Republicans plotting to retake the majority in the House and Senate next November may well have found the issue that could make that happen: Crime.
“It’s past time radical socialists look in the mirror, begin to understand the importance of law and order, respect their fellow man (including those serving in law enforcement), and realize that their calls to defund the police are dangerous and foolish,” wrote Kansas Republican Sen. Roger Marshall in an op-ed that ran in the Washington Examiner on Monday. “At a time of rising violent crime in cities across the country, we need more support for our front-line heroes, not less.”
Marshall’s rhetoric apes that of the broader Republican Party, which has seized on criticism of law enforcement – and, in some corners of the Democratic Party, calls to either defund police departments or reallocate their resources – as a way to cast the ruling party in Washington as deeply out-of-touch with the average American. (In April, following the death of Daunte Wright, Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib tweeted this: “No more policing, incarceration, and militarization. It can’t be reformed.”)
(Sidebar: Republicans have been far less vocal about the more than 100 police officers who were injured by largely pro-Trump rioters during the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.)
The political fight over police reform began in earnest last summer when, following the death of George Floyd, there were Black Lives Matter protests around the country aimed at highlighting the racial inequities in policing. The circumstances surrounding Floyd’s death, coupled with a spate of other incidents in which Black Americans died while in police custody led to a groundswell of support – especially among liberals – for serious reform of policing practices in the country.
“‘Defund’ means that Black & Brown communities are asking for the same budget priorities that White communities have already created for themselves: schooling > police,etc.,” tweeted New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) in June 2020, adding: “Lots of DC insiders are criticizing frontline activists over political feasibility and saying they need a new slogan … the fact that ppl are scrambling to repackage this whole conversation to make it palatable for largely affluent, white suburban ‘swing’ voters again points to how much more electoral & structural power these communities have relative to others.”
Calls for defunding – or differently allocating resources devoted to – police departments around the country dovetailed with a major rise in crime, particularly in large metropolitan areas. The statistics are jarring. Major American cities saw a 33% rise in homicides in 2020 as compared to the prior year. In addition, “63 of the 66 largest police jurisdictions saw increases in at least one category of violent crimes in 2020, which include homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, according to a report produced by the Major Cities Chiefs Association,” wrote CNN in April.
So concerned was the White House about the rising crime numbers that President Biden himself addressed the issue in a speech late last month. “Crime historically rises during the summer and as we emerge from this pandemic with the country opening back up again, the traditional summer spike may be more pronounced than it usually would be,” Biden said. As part of his attempts to fight back against rising crime numbers, Biden announced a “major crackdown to stem the flow of guns used to commit violent crimes” and promised a “zero tolerance” policy for any gun dealers who violated existing rules and regulations governing sales.
A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that there was reason for the worry in the White House. Just 39% approved of how Biden has handled the issue of crime so far in his presidency while 48% disapproved – a far cry from the 62% approval Biden received for his work on the Covid-19 pandemic in that same survey. The poll also showed that nearly 6 in 10 Americans (59%) called the issue of crime either “extremely” (28%) or “very” (31%) serious. More than half (55%) said that “increasing funding for police departments” would reduce crime.
The challenge for Biden is this: Liberal Democrats and minority voters believe strongly that significant police reform is required. But in swing districts where the House majority will be decided, voters are far less willing to support policies like defunding the police or even reallocating resources devoted to crime fighting.
Biden – and every Democrat running for House or Senate in 2022 – needs the support of liberal and Black voters to win. But many of the toughest seats and states also require a Democrat to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters who are, polling suggests, far more wary of major police reform.
Know this: The more any Democrat talks about defunding the police or attacks policing writ large, it gets just a little bit more difficult for Democrats to hold their House and Senate majorities next November. The real issue is whether Biden — or any other Democrat – can convince those most outspoken voices of that fact.