Republicans up and down the ballot are working to retool their message on crime going into 2024 after the party found only limited success with the issue in the midterms.
Last week, likely presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) traveled to the Democratic enclaves of New York and Chicago ahead of his expected presidential campaign launch with stops at police unions. Further south and down the ballot, the Republican State Leadership Committee rolled out a wave of digital ads in Virginia hitting Democrats over opposing legislation that would charge drug dealers with homicide. And former President Trump, who’s running for another White House bid in 2024, has repeatedly hammered President Biden on the issue.
The efforts come as the party looks to regain ground following the GOP’s disappointing midterm elections last year.
While the GOP generally underperformed in 2022, Republicans point to New York where the party made inroads focusing on crime as a top issue. Republicans in the Empire State picked up three House seats, including the one held by then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.). And despite ultimately losing to Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), then-GOP gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin performed better than expected against the governor.
“Lee Zeldin ran a one-issue campaign on the issue of crime,” said one House Republican strategist. “Every day he was at a metro stop or a corner store where somebody got shot or mugged.”
“That’s just a great case study in how effective the message can be,” the strategist added.
And Democrats say they too are keenly aware of the potency of the issue going into the next election.
“Democrats have learned that they need to take that issue very seriously and I hope, get ahead of it,” said Jon Reinish, a New York-based Democratic strategist.
Corey Grable, an Independent who is running for president of New York City’s Police Benevolent Association, told HillTV that policies promoted by the left flank of the Democratic Party, including calls to defund the police, have put the party on the wrong side of the issue.
“As far as the Democrats, I think that unfortunately, they’ve gotten out on the wrong side of the issue,” Grable said. “The reality is many of the policies that have been created have actually had this unintended consequence of actually hurting people that they were aiming to protect.”
And Republicans have used crime to tie the majority of Democratic candidates to the left-leaning flank.
“It’s the clearest and easiest way for Republicans to tag Democrats to the fringe of the party,” said the House Republican strategist.
But Democrats have employed a tougher-on-crime message in recent years while also acknowledging police brutality.
In his State of the Union address earlier this month, President Biden expressed support for police officers but noted the death of Tyre Nichols, an unarmed Black man who died in police custody last month.
Incumbent Democratic mayors, including Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who is running for reelection and is against defunding the police, also find themselves under pressure on the issue. A WBEZ/Chicago Sun-Times/Telemundo Chicago/NBC5 survey released earlier this month found that 44 percent of Chicago voters named crime and public safety as their “most important issue,” followed by criminal justice reform at 13 percent.
Lightfoot has accused some of her opponents of being supportive of defunding law enforcement on the debate stage and in ads.
Meanwhile, Republicans are also using crime and the situation at the southern border as a means to talk about the ongoing opioid crisis in the country.
“Crime is the starting point, but once we dig into what issues the issues of crime [are], this is one where we believe that this is a top issue that’s going to matter to voters this cycle,” said one Republican operative.
And polling shows that voters are concerned about the ongoing crisis.
An Axios-Ipsos survey released on Thursday found that 26 percent of voters, a plurality in the findings, said that they view opioids as the greatest threat to public health in the U.S. Thirty-seven percent of Republican voters said the same.
Biden and Democrats have incorporated the opioid crisis into more of their rhetoric, with Biden addressing the issue at the State of the Union.
“Having the president offering his own solutions which do have broad, bipartisan appeal about the opioid crisis I think was a major step in the right direction,” Reinish said. “Democrats have got to take the bull by the horns.”
–Updated at 12:19 p.m.