Monday, September 26, 2022

Republicans Intensify Attacks on Crime as Democrats Push Back

 At the New York Times, "With images of lawlessness, G.O.P. candidates are pressing the issue in places where worries about public safety are omnipresent. Democrats, on the defensive, are promising to fund the police":

In Pennsylvania, Republicans are attacking John Fetterman, the Democratic Senate candidate, as “dangerously liberal on crime.”

Outside Portland, Ore., where years of clashes between left-wing protesters and the police have captured national attention, a Republican campaign ad juxtaposes video of Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a Democratic congressional candidate, protesting with footage of rioters and looters. Ms. McLeod-Skinner, an ominous-sounding narrator warns, is “one of them.”

And in New Mexico, the wife of Mark Ronchetti, the Republican nominee for governor, tells in a campaign ad of how she had once hid in a closet with her two young daughters and her gun pointed at the door because she feared an intruder was breaking in. Though the incident happened a decade ago, the ad accuses Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Mr. Ronchetti’s Democratic opponent, of making it “easier to be a criminal than a cop.”

In the final phase of the midterm campaign, Republicans are intensifying their focus on crime and public safety, hoping to shift the debate onto political terrain that many of the party’s strategists and candidates view as favorable. The strategy seeks to capitalize on some voters’ fears about safety — after a pandemic-fueled crime surge that in some cities has yet to fully recede. But it has swiftly drawn criticism as a return to sometimes deceptive or racially divisive messaging.

Crime-heavy campaigns have been part of the Republican brand for decades, gaining new steam in 2020 when President Donald J. Trump tried to leverage a backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement to vilify Democrats. But two years later, left-wing calls to defund the police have given way to an effort to pump money back into departments in many Democratic-led cities, raising questions about whether Republicans’ tactics will be as effective as they were in 2020, when the party made gains in the House.

Republicans are running the ads most aggressively in the suburbs of cities where worries about public safety are omnipresent, places that were upended by the 2020 protests over racial injustice or are near the country’s southwestern border. In some of the country’s most competitive Senate races — in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — Republican candidates have pivoted to a message heavily aimed at crime.

“This is something that crosses party lines and everyone says, ‘Wait a minute, why isn’t this something that is dealt with?’” said Mr. Ronchetti, whose state has experienced an increase in violent crime this year. “You look at New Mexico: People used to always know someone with a crime story. Now, everyone has their own.”

Polling shows that voters tend to see Republicans as stronger on public safety. By a margin of 10 percentage points, voters nationwide said they agreed more with Republicans on crime and policing, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll released this month.

National Republican strategists say they always planned to use crime as a so-called kitchen-table issue, along with inflation and the economy. Now, after a summer when Democrats gained traction in races across the country, in part because of the upending of abortion rights, Republican campaigns are blanketing television and computer screens with violent imagery.

Some of the advertising contains thinly disguised appeals to racist fears, like grainy footage of Black Lives Matter protesters, that sharply contrast with Republican efforts at the beginning of Mr. Trump’s term to highlight the party’s work on criminal justice overhauls, sentencing reductions and the pardoning of some petty crimes.

The full picture on crime rates is nuanced. Homicides soared in 2020 and 2021 before decreasing slightly this year. An analysis of crime trends in the first half of 2022 by the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan policy and research group, found that murders and gun assaults in major American cities fell slightly during the first half of 2022, but remained nearly 40 percent higher than before the pandemic. Robberies and some property offenses posted double-digit increases.

Candidates on the right have tended to be vague on specific policy details: A new agenda released by House Republicans proposes offering recruiting bonuses to hire 200,000 more police officers, cracking down on district attorneys who “refuse to prosecute crimes” and opposing “all efforts to defund the police.”

Still, Republicans see the issue as one that can motivate their conservative base as well as moderate, suburban independents who have shifted toward Democrats in recent weeks.

In the past two weeks alone, Republican candidates and groups have spent more than $21 million on ads about crime — more than on any other policy issue — targeting areas from exurban Raleigh, N.C., to Grand Rapids, Mich., according to data collected by AdImpact, a media tracking firm.

But those attacks are not going unanswered: Over the past two weeks, Democrats have spent a considerable amount — nearly $17 million — on ads on the issue, though the amount is less than half of what Democrats spent on ads about abortion rights over the same period...