(WASHINGTON) — During an August campaign event in Durham, North Carolina, former state Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, the Democratic candidate for Senate, proudly proclaimed that she does not support defunding the police.
“It’s important that they have the resources to make sure that law enforcement officers stay safe,” she said.
As Republicans have hammered President Joe Biden and his party as, in their words, soft on crime and insufficiently supportive of law enforcement, Beasley and other Democrats in swing-state races have been pushing back, running advertisements touting their support for police and appearing with local law enforcement officials on the trail.
For Beasley and Florida’s Democratic Senate hopeful Val Demings, a state lawmaker and former Orlando police chief running against Sen. Marco Rubio, that also means touting their credentials.
“I’ve been a judge for over two decades,” Beasley said at that Durham event. “I served as a judge and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina. And as a judge, I have always worked hard to uphold the rule of law as well as upholding the Constitution.”
“As chief of police [in Orlando], I had to manage people, resources, and balance a $130 million budget during good times and bad times,” Demings told ABC News in a statement
“The buck stopped with me,” she added. “I always chose tough jobs and I know I made a difference in my community. I am proud to tell that story.”
Both Beasley and Demings have either proposed changes to policing or, in Demings case, co-sponsored a major bill that Democrats said would overhaul the system in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. But Demings has also stressed her support for increasing law enforcement funding — with her website describing her as “tough-on-crime.”
During the Durham campaign event, Beasley detailed how as a senator she would lobby for protecting due process rights for officers, increasing funding for training, addressing staff shortages and providing mental health services for law enforcement officers
Beasley and Demings’ Republican opponents have also branded themselves as law enforcement supporters. Rep. Ted Budd, running in the North Carolina Senate race, has touted his endorsement from the state’s trooper association. Meanwhile, Rubio has run ads featuring some law enforcement officers attacking Demings for her record on policing while in Congress.
Why Democrats are cautious about ‘defund the police’
Broadly speaking, the “defund the police” movement is skeptical of law enforcement’s accountability and effectiveness. It encourages divesting funds from police departments and allocating the money to non-policing forms of public safety and community support, such as expanding mental health and social services for people in crisis rather than tasking officers with responding.
The movement reached new heights following Floyd’s murder by a police officer in Minneapolis in 2020.
While “defund the police” quickly became prominent among activists and many parts of the Democratic base — and was embraced by some progressive lawmakers — leaders in the party have long cautioned against the slogan, saying it’s not their view or that it’s reductive. On CNN in December of 2020, when asked if Democrats being tied to “defund” contributed to their losing House seats in the 2020 election, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said that he had come out before the election against “sloganeering.”
“John [Lewis] and I sat on the House floor and talked about that ‘defund the police’ slogan, and both of us concluded that it had the possibilities of doing to the Black Lives Matter movement and current movements across the country what ‘Burn, baby, burn’ did to us back in 1960,” Clyburn said.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., likewise said in May 2021, during a caucus call, that Republicans’ attacks on the defund the police movement proved to be more damaging in the 2020 election than anticipated.
In his first State of the Union address, earlier this year, President Joe Biden made clear his stance on law enforcement, saying they need to be funded.
“The answer is not to defund the police,” he said.
Some progressives disagree: “All our country has done is given more funding to police. The result? 2021 set a record for fatal police shootings,” Missouri Rep. Cori Bush wrote on Twitter in March, rebutting Biden.
During an interview on “This Week” earlier this year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked about the rise in certain kinds of crime and Democrats’ division on the issue. Pelosi said defunding police is “not the position of the Democratic Party.”
The Pew Research Center released a poll in October 2021 which showed that 47% of adults said that spending on policing in their area should be increased.
Beasley and Demings’ messaging on law enforcement reflects both their values, they say, and what strategists call a campaign season calculation to appeal to voters. The two are major Senate candidates in battleground states, in a cycle in which Democrats need almost every victory in order to retain their majority in Congress from a resurgent GOP.
“There were allegations made that Democrats support defunding the police and it took a bit of time for Democrats to finally respond,” said Xochitl Hinojosa, a Democratic strategist unaffiliated with either race. “And they responded forcefully because it is not true and Democrats do not support defunding the police. So now you’re seeing Democrats tackle that issue head-on, which I think is smart to do.”
Hinojosa told ABC News that Beasley and Demings are in a “unique situation” to discuss supporting police while still voicing support for some changes.
“I think that because of their backgrounds in law enforcement, they’re able to not only talk about what they would do if they were to be elected, but they’re talking about what they have done and their experience that puts them in a unique situation to tackle the issue head-on,” Hinojosa said.
The issue of crime could be impactful in battleground races across the country. A Marquette University Law School Poll released earlier this month analyzing Wisconsin’s Senate and governor race showed that 61% of registered voters were concerned about crime. The issue ranked among the top five issues for voters in the state.
When broken down by political affiliation, 71% of state Republicans were concerned compared with 47% of Democrats and 61% of independents.
Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette University Law School Poll, told ABC News that the GOP had seized on crime as an issue to use against Democrats in the midterm elections.
“In the [Wisconsin’s] Senate race, early negative ads and now current negative ads try to link [Lt. Gov.] Mandela Barnes to crime,” Franklin said, referring to the Democratic challenger to incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson. (A Barnes aide told ABC News in response to the ads, “He [Johnson] loves to point fingers about crime, but then voted against police funding while Lt. Governor Barnes and Governor Evers actually invested in public safety and law enforcement.)
Hinojosa, the outside strategist, said that Democrats need to make clear their messaging on law enforcement, given voters’ feelings. House Democrats — mindful of the midterm elections and at the request of moderates sensitive to GOP attacks — on Thursday worked to pass a package of police funding bills.
“They are talking more about tackling crime and community policing and ensuring that our law enforcement is trained and has the resources to be trained,” Hinojosa said.
Demings, too, is keeping her credentials in focus on the trail. Her campaign emails still refer to her as “chief.”
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