In one of the more unusual television advertisements of this year's midterm election campaigns, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., accuses Democrats of wanting to defund police departments.
"Violent crime is surging in Louisiana," he says in the ad. "Woke leaders blame the police."
That wasn't the unusual part. In Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and other states, Republicans have painted Democrats as hostile to police and as cheerleaders for rioting and mayhem. And even though the data on crime is mixed, the tactic seems to be working for the GOP in many races.
What was unusual was that Kennedy was bothering to advertise at all in his deep-red state, and the line that came next:
"Look," the Louisiana senator continues, "if you hate cops just because they're cops, the next time you get in trouble, call a crackhead."
Kennedy's reelection bid is far from competitive. His Democratic opponent, a community activist from Baton Rouge named Gary Chambers, is polling in the teens. And, in this instance, the Democrat in question really has endorsed the idea of cutting police budgets.
"People hate the phrase defund the police," Chambers wrote on Twitter in December 2020. "Yet we defund education and healthcare almost every year. I live in a parish with 11 different police agencies, in the 2nd most incarcerated place in THE WORLD. It hasn't solved crime. Move the money. It's not making us safer."
Chambers made national headlines during the primary for smoking a blunt in an ad that called for the legalization of marijuana. In an interview at the time, Chambers said he decided to show himself smoking pot because it was important to be "very direct about the issues that we're facing." If it's fair for people to make millions of dollars for selling cannabis, he asked, "why are people going to jail for this?"
Given Kennedy's comfortable lead over Chambers in the polls, the "crackhead" line appears meant to drive headlines about Democrats in general, rather than slam his specific opponent. And the ad is just a cruder version of attacks Republicans have leveled against Democrats across the country, regardless of their actual positions. Often - but not always - the candidates being targeted are Black, as Chambers is. But either way, the racial subtext of the criticism is impossible to ignore.
Robbing ads of context
In Florida, for instance, Sen. Marco Rubio has portrayed his Democratic opponent, Rep. Val Demings, a 65-year-old former police chief of Orlando, as a dangerous "radical" who is soft on crime.
Like Chambers, Demings is Black - but, unlike him, she hails from the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. She was one of 207 House Democrats who recently voted for the Invest to Protect Act, a bipartisan bill to increase funding for local police departments.
One Rubio ad, titled "Blame America," takes remarks by Demings out of context to claim that she "praised defunding the police."
She made the comments on "CBS This Morning" in June 2020, soon after the police killing of George Floyd, giving a measured reaction to a pledge by the Minneapolis City Council to "end policing as we know it," in the words of one council member, and to rebuild the department with a focus on public health.
"The council is being very thoughtful in terms of looking at all of the services that police provide," Demings said. She went on to elaborate, "The council, along with law enforcement authorities and other community leaders, will sit down and look at everything and come out with a plan that allows them to keep Minneapolis safe, but also bring the community and the police together in a much-needed and long-overdue way."
In the end, the effort to cut the city's police budget collapsed in acrimony as the political winds shifted.
Demings is trying to push back against Rubio's attacks, although her chances of unseating him appear slim in a state where Republicans have become dominant in recent elections. She has spent almost $8 million airing ads highlighting her experience in law enforcement, according to data provided by AdImpact. Five separate TV ads feature images of Demings in uniform and feature a claim that violent crime fell by 40% during her tenure as police chief.
In one spot that aired this summer, Demings explicitly says she'd never vote to defund the police.
"That's just crazy," she says into the camera.
Where the crime attacks seem to be working
As my colleague Reid Epstein wrote Thursday, the Republicans' crime offensive is hurting Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Wisconsin.
"Republicans have seized in particular on Barnes' past progressive stances, including his suggestion in a 2020 television interview that funding be diverted from 'over-bloated budgets in police departments' to social services - a key element of the movement to defund the police," Epstein wrote. "Since then, Barnes has disavowed defunding the police and has called for an increase in funding."
At times, the campaign against Barnes, who is Black, has taken on explicit racial elements. "Mail advertising from Republicans has darkened Barnes' skin, while some TV ads from a Republican super PAC have superimposed his name next to images of crime scenes," Epstein added.
The soft-on-crime ads are also making an appearance in Pennsylvania, where the race has likewise moved in Republicans' direction since Labor Day. The Democratic nominee for Senate, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who is white, faces an onslaught of ads accusing him of being too lenient on incarceration while in office. (Fetterman oversaw a parole board that successfully recommended clemency for about 50 inmates who had been sentenced to life in prison.)
Kennedy, coincidentally, recently made an appearance for Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee in Pennsylvania, at a rally in Newtown, a blue-collar suburb of Philadelphia. The so-called collar counties around the state's largest city are where statewide elections are typically won or lost - among the mainly white, non-college-educated voters who tend to swing between the two parties.
And they're hearing a lot about crime on the nightly news: A Pew Research survey from January found that 70% of Philadelphia residents thought crime, drugs and public safety were the most important issues facing the city.
At the Newtown rally, Kennedy repeated the "crackhead" line and said, "Fetterman thinks cops are a bigger problem than criminals." He added, "A free tip, folks: Most cops will leave you alone unless you do illegal stuff."
Fetterman appears to take the criticism personally, no surprise given that his engagement with the criminal justice system is written on his body.
When I spoke with the lieutenant governor recently for an article about his health, he grew agitated after I asked him about the GOP's attacks on his record on crime.
As he responded, Fetterman unrolled the sleeve of his hooded sweatshirt, revealing tattoos of the dates of murders in Braddock, the former steel town south of Pittsburgh where he served as mayor for over a decade.
"It's a smear and a lie, and they know that," he said, adding that he had first been motivated to run for office by Braddock's chronic problems with gun violence.
"I talked about funding the police," he said.
How some Democrats are responding
Tattoos aside, Pennsylvania law enforcement is coalescing against Fetterman. Most major police organizations in the state have endorsed Oz.
But that hasn't been every Democrat's fate this year. Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania's attorney general and the Democratic nominee for governor, is depicting himself as the law-and-order alternative to Doug Mastriano, his Republican opponent, who was outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Shapiro's efforts are not going unnoticed. He has earned endorsements from several policing organizations, including the Philadelphia lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, which offered a concurrent endorsement of Oz. Its president, John McNesby, used the announcement to denounce Fetterman, whom he accused of having "a long history of anti-police rhetoric and advocacy for polices that make communities less safe."
Shapiro's ties to the FOP, the nation's largest police organization, worried some in the Democratic primary this year. But what was once a liability is now a strength, and he leads Mastriano by double digits.
If that lead holds, credit Shapiro's deft moves to defuse Republican talking points on crime as one factor. He highlights his FOP endorsement in a number of TV ads, two of which feature retired Philadelphia police officers offering their personal endorsements. In a city where the rate of violent crime is on track to surpass last year's record high, that's a potent message.
The pro-police ads from Demings and Shapiro aren't unique, either. In general election races this year, Democrats have spent almost $29 million on 175 individual ads praising the police or promoting police endorsements, according to a New York Times analysis of AdImpact data.
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