Sep 22, 2022 - Politics & Policy

GOP's crime cudgel

Illustration of a political lawn sign shaped like a police car

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Democrats are pouring millions into a last-minute effort to neutralize their vulnerabilities on crime — an issue they admit has driven a flood of effective Republican attacks in key contests.

Why it matters: The dynamic comes after a summer in which GOP attacks on inflation lost some potency and Democrats harnessed a ripple of much-needed momentum from pro-abortion rights sentiment.

Driving the news: After months of wrangling with progressives, the House on Thursday passed four policing bills, including grants for small local police departments to help with recruitment and training and legislation to fund technology to help close unsolved cases.

  • Vulnerable Democrats expressed hope that the package would help them deflect GOP attacks on crime. “It’s just one more piece of evidence that all those attacks are insane," said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.).
  • "They’re in a hunt to talk about anything except women’s reproductive rights. I mean, they’ll talk about the weather before they talk about that," Kildee added.
  • "I think it's helpful to [swing seat Democrats], and I think they have to talk about it every place they go," said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who also took a swipe at "members of our party who vilify police officers as a whole."

What's happening: In Wisconsin, a barrage of new ads from Republicans' top Senate super PAC have hit Democratic nominee Mandela Barnes over his support for ending cash bail. Barnes is facing off with incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.

  • One of the spots features the grandmother of a child struck by a car during an attack on a Waukesha Christmas parade last year.
  • "Mandela Barnes supports no cash bail that puts criminals like Darrell Brooks back on the streets," the grandmother says. "He's more worried about criminals than victims."

Zoom out: The Senate Leadership Fund ad, one of multiple ads hitting Barnes on his cash bail position, comes as Republicans nationwide lean into the crime issue.

  • The National Republican Senatorial Committee is out with a new ad this week with a similar attack on Barnes.
  • Pennsylvania Republican Mehmet Oz has hammered his Senate opponent, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, over his record of pushing for clemency while leading Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons.
  • The Republican Governors Association has released ads over the past week hitting Democratic incumbents in Wisconsin and New Mexico on crime.
  • The Congressional Leadership Fund, Republicans' top House super PAC, has run ads in at least 10 races over the last two weeks focused on crime and police funding.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Virginia are rolling out a new effort to hammer vulnerable Democrat Rep. Abigail Spanberger on the crime issue.

The other side: Recognizing the party's vulnerability on crime, the political arm of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group, says it's kicking off millions in ad spending defending frontline Democrats on the issue.

  • The group, Shield PAC, plans to drop about $700,000 apiece into at least seven House races to defend Democrats on crime and immigration, according to Third Way public affairs director Matt Bennett.
  • He called the crime attacks "false, but deadly," and pointed specifically to the Moms for Safe Streets ad.

Between the lines: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been working with candidates this year to try to neutralize those sorts of attacks.

  • Key to the party's tactics are "validators," or law enforcement officers who can be featured in ads pushing back on "defund" attacks, according to a DCCC strategy memo circulated to candidates early this year.
  • A host of Democratic House candidates have heeded the advice, featuring local law enforcement officials in ads throughout the summer.

That's precisely the approach Shield PAC is taking as well.

  • "Abigail Spanberger is working to fund the police," says its 30-second spot defending her. It describes Spanberger as a "leading Democratic critic of the defund movement" and includes a testimonial from the chief of the Culpepper, Virginia, police department.
  • Shield PAC is also running ads attempting to boost the law enforcement credentials of two other frontline Democrats, Reps. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Kim Schrier of Washington.
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