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Democrats On Defensive, Crime Called 'Sleeper Issue' Of Elections

Sitting before a dozen police officers at a public safety forum, Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV.) made clear that she will defend law enforcement in Congress.

“I do not want to defund the police, and in fact have voted multiple times to increase funding to police departments,” Lee, who is seen as a vulnerable House Democrats, told a group that included representatives from two local law enforcement associations, which endorsed her reelection.

Lee’s pledge is being replicated across the U.S. as Democrats up and down the ballot scramble to assure voters that they’re not soft on crime. It’s a sea change from two years ago when, amid the height of racial justice protests, some leaders on the left began to rethink their approach to criminal justice, the Washington Post reports.

Fears that Democrats are losing ground on crime grew after Tuesday primary results, which included the recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, whom voters saw as overly lenient toward criminals.

President Biden echoed the concern. “The voters sent a clear message last night: Both parties ought to step up and do something about crime, as well as gun violence,” Biden said ahead of a trip to Los Angeles for the Summit of the Americas.

He noted that the American Rescue Plan, the first major bill he signed into law, included billions of dollars for policing but complained that some places haven’t used the money. “It’s time the states and the localities spend the money they have to deal with crime, as well as retrain police officers, as well as provide for more community policing,” Biden said.

Homicide rates have soared over the past two years, with officials blaming a combination of pandemic-related changes to the criminal justice system and in some places more lenient policing policies.

In response, Democratic candidates are taking a tougher approach on crime. In Washington, D.C., a liberal haven with primaries this month, Mayor Muriel Bowser is running on her record of bolstering police in schools. “You have to have a mayor who’s willing to make tough calls and not just go along with trendy words of the day,” Bowser said in a debate where another Democratic candidate also sought a tough-on-crime mantle.

Republicans are poised to capitalize on concerns about rising violence. “Crime is the sleeper issue of this cycle,” said Chris Hartline of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

He said fear about rising crime dovetails with inflation, still the top issue for voters, because quality of life contributes to a general sense of unease about the nation's direction.

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) announced Wednesday that it will put $52.3 million behind political ads to back GOP House candidates in key races. The ads will use messaging that blames Democrats for spikes in violent crime in addition to inflation and poor management of the southern border.

Republicans are particularly hopeful that the heightened concerns about crime can help them with suburban voters, where they’ve lost ground.

In New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District, a suburban swath near New York City that the GOP views as a top target in November, law and order was prominent.

“Crime is the number one issue,” said Gerhard Otto, who is originally from South Africa and voted for the first time in a U.S. election Tuesday in Scotch Plains, N.J. “Things have gone backwards since I first visited in 2012."


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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