Posted on September 29, 2022

GOP Strategy Elevates Clashes Over Crime, Race in Midterm Battlegrounds

Annie Linskey and Colby Itkowitz, Washington Post, September 25, 2022

One Republican commercial casts Mandela Barnes as a “different” Democrat, and points out his push to end cash bail. Another shows his face on a wall with his last name sprayed in graffiti-style script and highlights a comment he made about reallocating police funds. A third labels him “dangerously liberal on crime.”

Republicans have said the ads are part of a broader strategy of calling out Democrats on crime, an argument they believe will be potent in the closing stage of this year’s midterm elections. But some allies of Barnes, who would be Wisconsin’s first Black senator, have derided the attacks as racist messages that feed on stereotypes. As he faces a torrent of negative ads, Barnes has launched spots seeking to assure voters he will fight crime and support law enforcement. Yet some Democrats said they fear his response has been ineffective.

The tensions playing out in Wisconsin mark one of the starkest examples of a trend that has swept across the midterm landscape with about six weeks left until Election Day: Republicans are increasingly centering their pitch to voters on crime, casting Democrats as weak and ineffective buffers against violent criminal conduct. As Republicans advance that argument, they are drawing growing accusations from Democrats that they are engaging in a pattern of stoking racial divisions, a charge they reject.

At the same time, Democrats worry the attacks could resonate amid the rise in violent crime that has taken place with their party in power at the federal level and in many cities. Some candidates are scrambling to distance themselves from slogans such as “Defund the police” that were popular among left-wing activists after a reckoning on racial justice and policing two years ago but have complicated the party’s image more broadly since that time, according to strategists across the political spectrum.

Homicide rates in the country’s cities have spiked over the past two years, with officials pointing to pandemic-related changes to the criminal justice system and, in some cases, less stringent policing policies. Now, from the Senate battlegrounds of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to key House races across the Midwest and beyond, Republicans are ramping up attacks highlighting incidents of deadly violence, sometimes in grisly detail, in ads and speeches.

“I have been trying to be quiet about it for a long time because I would hate for the Democrats to figure it out, but I think the cat, it’s out of the bag,” said Curt Anderson, a top strategist for National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fla.) “For the last eight or nine months I could just see it [crime] coming as the worst issue for the party in power.” He signaled that Republicans would attempt to hit on the issue more sharply in Georgia, where there is another battleground Senate race.

The rationale for the strategy is apparent in public polling. Republicans have a 22-point advantage on handling crime, with 56 percent of registered voters saying they trust Republicans more while 34 percent say they trust Democrats more on the issue, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.


{snip} Nearly 50 percent of all Republican online ads in battleground states have focused on policing and safety since the start of the month, according to data from Priorities USA, a group focused on electing Democrats.

The Republican messaging often seeks to tie Democratic candidates to calls to defund the police and abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, even as most nominees do not subscribe to those views. In other cases, Republicans single out policies promoted more directly by Democratic candidates, including limiting or redirecting police funding and changing the way bail regulations work.


Republicans said they believe they can use the issue to motivate their base and persuade undecided and independent voters to cast ballots for GOP candidates. Some Democrats said they see a more sinister strategy reminiscent of past elections, involving racial stereotypes and playing on voters’ worst instincts.

In Wisconsin on Wednesday, a group of activists and lawmakers called on the GOP to remove its ads targeting Barnes on crime. “We’re out here standing up for the truth demanding that these divisive, racist ads be taken down,” said state Sen. Chris Larson (D), describing them as “a blatant attempt to gin up fear.”

Some of the ads, including from the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, seek to connect Barnes’s authorship of a measure to end cash bail to the driver of a vehicle who killed six at Christmas parade in Waukesha. {snip}


Cornell Belcher, who was a pollster for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns and watched some of the ads against Barnes, said they play “in the continuum of the politics of victimization.”

“This is Willie Horton 2.0,” Belcher added, referring to a 1988 GOP ad intended to paint then-Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis as soft on crime. It featured a Black man who was released from a Massachusetts prison on a furlough program and went on to rape a White woman.

When shown a different ad from the NRSC attacking Barnes that features his name scrawled in graffiti, Belcher, who is Black, was uncharacteristically at a loss for words. “The imagery of that ad to me is just as important as the words in that ad,” Belcher said. “They’re attempting to ghettoize him.”


The crime ads, and other attacks against Barnes, ramped up in the end of August. As they’ve hit the airwaves, the share of voters with an unfavorable impression of Barnes has risen, according to polling from Marquette Law School.


In Pennsylvania, Republicans have also turned their focus to crime in the Senate race — portraying Democratic nominee John Fetterman as “dangerously liberal on crime.” Republican Senate nominee Mehmet Oz has called on Fetterman to fire two brothers working on his campaign who were convicted of murder and later released.

“There’s a racial component here. It’s even less than dog whistling, it’s a horn,” said Joe Calvello, a spokesman for the Fetterman campaign, responding to the attacks Fetterman has faced.


Republicans, including Trump, are also increasingly seeking to connect crime with their immigration message, making the argument that lax security at the southern border is a threat to national security and also fuels the illicit drug trade. {snip}