Written by Navin Nayak
The ads were dark and ominous: grainy footage with a message that screams “you are not safe.” You likely know exactly which ads I’m talking about because the Republican party spent more than $150 million on these ads this midterm election cycle.
Of all the battleground states, Georgia saw one of the most relentless crime-focused campaigns from Republicans in their attempts to unseat Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock. Their message sought to capitalize on voters’ legitimate fears about public safety. But instead of siphoning off the independent voters they badly needed to flip that Senate seat, they failed. Their tried-and-true playbook of the last forty years came up short.
And with crime on the rise these past two years, it wasn’t hard to predict that the GOP would return to this strategy to close the campaign. However, in the end, the Republican strategy backfired. They didn’t just lose the Senate race in Georgia, they failed to pick up a single Senate seat, flipped only one governor’s race and gained less than twenty House seats, most of which were rigged due to gerrymandering.
As it turns out, the scariest thing for voters this year—particularly Independents—was MAGA extremism and the threat it poses to our democracy and our very lives.
Of course, Republican failures during this cycle shouldn’t mask the need for Democrats to proactively engage on the crime issue. Working with three of the leading Democratic research firms, the Center for American Progress Action Fund undertook a wide-ranging message research project this year on crime and safety. The reality is that voters are genuinely concerned about crime and Democrats lack a clear brand on the issue.
Our research also found, however, that Democrats can fix this problem without compromising on criminal justice reform. The approach is pretty straightforward: empathize with voters’ concerns about crime and proactively discuss efforts to fight it—both by holding people accountable and preventing crimes from happening in the first place. Then call out that it is in fact MAGA Republicans who are championing extreme gun laws like permitless carry that are increasing crime and putting communities in danger.
This dynamic most recently played out in the Georgia Senate election, where Herschel Walker’s campaign returned to the tried-and-true GOP playbook to scare voters, repeatedly misrepresenting and outrightlying about Warnock’s record on crime. But disciplined messaging that highlighted Walker’s extremepolicies on guns broke through—and voters chose Warnock to represent them for a full six-year term.
Senator-elect John Fetterman, Democrat of Pennsylvania, was another poster-child for this approach. He faced a barrage of crime attack ads to the tune of $12 million (nearly 70 percent of the ads run against him focused on crime). But Fetterman pushed back on Republican lies and rooted his campaign in his own origin story in public service: running for Mayor of the town of Braddock to stop crime and get gun deaths under control. He positioned himself as the candidate more concerned about public safety, and refused to back down in his push to make our criminal justice system fairer.
Despite Fetterman’s opponent using his work on sentencing reform against him, he did not walk back his position. In the heat of the campaign, he even put out an ad confirming he’s a champion for sentencing reform and second chances, stating out-right, “I believe our criminal justice system needs a significant overhaul.” At the end of the day, of the 11 percent of Pennsylvania voters who said that crime was the most important issue for their vote, a slight majority of them voted for Fetterman.
Despite the attacks failing this year, Democrats can be assured that Republicans will return to the playbook again. Not only should Democrats proactively engage on the issue of crime and safety, but they should not let Republicans off the hook for pushing the extreme policies that are fueling violent crime in our communities.
This column was produced by Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.
Navin Nayak is the president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.