Crime Ads Play Big Role in Some House and Senate Races

From a Wall Street Journal story by Natalie Andrews headlined “Crime Ads Play Big Role in Competitive House, Senate Races”:

Republicans in competitive House and Senate districts are hitting Democrats with a barrage of ads focused on voters’ increased fears about the surge in violent crime in recent years, with the issue playing a central role in many tight races.

Republicans have called Democrats too tolerant of crime after social-justice protests in 2020 swept through the country over policing abuses, and have criticized some Democrats’ support of measures such as eliminating cash bail. They also have tied Democratic candidates to calls from activists to defund police departments and shift money to other resources.

Democrats have responded by citing bills that passed the House in September that would send grants to police departments, as well as their advocacy for tighter gun laws they say would reduce crime. Many also say that changes to the criminal justice system are long overdue, citing what they say is over-incarceration in minority and low-income communities. Last week, President Biden pardoned all prior federal convictions of simple possession of marijuana.

Higher violent-crime rates since the Covid-19 pandemic began have made crime a major concern in local and national elections, with violence hitting both cities and rural areas. Federal Bureau of Investigation data released in the past week shows murders rose 4% last year after increasing nearly 30% in 2020.

Overall violent crimes dropped 1% in 2021, as robberies decreased. The data is based on unusually low participation by local law-enforcement agencies as the FBI makes a transition to a new data-collection system.

In a House district spanning suburbs and exurbs south of Raleigh, N.C., voters are seeing a higher concentration of crime ads than any other market with a competitive House race. Republicans backing GOP nominee Bo Hines connect Democrat Wiley Nickel’s career as a defense attorney with their national message that his party’s policies are leading to increases in crime. A recent ad funded by a Republican group calls him “the criminal choice for Congress” and an advocate for cutting police funding.

Mr. Nickel, a state senator, rejects those characterizations and said he backed legislation in the state legislature intended to help police departments, many of which are struggling nationwide with hiring and officer retention. He has responded with an ad touting his endorsement from the North Carolina Police Benevolent Association.

“Frankly, I don’t know any mainstream Democrats at all who support defunding the police,” said Mr. Nickel, in an interview in his law firm’s office.

Roughly 70% of the political ads on broadcast and cable TV in the Raleigh-Durham market since Labor Day have at least touched on crime, the highest percentage of any market with a House race, according to ad tracker AdImpact. The House seat is rated a tossup by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Ads featuring crime are playing a large role in Senate contests as well, sometimes eclipsing other top voter issues such as inflation, abortion access and immigration. Crime has been prominently mentioned in more than a third of all congressional campaign broadcast and cable TV spots that have aired since Labor Day in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the highest share among states with competitive Senate races, AdImpact data show.

“Republicans see a very clear advantage talking about the economy, talking about crime, talking about immigration,” said Matt Gorman, a longtime GOP strategist and vice president of Targeted Victory, a Republican consulting firm. “You’ve got to press those advantages.”

In the Keystone State, Democratic Senate nominee John Fettermanhas faced criticism over what Republican Mehmet Oz casts as overly lenient clemency recommendations on the state Board of Pardons, which he heads as lieutenant governor. He has called the criticism a misstatement of his record and said he “fought hard for second chances for deserving Pennsylvanians and to free the wrongfully convicted.”

Polls show Mr. Oz has narrowed the gap in that race to a handful of points in recent weeks, upsetting Democrats’ hopes of an easy win to flip the state to their column as they defend their control of the 50-50 Senate.

In Wisconsin, ads backing incumbent GOP Sen. Ron Johnson have targeted Democratic Senate challenger Mandela Barnes over crime, calling him “dangerously liberal” on the issue.

The candidates sparred in a recent debate. Mr. Johnson said crime was skyrocketing and criticized Mr. Barnes over a measure he backed to end cash bail. Mr. Barnes, the state’s lieutenant governor, said his position on bail had been sensationalized, while also focusing on jobs and economic opportunity as a way to reduce crime. Lawmakers need to “make sure that communities have the resources they need to prevent crime from happening in the first place,” he said. 

Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—along with Georgia—are the top three states for advertising spending in Senate races since Labor Day, the unofficial start of the final phase of the campaign. AdImpact data show roughly $60 million has been spent in Georgia during the period by the candidates and their allies, compared with about $50 million in Pennsylvania and close to $47 million in Wisconsin.

The Wall Street Journal’s August poll found that registered voters favored Republicans over Democrats, 43% to 26%, on reducing crime. A September poll by Democratic-aligned Navigator Research found that 66% of Americans believe there is more crime nationally today than there was a year ago. A smaller share, 44%, said they thought crime in their local community was up.

Dan Conston, president of Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC backing House GOP candidates, said his group’s ads focused on crime are running in 13 key districts, about a quarter of the races they are running ads in, with the rest of the spots featuring the economy, inflation and other issues.

The ads are particularly effective when they run alongside local news shows, Mr. Conston said. Viewers are shown spots criticizing Democrats for “supporting defunding the police or fundamentally changing the police system, and then seeing a validator right after of a horrific crime,” he said.

In the North Carolina congressional race, Mr. Hines, a 27-year-old Yale graduate who is endorsed by former President Donald Trump, said Mr. Nickel’s record in the state legislature is antipolice.

“Ultimately people are very concerned about rampant crime and our district is not immune to that,” Mr. Hines said.

Mr. Nickel, 46 years old, said he has advocated bills that he said would support police efforts, such as one to help police handle mental-health crises and another giving bonuses for working during the Covid-19 pandemic. He said his opponent is inexperienced and has views on abortion that don’t align with the district. Mr. Hines has called abortion murder and said he would support exceptions to a ban only on a case-by-case basis, without offering further details.

Some voters said concerns about crime have hardened their views. Ken Barber, 48 years old, a Raleigh police officer who lives in the district, said increased crime has made him more solidly Republican.

“If you just look at every major city in this country that’s run by Democrats, it’s riddled with crime,” Mr. Barber said as he waited to get burnt ends at a barbecue joint.

According to the FBI data, violent crime rose 18% in Raleigh in 2021, while neighboring Durham saw a 12% decrease.

Residents in Johnston County, a rapidly growing part of the district where housing developments are rapidly replacing farmland, said they were familiar with the crime ads, but some played down their importance.

“I think they’re just trying to throw something at the wall and see if it sticks, really,” said Rodney Evans, 55 years old, who said he was undecided on who to vote for in the race. He said abortion access was a top issue for him.

Natalie Andrews reports on the U.S. Congress and national politics for The Wall Street Journal. She writes frequently about House and Senate leaders and intraparty dynamics, as well as domestic policy and government spending legislation. She’s covered two presidential impeachments, the Democrats’ effort to win the House majority in the 2018 midterms and the fight for the House and Senate in 2020 and is focused on the next election cycle.

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