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Crime and Policing and the 2022 Elections | Elections

Crime – and its cousin, policing – have become central issues in the 2022 midterms. But the approach by candidates, and responses by voters, have flipped back and forth with events, leaving unclear who the electoral beneficiaries will be.

Early in the 2022 election cycle, concerns about heavy-handed (and even deadly) policing were still very much in the minds of voters, particularly Democrats upset about the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and other cases where police were accused of using over-aggressive methods in dealing with Black and Hispanic people. In April 2021, a jury found a white police officer guilty of murdering Floyd, and there appeared then to be a strong chance that a bipartisan team of lawmakers – Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina – would come to an agreement on national legislation to reform policing by raising professional standards and creating more transparency.

But by fall, the talks had fallen apart and the national conversation about law and order had shifted dramatically.

Voter worries over public safety escalated along with rising rates in violent crime. The homicide rate in 2020 rose sharply – by 30% – from the previous year, and aggravated assaults were up 11.7%. While crime statistics are not complete until well after a calendar year is concluded, the public perception that their bodies and their streets were less safe became more pervasive, especially with well-publicized cases of three people (including a 4-year-old) being shot at Times Square in daytime, and a woman being pushed to her death in the New York City subway. Looting and organized retail theft in San Francisco had Republicans arguing that the real problem in law and order was not the police, but the officials in Democratic-run cities who, they said, coddled criminals.

Why it Matters in the 2022 Election

Voters around the country made their frustrations known in 2021, when some states and localities had off-year elections. Democratic primary voters in New York City listed crime as their top issue in the mayoral campaign last year and elected as the new mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain in the New York Police Department (albeit one that took on the NYPD brass when he was serving).

By spring 2022, the criminal justice dialogue had shifted to increasing anxiety about crime. The increase in the homicide rate had slowed – killings were up 5% in American cities from the previous year, according to a report by the Council on Criminal Justice. But it was still an increase, and it brought accompanying public anxiety.

Photos: 2022 Midterm Elections

ROCKVILLE, MD - AUGUST 25: Members of the Bowie High School marching band perform at a Democratic National Committee (DNC) rally at Richard Montgomery High School on August 25, 2022 in Rockville, Maryland. U.S. President Joe Biden rallied supporters for Democratic candidates running in Maryland and to encourage Democratic voters nationwide to turn out in the November midterm elections. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

An April Gallup poll found that 53% of Americans worry about crime “a great deal,” marking the first time since that a majority had a “great deal” of concern about crime. Republicans, city residents and – most concerning for Democrats – women were the groups most worried about crime, Gallup found.

A Fox poll in mid-June affirmed those political implications, with 54% of voters saying they trusted Republicans more to handle crime and 39% of respondents saying they trusted Democrats more on the issue. And voters are already making themselves heard: In June, San Francisco voters recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who had been seen as too lenient towards criminals. In Los Angeles, conservative businessman and self-styled law-and-order Republican Rick Caruso led in a jungle primary and will face Democrat Karen Bass in the fall.

And there are signs that the anti-crime message is hurting Democrats, even those who are in blue states. GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, for example, has pulled ahead in polls against his Democratic opponent, Mandela Barnes, with a campaign heavy on warnings about crime. Democratic New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is facing a surprisingly strong challenge in her ultra-blue state from GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin, who turned nearly every question at their Oct. 25 debate into an answer about crime worries.

For seats in the House and Senate, Republicans have touted their “law-and-order” credentials while moderate and even some liberal Democrats have sought to convince voters they do not favor “defunding the police,” as a small number of progressives have advocated. In states, Democrats have scaled back their rhetoric to address worries about crime. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, for example, has been an outspoken opponent of cash bail, saying it penalizes the poor, even if innocent. But Krasner in late August lauded a judge’s order for $1.5 million bail for a man accused of shooting two people.

But again this summer, the law-and-order issue shifted again – and this time, Democrats went on the offense.

The mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, focused attention not just on crime but on gun violence and the ease of acquiring assault weapons – an issue Democrats say works to their advantage, given polling on at least limiting access to assault weapons.

The FBI search of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home enraged loyalist Republicans, some of whom have called for “defunding” the FBI. That theme was replicated in a GOP attack on President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which includes the hiring of more than 80,000 IRS agents over the next decade to go after corporate tax cheats and those making more than $400,000 a year.

Republicans are claiming that the new agents will target middle-class taxpayers, with Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican seeking reelection to a seventh term, suggesting the agents would come to small businesses armed with assault rifles. Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, called for abolishing the IRS.

Democrats have flipped the scripts, accusing Republicans of not “backing the blue” when it comes to federal enforcement. In Ohio, Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryan has an ad criticizing his GOP opponent, J.D. Vance, for calling for the elimination of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

In Virginia, imperiled Democratic incumbent Rep. Abigail Spanberger accused her opponent, Republican Yesli Vega of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors , of being anti-law enforcement because Vega voted against county budgets funding police.

Vega is a former police officer and now serves as an auxiliary deputy with the Prince William County sheriff’s office.

Crime as an overall issue, meanwhile, has come back into the forefront after retreating over the summer. An NBC poll in late August, crime ranked eighth among the issues voters cited as the most important matter facing the country in this fall’s midterms, with 6% of voters naming crime as the top issue. The No. 1 issue – with 21% of voters citing it – was the threat to America’s democracy.

But as the midterms approach and the two parties harden their messages, crime has reemerged, especially in Republican campaigns. An October poll by the Pew Research Center found that, while the economy was atop most voters’ minds, violent crime was also a worry, with 45% of Democrats and 74% of Republicans citing it as an “important” issue.

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