Aug 15, 2022 - Politics & Policy

"Defund the FBI" complicates GOP's midterm messaging

Illustration of an elephant stepping over caution tape.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Republicans used the "defund the police" slogan after George Floyd's murder to paint the Democratic Party as radical. But since the FBI's search of Mar-a-Lago, a growing number of GOP candidates and lawmakers are rallying around their own calls to defund or abolish federal law enforcement agencies.

Why it matters: The new demands muddle a narrative embraced by Republicans long before the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020 — that they are the party of law enforcement. They also show how much former President Trump has reshaped his party.

  • Strategists say it could jeopardize the GOP's chances in some contests in November.

The big question: Could this become the new Trump loyalty litmus test?

Driving the news: Dan Bolduc and Bruce Fenton, leading Republican Senate candidates in New Hampshire, said in a recent debate they believe the Department of Homeland Security and top agencies need to be significantly "reduced" and called for abolishing the FBI.

  • Anthony Sabatini, a leading primary candidate in Florida's 7th District, has long called to defund the FBI and tweeted on the night of the Mar-a-Lago search that Florida should "sever all ties with DOJ immediately" and arrest FBI agents on sight.
  • Tim Baxter, a candidate in New Hampshire’s 1st District, expressed support for abolishing the FBI in a debate on Saturday. Another candidate, Karoline Leavitt, called to "investigate, litigate and incarcerate them."
  • J.R. Majewski, the GOP nominee in Ohio's 9th District, says on his website's issues page: "I will fight to abolish all unconstitutional three letter agencies," including the CIA.
  • Sandy Smith, the GOP nominee in North Carolina’s 1st District, tweeted a poll with "Abolish the FBI" as one of the options.

Asked in a recent radio interview whether Republicans are "actually going to be willing" to defund the FBI, IRS and other agencies, Bo Hines, the Trump-endorsed GOP nominee in North Carolina's 13th District, responded: "Well, I mean we have to."

  • When his campaign was contacted for comment for this story, a spokesman provided a statement from Hines that said: "I fully support the men and women within these agencies that work tirelessly in good faith to keep our communities safe, but I do not support the political hacks that use these agencies as vessels to go after the American people."

The position also has been embraced by Texas GOP chair Matt Rinaldi and Reps. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who is selling "Defund the FBI" merchandise.

What they're saying: "Crime has been a winning issue for Republicans, and they need to be careful not to jeopardize that," Alex Conant, GOP strategist and founding partner of Firehouse Strategies, told Axios.

  • While it's natural for House Republican candidates to tap into grassroots anger to generate turnout and contributions, Conant warned that Democrats may be able to use that "to neutralize what has been a very effective issue for Republicans."
  • Ken Spain, a founding partner of Narrative Strategies and former GOP campaign official, told Axios: "This might score political points in the handful of remaining GOP primaries, but it will serve as a textbook case study in how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the general election.”

The backdrop: Republicans have long used the left's "defund the police" slogan to attack Democrats — and Democratic operatives have warned lawmakers to steer clear of anti-law enforcement rhetoric ahead of the midterm elections.

  • The National Republican Congressional Committee has routinely hit Democrats this cycle over ties to groups that support defunding the police.
  • “Every voter knows Democrats are the party of defund the police. Americans are experiencing record violent crime as a direct of Democrats’ efforts to vilify law enforcement and push pro-criminal policies like cashless bail," said NRCC spokesperson Michael McAdams.

The other side: Democrats are already using calls to defund the FBI to turn that dynamic on its head.

  • Wiley Nickel, Hines' Democratic opponent, fundraised off the Republican's comments — calling them a "slap in the face to every hard-working law enforcement official."
  • "While the other side wants to defund the FBI, we want to fund our kids' future," Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), Democrats' Senate candidate in Ohio, said last week.
  • The campaign manager for one swing district Democratic campaign told Axios: "The way we would consider using it … is just a complete out-of-touchness the Republican Party has allowed into their mainstream."

What we're watching: After Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) told Axios that calls to defund the FBI make Republicans look "unserious," he received a MAGA lashing online.

  • Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who represents a swing district, told Axios: "The Republican message should not be 'defund the FBI,' I think [it's a] mistake."
  • Even some Trump-aligned Republicans in key races aren't going along with the calls. Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters' campaign told Axios he wants to reform, but not defund, the FBI.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that Anthony Sabatini is running in Florida's 7th District, not 3rd.

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