are growing more confident in their ability to fend off Republican attacks based on public fear of rising crime across the country, with the White House
quietly focusing on crime-fighting policies and political allies of the president working to counter Republican talking points and recruit candidates with criminal-justice backgrounds.
During Donald Trump
's presidency, shootings
began to rise, a trend that was accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic
rates in major cities across the country rose by nearly a third in 2020, and have continued to rise so far this year.
While homicide totals in many cities remain well below the historic highs reached in the 1990s, the rise in shootings has sparked concerns among liberals that President Joe Biden
and other Democrats may pay an electoral price. Progressive New York Times
columnist Ezra Klein warned late last month that rising crime rates could create a “political crisis” for Democrats, and many party strategists are preparing for a “political crisis.”
A Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that 49% of Americans described violent crime
as a “very big problem” in the country, a higher percentage than said the same about the economy
, the COVID-19
pandemic, or race relations. However, the same poll found that only 36% of Americans approved of how Biden was handling crime, while 44% disapproved.
“It is impossible to ignore that these terrible trends are occurring precisely as so-called progressives
have decided it is time to denounce and defund local law
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
said in a recent Senate floor speech.
However, a Democratic victory in a crime-focused special election
in New Mexico
last week, combined with a renewed determination to counter GOP
claims that the party is weak on crime and the administration's efforts to highlight ways it is funding law enforcement, has strategists feeling surprisingly optimistic.
“[Biden] has a story to tell about the money
he’s spent through the American Rescue Plan
that he wants to use to help communities and law enforcement do their jobs
to combat crime,” John Anzalone, the lead pollster for Biden’s presidential campaign, told Stardia. “Republicans
don’t have that story.”
Anzalone noted that pundits frequently assumed that the increase in crime during the pandemic would benefit Trump, despite polling showing that the Republican had little to no advantage on the issue. Even now, the Yahoo/YouGov poll found voters
essentially split on who would handle crime better, Biden or Trump.
“Republicans love their wedge issues, and they always come back to the same well,” Anzalone explained. “It was going to be school reopenings, it was going to be immigration
, and now it’s going to be crime.”
Democrats expect the White House to highlight cities and states that are using American Rescue Plan funding to hire or retain police
officers, as well as to emphasize that Biden has proposed increasing funding for federal programs that assist local governments in hiring officers in his budget, as well as funding for violence intervention programs as part of his infrastructure
Democrats will also highlight Biden's efforts to crack down on so-called "ghost guns
" and his nomination of the first permanent director of the Bureau of Alcohol
, and Firearms in nearly a decade.
“President Biden understands that the troubling rise in violent crime, particularly gun violence
, since the start of the pandemic is unacceptable and must be stopped,” said White House spokesman Michael Gwin. “That’s why he’s taking a comprehensive approach to reducing violence, from increasing funding for cities to hire more effectively-trained, accountable police officers to engage in community outreach.”
Mayor Sylvester Turner, a trustee at the United States
Conference of Mayors, said cities across the country would have had to lay off cops if Congress
had not passed a pandemic relief package earlier this year.
“Without these [federal] dollars, cities small and large would be laying off employees, struggling to retain their police officers and firefighters,” he said, adding that “public safety issues would be exacerbated.”
Turner also directed approximately $25 million in federal funds to mobile crisis units, which the city will use instead of police officers to respond to mental health
crisis calls. “This will go hand in hand with our police reforms,” Turner said.
While some progressive activists continue to advocate for large-scale cuts in police funding or the abolition of police departments, both ideas are unpopular in public polling, and Democratic strategists are unconcerned about left-wing opposition.
Crime has emerged as a major issue in several elections
this year, including the New York City
mayor's race, in which progressive and moderate candidates have repeatedly clashed over the department's $6 billion budget, and in Philadelphia
, where police unions
backed a failed challenge to reformist District Attorney Larry Krasner
But it was a victory by Democrat Melanie Stansbury
last week in a congressional special election in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a city where crime was high even before the pandemic, that gave Democrats renewed confidence in their ability to fend off crime-related attacks.
Stansbury stated her support for the BREATHE Act, a far-reaching criminal justice
reform legislation backed by only two progressive members of Congress, at the start of the race, giving her GOP opponent, a state legislator and businessman named Mark Moores
, room to accuse Stansbury of wanting to release violent criminals.
Stansbury retaliated with an ad in which a retired sheriff's deputy speaks directly to camera, calling the attacks "lies."
Stansbury's victory was never truly in doubt, but she ended up winning by 25 percentage points – a margin even greater than Biden's victory in the district in 2020 – giving Democrats hope that Stansbury's approach – not backing down from police reform, but also enlisting law enforcement to lend credibility to your positions – could be a model for the midterms.
“The playbook is: don’t stop fighting for racial justice
, but respond aggressively to Republican lies with specific reforms you support,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney said in an interview
Maloney, who represents a swing district in the New York City suburbs, was also optimistic that the party would be able to turn the “defund the cops” attack back on Republicans.
“If there is a party that supports defunding the police, it is the party that voted against the American Rescue Plan,” Maloney said, referring to the coronavirus relief legislation that congressional Republicans unanimously opposed.
Rep. Conor Lamb, a former prosecutor, is expected to run for an open Senate seat in Pennsylvania
, though he must first win a crowded Democratic primary
. In Florida
, Rep. Val Demings
, the former Orlando police chief, is the party's leading candidate to challenge GOP Sen. Marco Rubio
Demings repeatedly emphasized her police background in a campaign launch video released Wednesday, with clips of news anchors stating that crime in Orlando has decreased significantly during her tenure
Even Demings' 27-year law enforcement career couldn't stop Republican attacks. Not long after Demings announced her candidacy, the National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a press release attacking her. The first bullet point? Demings supported "defunding the police."