Battleground Democrats embrace law enforcement 2 years after “Defund the Police”

Election 2022 Senate Florida Demings
FILES: US Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., center, the Democratic candidate for the US Senate, addresses supporters as her family members stand behind her during a primary election party on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022, in Orlando, Fla.

Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP

As Rep. Val Demings walked onto the stage for her victory speech in Orlando on Tuesday after winning the Democratic Senate primary, she was greeted with blue and yellow signs that read “CHIEF.”

It’s the title she held for four years in Orlando, where she was the city’s first female police department chief. It’s also a title she’s spent millions on ads in her Senate campaign to highlight, with the title “Chief” – not “Congresswoman” – attached to her name.

“I’m not playing the police. I am the police. I am a law enforcement officer,” Demings told CBS News before her primary, where she won with over 84% of the vote. The Florida Democrat, who is taking on Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in the fall, served 27 years in the Orlando Police Department.

“Taking that experience of being the chief to Congress, I do think helped me,” Demings added. “As a law enforcement officer, I cannot tell you the political party of the overwhelming majority of men and women that I worked with. It didn’t matter. We had a mission and that was to keep our community safe.”

Demings is one of several statewide Democratic candidates in competitive races leaning into their law-and-order ties two years after widespread protests and riots over police brutality, as major cities see a steady rise in crime.

Democrats have spent an estimated $37.6 million on ads related to crime this year, usually a mainstay topic for Republicans. Democrats still trail Republicans, who have spent an estimated $56.1 million on this type of ad spending, according to an analysis of data from AdImpact. Independent candidates have spent over an estimated $5.1 million, bringing the estimated total spend on crime ads to just under $100 million.

in 2021, homicides in major American cities rose by 5% compared to 2020, and by 44% compared to 2019, according to the Council on Criminal Justice. Data from the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program found that from 2019 to 2020, murders rose everywhere — in cities, rural counties and suburban areas.

Demings’ approach to highlight her law enforcement background comes two years after Republicans used the “Defund the Police” movement born out of the summer’s protests as a political cudgel against vulnerable Democrats.

That aggressive messaging approach caught House Democrats off guard and helped Republicans net 15 seats in the US House in an otherwise good political year for Democrats, who flipped the White House and Senate.

Democratic candidates this year have not only looked to distance themselves from the 2020 “Defund the Police” movement, but also criticize it.

Formula 1 Las Vegas Race 2023 Announcement
FILE: LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 30: Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak speaks during the Formula 1 Las Vegas Race 2023 announcement at the Boulevard Pool at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas on March 30, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Ethan Miller – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

in one Demings ad she calls it “crazy.” Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak, one of the most vulnerable Democratic governors on the ballot this November, touts the percentage of the state’s budget dedicated to law enforcement in one ad.

“We support our state police at a higher percentage rate than any other state in the country,” Sisolak said. “I don’t think the vast majority of people are in favor of defunding the police. There are isolated instances that you see nationwide that are unjustified shootings– but that’s the exception. That’s not the rule.”

From June 2020 to October 2021, there was a 16% increase in voters who believe there should be more police spending in their area, and a 10% decrease in those that say it should be decreased, according to surveys by Pew Research.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a Democrat, appointed Demings as chief in 2007 and said Demings’ background in law enforcement puts her in a good position “other Democrats may not enjoy as they’re going through the gauntlet of October or whatever attacks are to come .”

On Tuesday, Rubio accused Demings of not being outspoken enough against the police reform movement as the 2020 protests were going on. He also suggested she was only a potential vice presidential candidate for President Joe Biden in 2020 because of her law enforcement background.

“The left wing of her radical party hated police officers. And she was a police officer. That was a negative thing to them. So she decided, ‘I got to be a former police officer that’s attacking police officers.’ And that’s what she did,” Rubio said on Tuesday.

“Now she says she’s against defunding the police, two years later. They didn’t need you to say it now, they needed you to say it when people were burning the streets and torching police cars,” he added.

In response, Demings said Rubio’s attack “shows the desperation” of his campaign and criticized Rubio for not pushing back enough against calls from Republicans after the Mar-a-Lago search to defund the FBI.

“One of the things I learned as a police officer — don’t just listen to what people say. Watch what they do,” Demings said. “Marco Rubio said I did not do enough to push back. But dammit, when the FBI were being attacked most recently– was Marco Rubio doing enough on anything to defend those career law enforcement agents and say, ‘Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt?'”

Republican Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland, where Democratic primary candidates who ran to replace him displayed a shift towards the middle on crime, said the “more Republicans started talking about defund the police, the more Democrats saw what a terrible issue it was.”

He pointed to Democrat Eric Adams‘ win in the New York City Mayor race, where he made crime a focal point of his campaign.

“Democrats have backpedaled completely so I think it’s a win. Joe Biden in his State of the Union came out and said, ‘We can’t defund the police. We need more money for the police.’ They all started parroting what I’ve been saying for years,” Hogan, a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, told CBS News. He spoke with CBS News by phone on the way to Iowa for a roundtable with law enforcement earlier.

This cycle, Democrats are even going on offense against Republican opponents on crime, which consistently ranks behind the economy, inflation and abortion as the top issue for voters.

A recent advertisement from Sisolak pins Trump’s criticism of the state as a “cesspool of crime” on Lombardo.

Sisolak is one of several vulnerable Democrats on the ballot in the battleground state of Nevada. in a Suffolk University poll released Sunday, Sisolak had a three-point lead on Lombardo, within the margin of error.

“Lombardo’s been sheriff for seven years now. To have his supporters call us a ‘cesspool of crime’ I think says something about the job that [Trump] thinks Lombardo is doing in controlling crime,” Sisolak told CBS News. “It’s an issue that we’re certainly going to talk about because I think people agree with me more than they agree with him.”

Lombardo’s campaign said Trump’s comment refers directly to policies and “soft-on-crime” bills signed by Sisolak, and referenced bills that decriminalized minor traffic violations and one bipartisan bill that changed the processes for revoking probation and parole in an effort to reduce the state’s prison count.

“Sisolak’s anti-police and soft-on-crime policies are part of the reason that Nevada law enforcement does not support Steve Sisolak,” said Lombardo campaign communications director Elizabeth Ray, and noted Lombardo’s support from the Nevada Police Union and nearly all of the state’s sheriffs.

In Georgia, another battleground state, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and allies have attacked incumbent Republican Governor Brian Kemp for signing a bill that allowed for permitless concealed carry of a handgun.

Meanwhile, the Georgians First Leadership Committee, a pro-Kemp group, has aired at at least three ads tying Abrams to the “Defund the Police” movement.

Patrick Gaspard, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, said crime is “dominated, overwhelmingly in public perception and in actual reality, by the gun issue.”

Gaspard served in former President Barack Obama’s administration and as executive director of the Democratic National Committee from 2011 through 2013.

He said Democrats need to keep making a “sharp contrast” with Republicans on the issue of guns, because it is an “argument that is accessible enough for voters, who right now are making the gun violence to crime connection in ways that we just haven ‘t seen before on this issue.”

In Ohio, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Nan Whaley was the major of Dayton, Ohio, when nine were killed in a shooting in 2019.

Whaley said Republican Governor Mike DeWine called her the day after the shooting and said he “would do something.” After introducing proposals that would institute a “red flag” law and background checks, Whaley says DeWine didn’t advance it “because he got afraid of extremists in the party.”

This year, DeWine signed laws that took away background check requirements for concealed carry permits and allowed for teachers to be armed in schools, though that decision is left up to the school districts.

“The facts and data show improving and expanding warrants and protection orders into national databases is paramount in protecting the public and helping prevent crime,” said DeWine campaign communications director Tricia McLaughlin, who pointed to murder rates rising in Dayton during Whaley’s tenure from 2014 to 2020.

Some police officers in Ohio have signaled worry about the expanded access to firearms with no background checks.

“The issue for community safety is just a talking point for DeWine, at the end of the day he’ll do whatever extremists want him to do,” Whaley said. “The thing that is really important is that we need to make sure that people in Ohio feel safe going to a grocery store, or going to a movie theater with their friends and family. For me, that’s what drives this race.”

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