Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion on CNN.
Crime is an important issue.
There, I said it. The problem is, not enough Democratic candidates are saying it. Some don’t seem to know what to do about this issue.
I’m not naïve. I know that some Republicans use crime as a code for racially-tinged political attacks. In the case of Alabama GOP Senator Tommy Tuberville, you can drop the “tinged” part.
Democrats “want crime,” Tuberville crowed to the MAGA folks at A Trump rally in Nevada “because they want to take over what you got. They want to control what you have.” He added that Democrats “want reparations” for Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved people “because they think the people that do the crime are owed that.”
My friend Bakari Sellers doubtless spoke for millions of folks when he said, “Tommy Tuberville can go to hell.” Bakari noted that as a college football coach, Tuberville made millions from the unpaid efforts of Black athletes. It is particularly galling to hear such racism from a former college coach who got rich because of African American men risking life and limb on the gridiron.
Beyond telling politicians who traffic in racist attacks to go to the devil, how should Democrats deal with crime? First, let me suggest how not to talk about it.
In my many years in politics, I have never seen a more destructive slogan than “defund the police.” In fairness to my beloved Democrats, only a tiny slice of the activist left supports defunding. This election season, I can’t find any Democrats – actual Democratic candidates – running on that nonsense. The overwhelming majority of Americans – including most Black Americans and most Democrats – oppose defunding police. Still, the political damage from that slogan has been real.
Some Democrats don’t want to talk about crime. They hope most voters’ righteous outrage about the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade will overshadow crime as an issue. I think they’re wrong. A lot of smart Democrats are embracing their strong records on crime, refusing to cede the issue to the party whose leader, Donald Trump, described the January insurrection, in which scores of police officers were injured and five later died as a “lovefest between the Capitol Police and the people that walked down to the Capitol.”
A great example is Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada). Cortez Masto – arguably the most endangered Democrat in the Senate – who is locked in a neck-and-neck race with Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt. Cortez Masto was attorney general before Laxalt, and has worked as a federal prosecutor. Her husband is a former law enforcement officer and she is running ads touting her support from law enforcement. She has even earned the support of the Republican police chief of Reno.
Cortez Masto was so effective as a crime-fighter that when Laxalt took over as AG, he called her “a role model,” and when he was running for attorney general he said she had done “an excellent job.” Will Cortez Masto’s tough-on-crime credentials be enough to return her to the Senate? I don’t know. But if she weren’t leaning in on crime, this race might already be over.
Rep. Val Demings (D-FL) is another Democrat who is unafraid of the crime issue. When you go to her campaign website, just below the standard “Donate Here” plea, there is a photo of Demings in a police uniform.
Demings spent 27 years in that uniform, rising to become Orlando, Florida’s first female police chief. In one campaign ad, she strides purposefully across the screen, as if walking the beat, as images of her in uniform are projected behind her.
The voiceover details her record: “The most dramatic decrease in violent crime…” Then the candidate speaks: “In the Senate,” Demings says, “I’ll protect Florida from bad ideas like defunding the police. That’s just crazy.” She concludes by saying, “It’s time to send a cop on the beat to the Senate.”
That’s what I call leaning in.
Demings trailed incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) by five points in a recent poll, but Rubio is either taking no chances or panicking. In a controversial ad, he accused Demings of supporting a “radical left agenda”, including “turning boys into girls.” (Fact check: WESH-TV in Orlando labeled Rubio’s claim “False.”)
Both Cortez Masto’s and Demings’ election races are too close to call. But by standing strong against crime, both women are showing Democrats how to handle the issue.
Of course, many Democrats can’t point to decades as a cop or years as a prosecutor. But they can – they should, heck, they must – read and promote a new study by the center-left think tank Third Way. According to Third Way’s research, Democrats are actually doing a much better job in fighting crime than Republicans, at least in terms of looking at one key metric: homicide rates.
It turns out that in 2020, the murder rates in the states Trump carried were 40% higher per capita than in the states Biden won. In fact, eight of the 10 states with the highest per capita murder rates voted for Republican nominees in every presidential election this century. Sen. Tuberville’s sweet home Alabama is number four, exceeded in murder rate by only Mississippi, Louisiana, and Kentucky.
Republicans might argue that the crime issue is about cities, not states. Okay. Check out Jacksonville, Florida. It has a Republican mayor – and a murder rate almost twice the rate of Democrat-run New York City. Kevin McCarthy’s hometown of Bakersfield, California also has a Republican mayor. Its murder rate is much higher than Nancy Pelosi’s beloved San Francisco. And while murder rates don’t tell the entire story, they do contribute to communities overall sense of wellbeing – or lack thereof – in the communities where they live.
Third Way’s study also reveals a startling fact about murder in rural America: “Three of the five states with the largest increase in murder rate were Trump-voting Wyoming at 91.7%, South Dakota at 69%, and Nebraska at 59.1%. These states are decidedly rural and do not conform to the chaos-in-the-city meme that has overtaken the crime debate.”
The facts on crime are on Democrats’ side. Democrats now have to move from defense to offense on the issue. What they now need is the courage to believe they can wrest from Republicans an issue that the GOP has long – and falsely – claimed as its own.