any sense? I mean, come on."
  • Rubio has been endorsed by the Florida Fraternal Order of Police.

The big picture: Democrats have broadly adopted a more moderate stance on crime since the election of President Biden, who rejected calls to defund the police throughout the 2020 campaign and made clear during his first State of the Union address that his vision of police reform includes more funding — not less.

What they're saying: If they want to be successful, Democratic candidates should be "really clear that there’s no correlation between equity and diminishment of safety," Patrick Gaspard, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, told Axios.

  • Democrats must thread the needle between addressing "the tough job of police officers while talking about the challenges that many communities face with abuses of police authority," Gaspard stressed.
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