A rise in violent crime is endangering slim Democratic congressional majorities more than a year out from the midterm elections and threatening to revive “law and order” as a major campaign issue for Republicans for the first time since the 1990s.
Homicides in cities increased by up to 40% over the previous year, the biggest single-year increase since 1960, a trend that has not abated so far in 2021. Sixty-three of the 66 largest police jurisdictions saw a rise in at least one category of violent crime, ranging from homicide and rape to robbery and assault, according to the Major Cities Chiefs Association. Homicides and shootings have gone up for three straight years in Washington, D.C., and at least a dozen mass shootings were reported nationwide over the weekend.
Democrats’ flirtations with defunding the police — a handful of lawmakers on the Left nearly scuttled a $1.9 billion Capitol security bill in the House — may make them ill-equipped to handle the reemergence of crime as a top issue for voters. A reduction in the violent crime rate that began in the 1990s led to this concern receding at the ballot box, likely to the net benefit of Democratic candidates.
Former President Donald Trump ran hard against violence in major cities last year and frequently invoked the phrase “law and order.” Despite his loss to President Joe Biden and the preference of some Republican operatives for an emphasis on public safety rather than well-worn anti-crime catchphrases Trump tended to use, his hard-line stance still drew votes.
A top Democratic data scientist estimated that rising anxiety about crime and perceptions that Democrats did not support law enforcement drove more conservative-leaning nonwhite voters, especially Hispanics, to cast their ballots for Trump even though Biden disavowed the phrase “defund the police.” In the end, Trump won voters whose top issue was crime and safety by 44 points, while Biden carried those who listed racial inequality by 85 points.
“Rising crime is a problem that must be addressed through both economic policies that are incentives to work while also giving law enforcement the support they need to enforce our laws,” said GOP strategist Jon Gilmore. “Republicans were successful in the 2020 cycle by addressing this important issue, and they would be wise to continue that drumbeat in the midterms.”
Trump had the complicating factor of being an incumbent pointing to a rise in crime on his watch as an argument for voting against his opponent. Biden and the Democrats now enjoy unified control of the elected branches of the federal government, giving them sole ownership of the issue.
Democrats have tended to blame the spike in crime on the economic disruption of the pandemic and easy access to guns. “Well, I would say, certainly, there is a guns problem,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday when asked about crime. “And that’s one of the reasons that we have proposed and now are implementing funding for community violence prevention programs across the country.”
“Putting in place commonsense gun safety measures is something that has been a priority for him throughout his career,” she added, referring to Biden. “He helped pass the Brady bill, he got background checks in place, he helped get the assault weapons ban passed, and he will continue to encourage and push that with members while he is president. Top of his agenda.”
Biden was also a leader of the group of Democratic lawmakers who tried to balance concerns about racial inequality with burnishing the party’s law-and-order credentials. The assault weapons ban was part of a larger 1994 crime bill he helped pass that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
The legislation was later blamed for contributing to the mass incarceration of black Americans, and Trump campaigned against Biden’s role in its enactment, as he had done with Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Democrats are now more likely to try to thread the needle on the side of racial inequality concerns. Biden is scheduled to meet with the family of George Floyd, whose death in police custody last year sparked a wave of racial justice protests throughout the country. Derek Chauvin, the police officer in question, was subsequently convicted of murdering Floyd.
The initial wave of outrage over Floyd was bipartisan, as officials across the ideological spectrum spoke out against the image of an officer kneeling on an unarmed black man’s neck. But as some of the protests turned violent, and liberals began to advocate shifting law enforcement resources into social services, things began to break down along traditional party lines.
A rise in violent crime during the 1960s, and growing public sentiment that the liberal wing of the Democratic Party was too soft in confronting it, helped fuel Republican victories in the 1970s and 1980s. This culminated in the 1988 presidential election, in which Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis saw a 17-point national lead evaporate due in part to the “Willie Horton” ad about Massachusetts’s furlough program for convicted violent criminals. Dukakis ended up losing 40 states.
Liberals are fearful of a repeat. Left-wing commentator Ezra Klein acknowledged the crime wave “is a crisis on its own terms” but also described it on Twitter as “a crisis for the liberal project.”
“I feel that crime surges relate back to cities that have a visible narrative of defund the police,” said GOP strategist Noelle Nikpour. “Republicans will definitely use this violence in advertising and even in fundraising to generate attention and to also see how upset voters are about the issue.”
The return of the crime issue could also affect the level of bipartisanship on future criminal justice and police reform measures. Trump signed one such initiative, the First Step Act, into law, and Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, saw another he led blocked by Senate Democrats.
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