Violent crime is on the rise in urban areas across the country.
Many small cities that typically have relatively few murders are seeing significant increases over last year. Killings in Albuquerque, N.M., Austin, Texas, and Pittsburgh, for example, have about doubled so far in 2021, while Portland, Ore., has had five times as many murders compared to last year, according to data compiled by Jeff Asher, a crime data analyst and co-founder of AH Datalytics.
Most cities in the United States, including each of those named above, have a Democratic mayor. After protests last year over police violence against Black Americans — notably the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis — there has been a push from the left to "defund" police departments.
That debate over funding, coupled with the rise in crime, has given Republicans what they believe is an opening in key swing districts that could decide control of the U.S. House next year. The GOP needs to pick up just a net of five seats to do so.
"Democrats across the country spent the last year defunding police departments, so they shouldn't be surprised when voters hold them responsible for the spike in violent crime," said Mike Berg, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which recruits and advises GOP congressional candidates.
Republicans are already going after Democrats with a three-pronged strategy that includes attacks on crime; the economy, particularly rising inflation and labor shortages; and border security.
How Democrats plan to counter the GOP
In response, Democratic strategists believe Democratic candidates and the White House need to take on the issue of crime directly.
"The most important thing for Democrats to do is to acknowledge the problem and demonstrate they take it seriously," said Mo Elleithee, executive director of the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service and a veteran of four Democratic presidential campaigns. "I think Democratic leadership is doing that. You've seen an aggressive pushback on 'defund the police,' making it very clear, despite Republicans' best efforts to paint the whole party with that, that is not the majority position of Democrats, not of Democratic officials nor Democratic voters."
Democratic candidates are being encouraged by the party to tout accomplishments, like securing increased funding for police and schools as part of the COVID-19 relief package that Democrats passed — as well as pushing back against Republican attacks.
"House Democrats delivered billions of dollars in the American Rescue Plan that local municipalities are using to fund both police and community-led violence intervention programs," said Chris Taylor, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Contrast that with every single House Republican voting against the American Rescue Plan. Now, they're spending full-time lying about our position to spook the American people because they don't have a real plan to keep communities safe."
Elleithee noted that Democrats have a holistic approach to combating crime that goes beyond policing that they should embrace.
"I think most people understand that police departments are stretched too thin," he said, noting that Democrats are looking at ways of "beefing up economic development and social services at the local level to reduce the burden on law enforcement," as well as instituting gun-safety measures.
"Frankly, Republicans could face just as much peril on this issue if they focus on the scare tactics but have no good response," Elleithee added.
Another veteran Democratic operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is consulting with multiple campaigns and wanted to speak freely about strategy, agreed that Democrats need to turn the tables on Republicans.
He said Democratic candidates need to point out that Republicans all voted against the COVID-19 relief bill, and that the GOP is "turning a blind eye" to the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, when police were attacked.
"I don't know if Democrats win on crime," the operative said, "but if they can muddy it, then maybe we take it off the table."
A tenuous majority
It won't be so easy, especially if crime continues to surge.
With Americans concerned about the delta variant of the coronavirus spreading and economic uncertainty, the 2022 elections could come down to whether people can go out, if they have money to spend when they do, and if they feel safe doing it.
Democrats have a tenuous hold on Congress with that slim majority in the House and even narrower control of the Senate.
And history is on Republicans' side. Since World War II, the party in power has lost an average of nearly 26 House seats and two Senate seats in a president's first term. And the two most recent presidents, Donald Trump and Barack Obama, saw their parties lose dozens of House seats in the 2018 and 2010 elections, respectively.
The only president since World War II to see his party gain seats during his first term was George W. Bush. But that was in the aftermath of 9/11 with a national unity that arguably hasn't been seen since.
And there are questions about whether the Democratic coalition will be as strong next year as it was in 2020 given that, for so many voters, getting Trump out of office was the top priority and papered over most differences among them.
Biden Democrats vs. "woke" progressives
It's often tough for nuanced messages to stick in politics.
It's something President Biden has struggled with, too. In the runup to the 2020 presidential election, Trump falsely accused Biden of wanting to "defund the police."
"No, I don't support defunding the police," Biden told CBS News more than a year ago. "I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness."
He continuously reiterated a version of that response as he faced pressure from the left and criticism from conservatives. Biden won, despite accusations from the right that he was merely a Trojan Horse for progressives and a socialist, police-defunding agenda.
But crime continues to be a nagging issue for Biden. He gets high marks for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic — undoubtedly the top issue of concern when he took office six months ago. But crime is rising in importance for many Americans, and they're split on his handling of it.
That has led the White House to make a show of doing something about the issue, despite the decentralization of police departments across the country, which are controlled at the municipal level.
"It seems like most of my career I've been dealing with this issue," Biden said earlier this month while convening a meeting of law enforcement and local officials. "While there's no 'one-size-fit-all' approach, we know there are some things that work, and the first of those that work is stemming the flow of firearms used to commit violent crimes."
Biden and crime have gone back decades. During the 2020 presidential primary, he had to fend off criticism from the left for writing the 1990s-era crime bill. Violent crime then was at a high, but critics have said the bill helped lead to the mass incarceration of many Black men, and often not for violent crime.
Biden said his position had been "grossly misrepresented" and noted in a 2019 speech that crime in the 1980s and '90s "was out of control. The crime bill was designed to deal with that problem."
The bill passed overwhelmingly in Congress with wide Democratic support and the support of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Times have changed and so have the pressures, but the White House and more tonally center-left Democrats take solace in Biden's win — as well as Eric Adams' victory for New York City mayor. They point to those victories as evidence that while the progressive left may get a lot of attention, the heart of the Democratic Party is more in the mold of Biden.
"What bothers them [pro-Biden Democrats] most about the 'woke' Democrat is they're putting ideology ahead of winning," the Democratic operative said. "And to a lot of Democrats, it should be about winning, because if you win, you can put in place the things you are talking about."
Elleithee echoed that.
"The loudest voices on Twitter are getting the most attention but that's not where the party appears to be," he said. "Where the party is united, though, is calling for smart police reform. So if Democratic Party candidates can focus on that, instead of a really politically tone-deaf slogan [like "defund the police"], then I think there's very little risk of the coalition fraying on this issue at least."
NOEL KING, HOST:
In the past year, violent crime has risen in a lot of U.S. cities. In Austin, Albuquerque and Pittsburgh, to name three, almost twice as many people have been killed this year as compared to July of 2020. In Portland, Ore., it's five times as many. Of course, rates of both violent and nonviolent crime started falling in this country in the early '90s and mostly continued to fall. But Republicans see an opportunity to capitalize on the past year's trend. NPR's senior political editor, Domenico Montanaro, is following this story. Hey, Domenico.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.
KING: How are Republicans planning to use this to their advantage?
MONTANARO: Well, they say they have a three-pronged strategy to try and take back the House. They want to focus on crime, the economy - notably inflation and jobs that aren't being filled - and the border. Republicans see this as a Democratic governance issue. And even though these cities are pretty blue places, the road to the majority goes through the suburbs, and they believe those suburban voters are susceptible to a message about the possibility of the threat that their neighborhoods could become less safe.
KING: Former President Trump tried to try to use fear tactics in 2020, and it didn't work out super well.
MONTANARO: Yeah, that's true. It didn't. Trump repeatedly and falsely accused Biden of wanting to, quote-unquote, "defund the police" because that slogan gained attention on the left after protests last summer over police violence against Black Americans. Biden faced pressure from the left to embrace it, but he continuously said that's not what he was looking to do, and he won. But there are questions really about the Democratic coalition and if it can hold together, because so much of that coalition was based on opposition to Trump. Everything really sort of - differences were really papered over between the left and the middle. And with violent crime on the rise, you know, it's something that Republicans think that they - that can have more resonance this year and next.
KING: What about Democrats? What do they think?
MONTANARO: Democratic strategists I talked to say that Democrats need to take the issue head on. They say you have to acknowledge the problem, show that they take it seriously and say that they need to turn the tables on Republicans. I mean, they highlight that Democrats have a holistic approach. Yes, reform police departments, but also recognize police are stretched too thin, so fund them. And also fix local economic opportunity and have more robust social and mental health services that take the burden off police departments. But, you know, nuance is a tough sell in politics sometimes.
KING: Right. Let's talk about fund them versus defund them. I feel like we hear about defund all the time. You're saying that's not what most Democrats are pushing.
MONTANARO: Right. You know, Republicans point to lots of cities that have reduced or reallocated funding, and that's true. You know, some places saw that as a mistake, by the way, and have reversed course. The veteran Democrats I talked to, frankly, called the defund slogan not helpful and quote-unquote, "politically tone-deaf." They also contend that the majority of Democratic leaders and voters, by the way, don't support it. They point, as evidence for that, you know, to victories by Biden, but also Eric Adams, former New York City mayor, the former police officer who touted a more centrist tone that was more favorable to police.
And, you know, the issue here is that one consultant I talked to said that, you know, what bothers a lot of Democrats in the mold of Biden about what they call woke - the woke Democrat is that they feel that they're putting ideology ahead of winning. And he said that to a lot of Democrats, it should be about winning 'cause if you don't, you can't put in place the things that you're talking about. And they really need to, Democrats feel like, get on the same page if they're going to be able to retain the House majority 'cause they only - you know, Republicans only need five seats to flip next year, to take control of the agenda, you know, and shut down the Democratic agenda.
And on average, the president's party has lost more than two dozen seats in his first term since World War II. So history is certainly on their side. And what this election really may come down to is can you go out? Do you have the money to spend when you do? And do you feel safe doing it?
KING: Senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Thanks, Domenico.
MONTANARO: Hey, you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.