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In the closing weeks of the midterm election season, Republicans up and down the ballot are working to make worries about a crime wave translate to a red wave.

As the GOP finds a boon in focusing on public safety and tying lawlessness to Democrats’ policies, Democrats are forced into playing defense.

“Crime is skyrocketing in Illinois. But Democrat Eric Sorensen stands with the anti-police movement,” charged an ad from Republican Esther Joy King in Illinois’s 17th Congressional District. Sorensen, the Democratic nominee, wrote an op-ed this week titled: “We need to properly fund the police.”

Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania, has hammered Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman over his record of making pardons and commutations more accessible. Fetterman has said that Republicans have misrepresented his positions, that added that while he agreed with a statement that a third of the state’s inmates could be released without a threat to public safety, he does not want to release them all.

And for New York Rep. Lee Zeldin, the Republican nominee for governor who was the victim of an attempted stabbing in July, a shooting last week outside his house on Long Island while his two teenage daughters were at home punctuated a main theme of this campaign.

“Like so many New Yorkers, crime has literally made its way to our front door,” Zeldin wrote in a statement.

While inflation and economic issues remain at the top of voter concerns, Republican operatives say that crime and a sense of unease about overall security are hitting home with voters in the midterm home stretch — and that Republicans have an edge on the issue. 

A Sept. 21-25 Monmouth University poll released last week found that 72 percent of adults surveyed said crime is extremely or very important for the federal government to address, second only to inflation, at 82 percent. 

Pew Research similarly found in an early August survey that 60 percent of registered voters said violent crime is very important to their vote in the 2022 congressional election, coming in third after the economy, with 77 percent, and gun policy, with 62 percent.

And an Oct. 7-9 Morning Consult poll displays why the issue is so potent for Republicans this year: While a 62 percent majority said that crime and policing is key to their decision in the midterms, coming in third behind the economy and national security, just 31 percent of voters thought the Biden administration is making crime a top priority. 

Another Sept. 23-Oct. 3 Reuters poll found that more voters think Republicans are better suited to deal with crime than Democrats, 39 percent to 30 percent.

Republicans have long run on law and order. But mass demonstrations over racial justice and policing that have spurred riots heightened awareness and helped make crime a significant issue in the 2020 election. And as crime rates have increased, it has stayed at the forefront of GOP messaging.

The murder rate spiked in 2020, according to federal crime statistics — spanning across both red and blue states and cities. National crime statistics estimates from AH Datalytics and the Council on Criminal Justice find that murder rates have slightly ticked down over the past two years, but are still far higher than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. But the analyses find that other types of crime, such as thefts and robberies, are rising.

Local news stories about crime in communities have become a regular part of the Republican National Committee (RNC) rapid response effort, with the RNC Research Twitter account frequently sharing clips from evening newscasts about instances of crime. 

“From Philadelphia to Albuquerque to Atlanta, Americans are frightened by what they see on the nightly news,” said Nathan Brand, deputy communications director at the RNC. “Violent crime is on the rise in Democrat-run cities, and families know Democrat policies are to blame. Ultimately, Democrats can’t outrun their crime agenda, voters are worried about their security, and the midterms will be determined by who has the stronger public safety message.”

Democrats are working to correct for their missteps in the 2020 election. After Democrats lost seats in the House in 2020 even as they won the White House and Senate, House Democrats reeled about Republican ads using footage of Democrats calling to “defund the police.” 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), House Democrats’ campaign arm, sent a memo to candidates in March with guidance to directly respond to Republican attacks on crime and police funding, state their own position and point to Democratic actions to boost law enforcement — while still giving room for candidates to say they support “common-sense reforms.”

Last month, before lawmakers departed for a campaign-season recess, the House passed a package of Democratic bills allocating federal grants to law enforcement agencies. Passage came after months of negotiations with progressive members of the party. The grants would support small forces, technology to help solve cold cases, training for mental health professionals to respond to some cases and coordinated community violence initiatives.

“House Democrats delivered billions of dollars in the American Rescue Plan and through COPS grants to keep families safe by funding local police departments. Republicans voted against funding police. Instead of working to keep families safe, they’re running deceptive ads about Democrats to scare Americans in a plot to gain power for themselves,” DCCC spokesperson Chris Taylor said in a statement.

In a debate last week, Democratic Ohio Senate nominee Rep. Tim Ryan aimed to flip attacks from Republican J.D. Vance on crime, referencing Vance sharing a link to raise money for those charged with crimes in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. 

“Can you imagine one guy saying out of one side of his mouth he is pro-cop and out of the other side of his mouth he is raising money for the insurrectionists who were beating up the Capitol Police?” Ryan asked in the debate.

Democratic candidates have also touted support from members of law enforcement in campaign ads.

In New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, retired Luna County Sheriff Raymond Cobos appeared in an ad for Democratic nominee Gabe Vasquez and pointed to his city council votes to fund law enforcement.

But that hasn’t stopped GOP attacks.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a PAC aligned with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), followed up with an ad this month accusing Vasquez of misrepresenting his position. It pointed to an anonymous local news interview in 2020 Vasquez gave, in which he said: “It’s not just about defunding the police, it’s about defunding a system.”