The television ads were never-ending, warning of anarchy and bloodshed if Democrats managed to win, tying them to murderers, child abusers, and opioid overdoses. Rising crime, it seemed, would completely overwhelm the left on Election Day.
Instead, the outcome of the midterms was far more muddled. While Republicans seemed to successfully undercut Democratic senate candidates like Mandela Barnes of Wisconsin who had once embraced the core of “defund the police,” others, such as John Fetterman, repelled the barrage, and the party gained ground in several pivotal state legislatures.
It was in New York, though, where the crime message stuck the most — and Democrats were crushed in a half-dozen House races and came startlingly close to losing the governor’s mansion. For the criminal-justice-reform movement, it was an especially unnerving midterm because Republicans had accomplished their multiyear mission of tying New York City’s surge in crime to bail reforms passed in 2019. Republicans, constantly on the offensive, found messaging that resonated deeply in the suburbs and turned parts of the outer boroughs staunchly against the Democratic brand.
Why did Republicans do so well in New York? Why did Democrats beat back fearmongering elsewhere? The Vera Institute for Justice, one of the leading nonprofit research organizations on criminal justice, commissioned four rounds of surveys and polling on public safety from late 2021 through the 2022 midterms, seeking to understand voter concerns and why, ultimately, crime became a regional issue. The polling and research, released last month, found that Republicans spent around $157 million on crime ads and the effort, largely, didn’t move voters.
But it did work in places where backlash to high-profile criminal-justice reform had been building before the election and abortion rights, in the wake of Dobbs, were not perceived as in danger. The Vera Institute argues, through its research, that the Democrats who held up best against the Republican onslaught on crime were those who owned their accomplishments in the criminal-justice-reform space and didn’t run headlong from the issue, like in Pennsylvania and Illinois. In states like New York where there were no prominent surrogates to speak early and passionately in favor of reforms, support for Democrats crumbled.
“While voters are concerned about public safety, this concern does not equal more support for the policies that have fueled mass incarceration and failed to deliver safety,” said Insha Rahman, the vice-president of the Vera Institute and a co-author of its report. “Instead, they are eager for solutions that prevent crime before it happens.”
The Vera Institute tested two types of messages on voters: preventing crime and being tough on crime. The crime-prevention message focused on fully funding “good schools, a living wage, and affordable housing, and doing more to prevent crime by increasing treatment for mental health and drug addiction and cracking down on illegal gun sales.” A tough-on-crime message included having “stricter sentences for people convicted of violent crimes” and “maintaining strong bail laws to keep potentially dangerous people in jail.” Among voters it surveyed, “crime prevention” won out narrowly over “tough on crime,” 53 to 47 percent.
The messages split along racial lines. White voters favored the tough-on-crime message 51 to 49 percent, while large majorities of Black and Latino voters (64 and 60 percent, respectively) supported the crime-prevention language. Black voters were most likely to list crime as the issue they cared about most. (Inflation and gas prices won out among all groups, but 24 percent of Black respondents picked crime first, as opposed to 8 percent of whites and 13 percent of Latinos.) To better defend reforms to a deeply flawed system, candidates on the left should be talking about stopping crime before it happens, backing policies that, through funding and retraining, help police and nonviolent first responders de-escalate dangerous situations.
Progressives, the Vera Institute argues, “must have a strong, affirmative vision with solutions for preventing crime and delivering safety.” Dismissing overriding concerns over crime, as some progressives have done in 2021 and 2022, is a surefire way to lose. And Democrats must do far more in the next campaign cycle to head off GOP attacks. This begins, in its view, by acknowledging fears around public safety early on in the campaign season and talking often, without hesitation, about proactive solutions. New York governor Kathy Hochul spent months equivocating over cashless bail and crime, publicly undercutting the reforms in Albany while dismissing, in one televised debate, her Republican rival after he asked her why she “hasn’t talked about locking up anyone committing crimes.” Hochul, peeved, replied that she didn’t “know why that’s so important to you,” generating days of crushing headlines.
Hochul was not governor when cash bail was partially ended in New York — Andrew Cuomo was — but there were plenty of Democrats in office in 2022 who voted for the reforms in 2019. Few, if any, took to the campaign trail to defend them, and no prominent law-enforcement officials or district attorneys were willing to speak to the virtues of keeping jails from overcrowding or not making wealth the determining factor in whether someone charged with a crime can await trial at home. The contrast was striking in Illinois, where Democrats undertook a two-year effort to prepare voters for the end of cash bail in January. Cook County state’s attorney Kim Foxx took the lead in speaking to reporters, and Governor J.B. Pritzker never shied away from his defense of the reforms, which faced preemptive criticism from conservatives. Pritzker sailed to reelection.
In Pennsylvania, Fetterman was instructive of what Democrats can do to beat back a constant barrage of furious attack ads over crime. His Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, settled on crime as the overriding issue of the race after polling began to narrow in the fall and Fetterman appeared vulnerable. Billboards across the state read, “Fetterman = Poverty and Crime.” Rather than merely seek to debate other topics, Fetterman embraced his own record, even boasting that he was a “Democrat running on my record on crime.” He spoke forcefully about his efforts to curtail gun violence and fund the police when he was mayor of Braddock while running TV ads that celebrated his support for clemency as lieutenant governor. Oz hoped to turn Fetterman’s willingness to grant clemencies against him; instead, Fetterman cut an ad featuring a pair of brothers who were wrongfully convicted and spent 28 years in prison, telling voters he was proud of setting them free. Perhaps most importantly, he found strong surrogates to speak in support of his accomplishments in the criminal-justice-reform arena. One compelling TV ad showed a Pennsylvania sheriff talking directly into the camera. “I’m sick of Oz talking about John Fetterman and crime. Here’s the truth: John gave a second chance to those who deserve it — nonviolent offenders, marijuana users,” the sheriff said. “He voted with law-enforcement experts nearly 90 percent of the time. He reunited families and protected our freedom. And he saved taxpayer money.” Fetterman would buck national trends, finishing ahead of Oz in exit polls on the question of who would handle crime better.
There were other success stories. While Democrats struggled mightily in New York, reform-oriented prosecutors and ballot initiatives were able to succeed in a wide range of jurisdictions across the country. With little fanfare, a Democratic prosecutor who refused to support the death penalty won a comfortable reelection in Dallas, while another Democratic juvenile court attorney won a competitive D.A.’s race in Polk County, Iowa. Ballot initiatives banning the practice of involuntary prison labor won in deep-red Alabama and Tennessee and Democratic Oregon and Vermont. Missouri voted to legalize marijuana. Even in a tough year, these policies could triumph, pointing to a reform movement that may be able to survive inevitable backlash in the years ahead.