Republicans in an increasing number of crucial Senate battleground states are keying in on the issue of crime, bombarding voters with the message that electing Democrats would increase lawlessness.
In Pennsylvania, Republicans are seizing on high-profile incidents in the Philadelphia area, including the recent ransacking of a Wawa store and the shooting of five students outside a high school last month.
Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, has been forced to play defense by erasing statements of support for the Black Lives Matter movement from his website.
In Wisconsin, Republicans are trying to link Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the Democratic Senate nominee, to former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who was recalled from office in June amid growing voter frustration over rising crime and homelessness.
Republicans see the issue as one of their best opportunities to drive base voters to the polls and as a wedge between Democrats and suburban swing voters, especially in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada and North Carolina, according to GOP strategists.
“There are few issues that unite the concerns of Republicans, independents and Democrats in this environment quite like crime, especially in Pennsylvania,” said a Senate Republican strategist.
The party sees crime as the antidote to its vulnerability on the issue of abortion rights, which has revved up Democrats and pushed swing voters away from the GOP in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision this summer overturning Roe v. Wade.
Some Senate Democrats saw rising crime rates as a potential political liability months ago, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) privately pressed the White House to come up with a plan to address the issue.
“It’s a huge problem. Let’s face it, this guy is repeatedly on film talking about how he wants to release as many people as possible from prisons and end life sentences for murderers. It’s so far outside the mainstream,” retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), whose seat is up for grabs in November, said of Fetterman.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) has paid for ads highlighting Fetterman’s support for sanctuary cities, eliminating life sentences for murders and reducing prison populations.
Fetterman responded last week with his own ad featuring Montgomery County Sheriff Sean Kilkenny defending the Democratic candidate and asserted that Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, supports giving second chances to people who deserve it and non-violent marijuana offenders.
Republicans are also attacking Fetterman for supporting clemency for Lee and Dennis Horton, brothers who served 27 years in prison after being convicted for robbery and a fatal shooting. Fetterman, who chairs the state board of pardons, advocated for their release and hired them to serve as field organizers for his campaign.
The Republican National Committee has tweeted out a near-daily update of crimes and crime statistics in the Philadelphia area. On Tuesday it shared footage of a car-jacking at a Philadelphia gas station and highlighted that there have been more than 1,000 car-jackings in the city this year.
The strategy appears to be paying off as the Republican candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania, Mehmet Oz, has gained some ground in the polls over the last two weeks. On Tuesday, the Cook Political Report, which in August shifted the race from “toss up” to “lead Democratic,” moved it back to its “toss up” column.
Democrats say that Republicans are trying to distract attention from abortion and other issues where Democratic candidates have an advantage.
“False ads will not distract voters from Republicans’ unpopular agenda: making abortion illegal, ending Medicare and Social Security and raising tax on working families,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
In Wisconsin, Republicans are circulating a photo of Boudin, San Francisco’s controversial former district attorney, attending a fundraiser for Barnes a year ago.
Incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and the NRSC have labeled Barnes as “dangerously liberal on crime” and highlighted Milwaukee’s rising crime rate. More specifically, they have emphasized Barnes’s support for eliminating cash bail.
The Wesleyan Media Project found that ads about the Wisconsin Senate race have aired more than 14,000 times in just the past two weeks and that 90 percent of the ads aimed at helping Johnson have focused solely on attacking Barnes.
Like Fetterman, Barnes has tried to push back by criticizing Johnson for voting against the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which he says promoted and supported public safety, and accused Johnson of being sympathetic to the mob of supporters of former President Trump that invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6 of last year.
A Democratic strategist pointed out that the American Rescue Plan included $350 billion in funding that state and local governments could use to hire new police officers.
Drumming on the issue of crime has been a tried-and-true Republican strategy in midterm elections, when voter turnout tends to be smaller and the electorate tends to be older than in presidential election years.
“In the off-presidential year, voters are much more intent on crime and education,” Brandon Scholz, a Republican-based Wisconsin strategist, said.
“In the U.S. Senate race and to some extent the gubernatorial race, there are some contemporary events that have driven this issue and kept it at the forefront of the minds of voters,” he added, citing an attack by a man who drove a sports utility truck into the Christmas parade in Waukesha last year after being freed two days earlier on $1000 bail for a domestic violence charge.
“Milwaukee is surging in crime and murders,” he added. “That has elevated crime as an issue. The Johnson is working on Barnes’s statements and record on bail and reducing prison populations.”
The NRSC launched a television and digital ad late last month that hammered Barnes for saying that he wants to reduce the prison population and criticized Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’s administration for paroling more than 800 convicted criminals.
Senate Republicans are now trying to expand the debate on crime to other Senate battlegrounds, including Nevada and Wisconsin.
In Nevada, former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) on Tuesday released a new ad titled “Dangerous” in which Nevada police groups say they have switched their endorsement from incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) to the Republican challenger.
The ad featured testimonials by local law enforcement officials who attack Cortez Masto for “rubber stamp[ing] radical officials, including activists who refuse to prosecute drug dealers.”
In North Carolina, Republicans have put the spotlight on Democratic Senate candidate Cheri Beasley’s record as a state Supreme Court justice.
The NRSC spent over $1 million on an ad in May seeking to define Beasley early in the race by calling attention to her ruling vacating the death sentence of a man who shot a boy in the face and another man convicted of assaulting a young woman. FactCheck.org, however, concluded the ad lacked context.
The Democrat-allied Senate Majority PAC responded with its own ad buy defending Beasley.
More recently, the NRSC has pursued Beasley’s vote to vacate a man’s habitual felon conviction, which would have resulted in a lighter criminal sentence. The Senate GOP campaign arm says decisions such as these are at odds with her pledge to keep “North Carolina communities safe.”
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who is working to flip Toomey’s seat to Democratic control, says while Republicans talk tough on crime, they have also voted against legislation to make communities safer.
“It’s an issue that Republicans go to all the time even though they have a pathetic voting record on crime. They voted against the COPS program, they wanted to defund the COPS program, they voted against the Byrd justice grants,” he said, referring to community policing programs.
He said Fetterman had to withstand “a carpet bombardment” over the past several weeks, and that “as long as Democrats punch back,” they’ll survive.