In August, Fox News host and white nationalist booster Tucker Carlson made a prediction: If every Republican candidate focused on “law and order” in the November midterm elections, “there would be a red wave.”
Republicans heeded Carlson’s advice. By September, 29% of campaign ads mentioned the word “crime,” up from 12% in July, The Washington Post reported. In that month alone, Republicans spent nearly $40 million on crime-related messaging, according to NPR.
“Crime has an outsized ability to define Democrats as being liberal instead of moderates, more than any other issue,” Steven Law, the chief executive of the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC, told The New York Times.
Members of the GOP seized on a nationwide increase in crime, inaccurately portraying it as historically high and concentrated in areas led by progressive reformers. They pointed to modest criminal justice reforms as evidence that Democrats were out to eradicate police and open the prison gates. It was a simple message that preyed on voters’ fears and encouraged racist beliefs about the perpetrators of crime.
Although Republicans accused Democrats of all races of being soft on crime, they went after Mandela Barnes, a Black Senate candidate in Wisconsin, with particular zeal. Ads targeting Barnes darkened his skin, falsely accused him of calling to defund the police and said he “rationalized violence.” One ad displayed videos of “actual crime scenes,” with Barnes’ name flashed across the screen.
Ballots are still being counted throughout the country, but it has become clear that there was no red wave. The party controlling the White House almost always takes a hit during midterms, but President Joe Biden is on track to have the best midterms outcome since George W. Bush in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It’s impossible to trace the results of any race to a single factor, but the Republicans’ fixation on crime does not appear to have been broadly effective.
Although Barnes narrowly lost, Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman, whom Republicans similarly attacked as “dangerously liberal on crime,” won his race for Senate. That Fetterman — who has helped free people from prison as chair of the state’s Board of Pardons — appears to have been less vulnerable to this attack than Barnes shows how readily many voters associate Blackness with crime.
Even with the Wisconsinite’s loss, Democrats could still retain control of the Senate. And in many down-ballot races throughout the country that had criminal justice as a central theme, voters repeatedly chose reformist candidates and policies.
In its first county attorney election since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Minnesota’s Hennepin County (which includes Minneapolis) elected Mary Moriarty. The former public defender, who ran on reducing incarceration and establishing a new police accountability unit, defeated a former prosecutor and judge. State Attorney General Keith Ellison, who prosecuted the police officers responsible for killing Floyd, survived a challenge from a police union-backed challenger who tried to portray Ellison as anti-cop.
In Texas, Democratic candidate Kelly Higgins was elected Hays County district attorney, promising to roll back prosecution of cannabis-related offenses and implement pretrial diversion programs that activists have demanded for years. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo survived a challenge from a Republican who blamed her for violent crime in the Houston region and who called for more law enforcement officers. As county judge, Hidalgo pushed bail reform, increased funding for the public defender’s office, and invested in teams of mental health professionals to respond to some 911 calls instead of police officers.
Coast to coast, several hard-liner sheriffs will be replaced by candidates who ran to their left. In Massachusetts’ Bristol County, Republican Thomas Hodgson ended a “25-year reign marked by extreme medical neglect, mounting jail suicides and staunchly anti-immigrant policies,” digital magazine Bolts reported. In Barnstable County, which includes Cape Cod, the newly elected Democratic sheriff has pledged to cut ties with Immigration and Customs Enforcement on her first day in office.
In Los Angeles, mail-in ballots are still being counted, but scandal-plagued Sheriff Alex Villanueva is on track to lose to retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna. Although progressives are wary of Luna’s vague promises of reform, his victory would be a clear rebuke of Villanueva, who railed against “wokeism,” refused to enforce COVID-19 vaccine mandates among his staff, denied the existence of a well-documented gang crisis in his department, defied oversight subpoenas, allegedly retaliated against his critics, and oversaw a “barbaric” jail system. Los Angeles also appears set to pass Measure A with overwhelming support, which would give the Board of Supervisors the authority to remove a sheriff.
In LA’s city controller race, Kenneth Mejia — an accountant and housing activist who ran billboards showing how much more the city spends on police than housing, transportation and fighting homelessness — currently has an insurmountable 21% lead over the incumbent.
“When all ballots are counted, LA’s top vote getter will likely be an unabashedly progressive tenant advocate whose signature issue was excessive police spending,” tweeted outgoing City Council member Mike Bonin, emphasizing that Mejia “defied — and obliterated ― conventional wisdom.”