How Democrats are trying to counter a wave of GOP attacks on crime

Gun Rights

Democratic candidates across the country are getting hammered on crime and public safety. The left’s best-funded gun safety group thinks they have the answer on how to push back: linking crime to how easy it is to get a gun in America.

An uptick in crime over the last two years, coupled with a spike in Republican-sponsored TV ads attacking Democrats on public safety, has pushed the issue to the forefront of the midterms. Inflation and abortion still dominate on the campaign trail, but crime and public safety are rising as issues: Mentions of crime in GOP TV ads doubled over the last month to 18 percent of all Republican ads launched in that time, according to an analysis by AdImpact, an ad-tracking firm.

Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, the gun safety group founded and primarily funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is now priming pushback against the GOP on guns — a strategy bolstered by a research project including interviews of nearly 18,000 likely voters across seven battleground states this summer in the wake of the Uvalde school massacre.

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The project tested messages that explicitly linked anti-gun violence measures — including background checks on gun sales and red flag laws — with crime and public safety, including the safety of law enforcement officers. The results showed that putting that lens over gun safety issues boosted support for Democratic candidates, not only among the party base but among traditional swing voters the party needs to keep governorships and Senate and House seats this year.

Some Democrats are already deploying a similar strategy to defuse crime as a GOP attack on them, starting with President Joe Biden. Last month, Biden sought to wrest the moral high ground on crime from “MAGA Republicans,” arguing in one speech in Pennsylvania: “Don’t tell me you support law enforcement if you won’t condemn what happened on [January] 6th,” citing the insurrection on the Capitol. He condemned calls for “defunding the FBI,” after federal investigators searched former President Donald Trump’s estate for classified documents.

Tying gun safety, crime and law enforcement together aims “to reset that narrative” that have traditionally put Democrats on the defense, said Charlie Kelly, a senior political adviser to Everytown. That was especially true in 2020, when slogans like “defund the police,” which were popular among activists on the left but not among voters in general, were wielded against Democrats in races around the country.

“The fear tactics that they had success with in 2020, I don’t think will work this time around,” Kelly continued. “We actually are the ones that are tough on these issues, and we need to be more vocal about it.”

Maxwell Frost, a gun safety activist who won a contested Democratic House primary to represent a deep-blue chunk of central Florida, said “it’s all about turning it on its head, calling out the hypocrisy.”

“We are not gun-grabbing liberals,” Frost said. “Yes, we want reform, but so do NRA members. There’s a disconnect between the public and the [Republican] rhetoric, and I am trying to call it out.”

Some Democratic pollsters made it clear that their party should still want to focus other issues. Crime “is an issue where Republicans are on offense almost everywhere,” said Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster.

But, he continued, “if you are forced to engage on this issue, I do think showing strength, showing toughness, getting tough on illegal guns, is a way to talk about it effectively … You’re trying to do enough on it for voters so you can move on to another issue, hopefully fighting to a draw on it and then moving on.”

A Gallup poll this year found that 72 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with the nation’s policies to reduce crime, and 8 in 10 Americans said they worry about crime. And a recent NBC News poll showed that Republicans enjoy a 23-point advantage on the question of which party voters trusted more to handle crime.

“Any time you mention crime or public safety, the advantage for Republicans is significant every time,” said Robert Blizzard, a Republican pollster. “If I were a Democrat, I don’t think I would try to make the 2022 races about crime and public safety unless I absolutely had to.”

Yet talking about crime may not be a choice for many Democratic candidates. In Pennsylvania, Republican Mehmet Oz, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Senate Leadership Fund, the party’s flagship Senate super PAC, have all attacked Democrat John Fetterman over rising violent crime in five separate TV ads in recent weeks.

Fetterman pushed back with a TV ad of his own, saying that “Dr. Oz wouldn’t last two hours here in Braddock,” cutting to images of Fetterman’s forearms, where he has the dates of murders inked into his skin from his time as mayor.

“I ran for mayor to stop the violence,” Fetterman says. “I worked side-by-side with the police, showed up at the crime scene. We did whatever it took to fund our police and stop gun deaths.”

In Georgia, a pro-Gov. Brian Kemp super PAC is out with a TV ad that says Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and “left-wing politicians are demonizing the police,” attacking her for “calling to defund the police.” Abrams, meanwhile, put out a response ad, featuring law enforcement officers who say that Kemp is “flat-out lying.”

“In the legislature, she funded law enforcement all over the state and she worked with a Republican governor to make Georgia a national leader in criminal justice reform,” the ad continues. “She’ll keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.”

Elizabeth Sena, a Democratic pollster, said that the Uvalde school shooting was one of several recent “turning points in voters’ minds” about guns, prompting Democrats to campaign more aggressively on the issue. But Sena noted that for candidates with limited campaign budgets, “where you only have two or three ads running in a major media market, the economy is still going to be number one, followed by maybe one other issue” they get to highlight in TV ads.

“It gets harder to find where guns fit in unless you have an unlimited budget,” she continued.

That’s where outside super PACs and nonprofits, with larger budgets and contributors who can give six- or seven-figure donations, might come in. For example, Majority Forward, the nonprofit aligned with Senate Democrats’ main super PAC, released an ad in Wisconsin’s key Senate race earlier this year on the issue.

“Buffalo, Uvalde and even Milwaukee,” the ad’s narrator says, cutting to local TV coverage, when “17 people were injured in Milwaukee last night.” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the ad continues, “blocked common sense gun safety, like criminal background checks to keep guns away from the dangerous and mentally ill. Johnson even opposed funding for training and community policing to keep us safe.”

Asked about Everytown’s spending plans for the 2022 midterms, Kelly declined to get into specific figures but noted the group has “been significant investors and participants before, I think you’ll see that again this cycle.” So far, the group has spent about $2 million on 2022 midterm work. In 2020, Everytown pledged to spend about $60 million on its electoral program, including about $21 million in independent expenditures.

“On this issue itself, we intend to be very muscular with our message approach, and I think in doing so, will help neutralize this,” Kelly said.

In the memo describing the findings of its research project, Everytown tested messages that linked a candidate who “opposes background checks on all gun sales and supports permitless carry” with “violent criminals can buy a gun with no questions asked.” Compared to a control group, swing voters who saw that message moved 5 points toward Democratic candidates.

Another test, on keeping weapons out of the hands of domestic abusers, also saw a 4.7-point Democratic bump among swing voters over the control group.

“This idea that law enforcement messaging can be weaponized against Republicans is not new, but it’s something we’d shied away from for a long, long time. And I’d be very interested to see how that works in real time,” said Jason McGrath, a Democratic pollster.

“I think you will see ads from law enforcement folks in states where they’re talking about Democrats’ support for them,” McGrath continued, “and it’ll be interesting to see if ads take the next step to include guns in that.”

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