2022election gop crimewave illo

Republicans Hoped a “Crime Wave” Was Their Ticket to a Red Wave. It Wasn’t.

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Fearmongering didn’t play out as planned.

Leading up to the election, Republicans relentlessly blasted voters with campaign ads about crime, offering them brutal images of shootings and assaults and suggesting that if progressives got their way, murderers would run rampant on the streets and sex offenders would approach their children at barbershops. Journalists, too, fanned the flames, quoting voters across the nation who seemed terrified about the prospect of becoming victims. The only way to deal with the threats, some Republicans intoned, was to mount an aggressive and unforgiving campaign against criminals before the country devolved into chaos.

But amid the fearmongering, some Democratic candidates opted away from “tough on crime” messaging to focus instead on how they would change the criminal justice system, to make it more fair and effective. And on Tuesday, a substantial number of voters seemed willing to embrace their proactive vision: Perhaps to both parties’ surprise, many reform-minded candidates scored victories in the midterms.

In Pennsylvania’s closely watched Senate race, Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman beat Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz after underscoring his work on the state pardons board, where he gave second chances to some incarcerated people serving lengthy sentences. In New York, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul staved off Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin’s allegations that she hindered public safety by supporting bail reforms. And in Minneapolis, in the first election for a county attorney since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, a former public defender and longtime critic of the police department won by a large margin over a former prosecutor with law enforcement endorsements.

Although Republicans with traditional “law and order” platforms triumphed in plenty of races, Tuesday did not bring the kind of election sweep they’d hoped for. “Fears that the crime-wave rhetoric would take down Democratic candidates just didn’t materialize at the national level,” says Insha Rahman at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit think tank focused on criminal justice issues. “Voters saw past the scare tactics.”

In more locally watched races, too, reformists performed well. Progressives won notable prosecutor elections in Texas (Hays and Dallas counties) and in Oklahoma City, where a former public defender who led the Oklahoma Innocence Project will soon be district attorney. In Los Angeles, though results are still coming in, a reform-minded sheriff candidate on Thursday held a sizeable lead over Alex Villanueva, the tough-on-crime incumbent, who was criticized for failing to crack down on violent “deputy gangs” within his department, among other scandals. And the city’s next controller, tasked with overseeing the local government’s coffers, will be a 32-year-old activist and accountant who put up billboards revealing bloat in the police department’s budget.

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts’ Bristol County, a Trumpist sheriff whose brutal jails earned him the nickname Arpaio of the East—a nod at the former strongman mayor of Arizona—was booted from office after a quarter century in power. So, too, was the judge in Louisville, Kentucky, who signed the falsified search warrant that led to Breonna Taylor’s death. And voters elsewhere approved progressive ballot measures: In Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont, they amended or removed language in their state constitutions that previously allowed slavery as a punishment for crime. In Maryland and Missouri, they legalized the possession of marijuana. I could go on with results, because progressives notched plenty of other wins.

Clearly, even as ubiquitous television ads, mailers, and news coverage led a large number of Americans to believe we’re living through a crime wave, says Rahman, there was never a death knell for justice reform: “Voters understand what actually delivers safety, and it’s not the rhetoric and scare tactics.”

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