How to Respond to the GOP's Crime Smear Campaign
The GOP wants to end the campaign making Democrats seem soft on crime, how Dems respond could decide the midterms
Republicans have settled on their strategy for the final stretch of their midterm campaign. Having been on the defensive for months, their decision is unsurprising. Once again, the Republicans are closing the campaign with dishonest, racist crime attacks. Crime has been the Republican “break glass'“ strategy since George H.W. Bush salvaged his faltering 1988 campaign with the infamous “Willie Horton” ad. A spot so racist that every subsequent racist Republican ad has been called a “Willie Horton” ad.
According to CNN:
In August, Republican candidates and groups spent $25 million on television advertising focused on inflation and $11 million on TV spots about crime, according to data from the nonpartisan firm AdImpact. In the first two weeks of September, though, that mix was changing: GOP campaigns and groups spent $9 million on inflation and a matching $9 million on crime.
This campaign commercial from Mitch McConnell’s Super PAC against Mandela Barnes is emblematic of the messaging Right Wing billionaires are putting on the air in key races across the country.
The ad is dishonest and incredibly racist, but I also worry that it is effective. To the surprise of many, Democrats may not only maintain but expand their Senate majority. If these crime attacks stick, that once-in-a-generation opportunity will quickly evaporate. The major Senate and Congressional campaigns will have the best and brightest minds in the party helping them navigate the choppy waters, but all politics are national now, so the salience of crime as an issue will affect everyone on the ballot from Senate to school board. Here are some thoughts on how to effectively push back.
Step 1: It’s Not About Crime
The most important thing to know about GOP crime attacks is that they aren’t really about crime. Republicans focus on crime as a proxy for race. They want to scare their White base and make conservative-leaning, White, persuadable voters uncomfortable with Democrats. This is the reason that 99 percent of the criminals featured in these ads are Black and Brown. None of this is to say that concerns about crime are illegitimate. Crime is up in parts of the country. Even many committed Democratic voters are concerned about crime. Democrats need a substantive response for those folks. Still, most of the people who cite crime as a major issue are much less concerned about crime in their area. As Philip Bump of the Washington Post recently pointed out:
A poll conducted by YouGov in August, for example, showed that Americans were nearly 40 points more likely to say violent crime was a very or somewhat serious problem in the country overall than in their own communities.
Understanding that the crime debate is not the true Republican argument is an essential first step in developing an effective response.
Step 2: Respond with What You Support, Not What You Oppose
Republican demagoguery of the Defund the Police movement is the not particularly subtle backdrop to this conversation. Republicans successfully associated that policy with the Democratic Party despite the fact that virtually zero elected Democrats support defunding the police. These Defund the Police attacks are very potent. Some Democrats tend to respond to them by yelling “I oppose defunding the police,” as loudly and as often as possible. But repeating the attack is one the dumbest and most commonly made mistakes in American politics. By doing so, you make an in-kind contribution to your opponent’s campaign by repeating a charge that the viewer is unlikely to have ever heard before.
Instead, Democrats need to respond by stating what they support. Data for Progress tested a series of potential messages and found the following to be the most effective:
“We need to be tough on crime, but we also need to be smart about it. We need to invest in programs proven to reduce crime, like community policing and after-school programs. We need to keep our families safe, and that starts with community safety.”
“We need to address the root causes of crime if we want to make our communities safer. Investing in education, good jobs, social services, and affordable housing will help reduce crime and keep our families and communities safe.”
“President Biden’s Safer America plan includes funding 100,000 more police officers who will be recruited, trained, hired, and supervised to advance effective, accountable community policing that will enhance trust and public safety. This is a responsible way to keep our nation safe.”
Each of these messages offers an affirmative, specific substantive case about how to address crime without repeating the original attack. To that end, House Democrats last week passed a series of policing and public safety bills that, according to Politico, would:
Fund recruitment and training for police departments across the U.S., many of which have complained of underfunding and understaffing during a recent rise in violent crime. But, critically for liberal Democrats, it also includes new language on police accountability,
Support for well-trained, accountable community policing as well as crime prevention efforts that address root causes is an agenda that can work for Democrats.
Step 3: Don’t Forget Guns
In a recent NBC Poll, Republicans had a 23-point advantage on the issue of crime. This finding is in line with both recent polls and historic trends. Crime has been a strong issue for Republicans for decades, but they are very much on the wrong side of public opinion on guns. For too many years, Democrats refused to press their advantage on gun safety out of fear of alienating swing and rural voters — particularly in the South and upper Midwest. However, crime and guns are inextricably linked and new polling from Everytown for Gun Safety shows that going on offense can help Democrats repel these disingenuous Republican attacks. According to a report in Politico:
The project tested messages that explicitly linked anti-gun violence measures — including background checks on gun sales and red flag laws — with crime and public safety, including the safety of law enforcement officers. The results showed that putting that lens over gun safety issues boosted support for Democratic candidates, not only among the party base but among traditional swing voters the party needs to keep governorships and Senate and House seats this year.
This ad from One Georgia, a group supporting Stacey Abrams, is an example of an effective offensive strategy on guns:
Step 4: Hit Back Hard and Pivot
For many voters, strength is the most enticing characteristic when deciding whom to support. To them, the world feels like it is spinning out of control, and they want someone tough and strong enough to protect their families from the challenges. Much like fears of terrorism in the early 2000s, the sense that crime is rising creates an opening for demagogues. President Bill Clinton once said, “When people feel uncertain, they'd rather have somebody that's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right.”
Therefore, it is essential that Democrats hit back hard. Instead of complaining about unfair, dishonest ads, we need to demonstrate that the Republicans are launching these attacks from a position of weakness. They are weak and wrong and trying to hide from their unpopular agenda. Speaking of strength, John Fetterman is a unique messenger and the tone of this ad responding to Dr. Oz’s barrage of crime attacks is spot on.
While abortion and inflation are the dominant issues this election, control of Congress will come down to how Democrats handle these crime attacks.