Republicans like to talk tough about crime. But they have a crime problem of their own that they want to keep under wraps.
A new study of homicide by the nonpartisan advocacy group Third Way reveals a fact that Republicans don't want to acknowledge: Rates of violent crime, especially murder rates, are higher in red states than in blue states.
That has been true for years, yet Democrats have said almost nothing about this startling fact or about Republicans' evident incompetence in actually doing something about crime.
Crime is an American problem, touching the lives of people in cities, suburbs and rural areas. Yet for all its talk about crime, the Republican Party has not delivered an effective strategy to fight it.
Of course, you would never know that from listening to Republican politicians or the public officials who represent red states. They take every opportunity to try to convince voters that crime is a problem made worse by "liberal" policies, and that it runs rampant in cities and states where Democrats are in charge.
"Over the last few years," they wrote, "we have seen the consequences of leftist Democrats' embrace of the radical 'Defund the Police' and 'No Cash Bail' movements. By slashing police budgets, ending cash bail, and allowing violent offenders back onto our streets, radical Democrats nationwide have made our communities less safe."
Violent crime, they said, was out of control in "every Democrat-run city and state across the country."
Echoing Scalise and Fitzgerald, Kevin McCarthy, the recently installed Republican speaker of the House, bluntly claimed that "Democrat politicians defunded police, raised money for rioters, and pushed policies that are soft on crime. They own this crime wave."
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
Looking back at the 2022 midterm elections, CNN reported that "Over the first three weeks of October (2022), GOP candidates and committees spent $64.5 million on ads focused on crime – nearly one-quarter of all the money they spent on ads over that period….. Many of those ads accused Democrats of supporting the ending of cash bail or efforts to defund the police."
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson's re-election campaign provides one example of this attempt to pin the soft-on-crime label on Democrats. Johnson ran a series of ads attacking his Democratic opponent, Mandela Barnes, for advocating an end to cash bail.
The ads ended with the tagline, "Mandela Barnes, not just a Democrat, but a dangerous Democrat" and a racially charged image of Barnes superimposed over a picture of several Democratic women of color who serve in the House of Representatives and are known as the "Squad." Johnson wound up winning that race by an exceedingly narrow margin, just 26,000 votes out of more than 2.6 million cast.
Not surprisingly, a 2022 Gallup Poll found that "partisanship plays a significant role in shaping Americans' assessments of crime."
Gallup reports that "since 2000, supporters of the president's party have typically been less likely than those who identify with the opposition party to say that crime has increased. Before that, during both George H.W. Bush's and Bill Clinton's presidencies, partisans held similar perceptions of the crime problem."
Gallup also found that "Last October, with Joe Biden in the White House and after the FBI released its 2020 crime statistics showing a sharp increase in murders in the U.S., the percentage of Republicans who said there was more local crime increased from 38% to 67%. Independents' perception that local crime was worse also edged up, while Democrats' view was essentially unchanged."
But Republicans' hypocritical exploitation of the crime issue isn't just an election-year phenomenon.
Last month they went on the attack when Washington, D.C.'s Democratic City Council overrode Mayor Muriel Bowser's veto of the Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022. The city ordinance modernized the District's criminal laws, which had not been overhauled for more than 100 years.
It was designed to "expand eligibility for the Second Look Act from youthful, convicted violent offenders to people of all ages;… expand the right to a jury trial for those charged with misdemeanors but facing jail time; and… reduce maximum criminal penalties for violent crimes like carjacking and robberies."
Republicans quickly pounced, using the accusation that Democrats are soft on crime in a successful effort to get the House of Representatives to exercise its constitutional authority to override the D.C. law.
Americans' perception of crime is now a partisan issue, driven by which party holds power. But Republicans' hypocritical exploitation of crime is no longer just an election-year phenomenon.
One local news story quotes Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., chair of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, as saying that, "There's a crime crisis in America's capital city. According to the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, carjackings in the District have increased by 90% compared to this time last year. Total property crime is up 31%, and homicides are up 29%."
But, following the usual Republican playbook, Comer wasn't content to recite those facts.
"The radical D.C. Council," he continued "has chosen to prioritize legislation that will turn this crime crisis into a catastrophe. The D.C. Council's progressive soft-on-crime legislation eliminates almost all the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for violent crimes, and it drastically reduces the maximum penalties allowable to the courts."
While Republicans talk about the crime rate in Democratic run cities like Washington, they won't own up to their own problems in dealing with crime. These problems were highlighted in a 2022 Los Angeles Magazine article which pointed out that murder rates in "mid-sized cities with Republican mayors have actually fared far worse than big cities with Democratic mayors."
For example, the homicide rate in Bakersfield, California — the principal city in Kevin McCarthy's district — was more than twice as high as that of San Francisco, represented in the house by former Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
This brings us back to the Third Way report, which points out that what is true in California is true across the nation. The report meticulously documents the Republicans' hidden crime problem.
"The murder rate in Trump-voting states," the Third Way report says, "has exceeded the murder rate in Biden-voting states every year this century. Cumulatively, overall murder rates since 2000 were on average 23% higher in Trump-voting states." It continues:
For the past 21 years, the top 10 murder rate states have been dominated by reliably red states, namely Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Missouri. And when we removed the county with the largest city in Trump-voting states (and kept them in for Biden-voting states), murder rates were still significantly higher in these red states.
While media reports give the impression that murder rates are skyrocketing in blue areas, murder rates have actually increased at far higher rates in Trump-voting states over the past two decades, widening the Red State murder gap from a low of 9% in 2003 and 2004 to a high of 44% in 2019, before falling to 43% in 2020. Since 2000, murder rates have increased 39.4% in red states and just 13.4% in blue states.
It's time for Democrats to make these facts known, and stop giving Republicans a free pass on the crime issue. They need to expose Republican cynicism, hypocrisy and incompetence in dealing with crime — and remind voters of these failings at every opportunity.
As Jim Kessler, Third Way's executive VP for policy puts it, "Republicans seem to do a much better job of talking about stopping crime than actually stopping crime."