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House Democrats shift tactics to rebut GOP's crime attacks but struggle to overcome party divisions over police

CNN 9/21/2022 Melanie Zanona

In a private memo last summer, House Democratic leaders warned their party’s most vulnerable members about the “enduring” and “potent” attacks waged by Republicans over policing and crime, counseling them to be far more proactive in their support for law enforcement than they were in the 2020 cycle.

But less than two months before the midterm elections, House Democrats are scrambling to resolve an intra-party squabble over police funding, which is threatening to undermine their carefully coordinated efforts to show a united front and combat stepped-up attacks from Republicans over crime and public safety — even as dozens of the party’s most vulnerable members seek to defuse those attacks through a flurry of pro-police campaign ads and local events with law enforcement.

“Frankly, anti-law enforcement rhetoric is not helpful,” Rep. Angie Craig of Minnesota, a frontline Democrat in a tough reelection race, told CNN. “I’ve openly been critical of any member of Congress, including those in my own party, who would stop a bill (to fund police departments) at a moment in time where we need to really be focused on public safety in all of our communities.”

For months, a group of House centrists – scarred by a tougher-than-expected 2020 election cycle when the GOP’s attacks on Democrats around “defunding the police” succeeded in some key races – have been pressing for floor action on a package of bills designed to boost resources for law enforcement and make communities safer ahead of the midterms.

But the effort has been hampered by long-running divisions between the moderate and progressive wings of the party, with lawmakers still hung up over language to ensure accountability for police officers. Despite months of talks, House Democrats – who are working with a razor-thin majority – have yet to reach a deal on the issue. In a sign of how tricky the issue has been, they’ve had to drop at least one police funding measure, sponsored by Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a vulnerable House Democrat from Virginia, from the negotiations citing a lack of a path forward.

“I don’t see any reason why that should be that hard,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat whose seat is targeted by Republicans. “We have a political party in America, led by people who want to defund the police. It’s not the Democrats. We have a chance to demonstrate that by passing these bills.”

And even if Democrats manage to reach an agreement and hold a vote during the handful of days left on the legislative calendar before the midterms, the bills are going nowhere in the 50-50 Senate.

Progressives and some top members of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus are not yet on board, though negotiators are expected to continue intense behind-the-scenes negotiations. Democratic leaders said they could put a deal on the floor as soon as this week if there’s a breakthrough.

“We’re still trying to make sure that the guardrails, the accountabilities are there, and I’m very much supporting making sure that we’re not looking at headcounts increasing without any accountability, without transparency,” said Rep. Joyce Beatty, the Ohio Democrat who chairs the CBC.

Democrats in some of the most competitive races in the country believe it’s critical that they do everything they can to boost their law enforcement bona fides and shield themselves from the avalanche of Republican attacks on the campaign trail – even as some dismiss the GOP effort as an attempt to find something that will stick after gas prices came down and abortion rights energized the Democratic base.

“I think more people realize that saying ‘defund the police’ is just a dumb statement, especially in my district, where I can’t fill all the positions in my police forces,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat who is also locked in a competitive battle for reelection.

Some moderate Democrats, who have expressed open frustration with their progressive colleagues embrace of calls to “defund the police,” are worried that even if they are able to pass a bill, there’s little time left to reap the rewards on the campaign trail.

Rep. Steven Horsford, a Nevada Democrat in a difficult race, said he wants a vote on the package, which includes his bill that would authorize $6.5 billion in community-based efforts to reduce crime over the next eight years, and called on his party leaders to schedule a vote despite the resistance of some in his caucus.

“The overwhelming majority supports the package,” said Horsford, who at the age of 19 lost his father to gun violence. “And just like infrastructure, when the leadership brings the bills to the floor, a whole lot of folks that are saying they’re not going to support something suddenly get behind it because it’s the right thing to do for their constituents. These bills help people back home in our districts.”

Progressives say they’re still working to reach a deal.

“We’re still working through it. We’re all working in good faith. And we’ll see if we can get there,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “We have small margins in the House, and everything that passes the House has to have enough votes.”

Democrats try to craft a ‘pro-police’ image

Despite the logjam, Democratic leaders have sought to carefully cultivate the image of a pro-police party and armed its members with a concrete strategy to counter the GOP narrative that they are soft on crime or support defunding the police.

Last summer, the House Democrats’ campaign arm circulated the memo, which was obtained by CNN, that encouraged House Democrats to offer a clear and direct rebuttal in their public messaging and advertising; highlight specific examples of where Democrats have funneled money toward the police; and enlist at least one active or retired member of law enforcement who can validate their record on crime and public safety.

“Lies need to be answered with both the truth and actions. And show what we stand for. And I think we’ve done both,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview with CNN.

“There’s an old saying that the lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on. And what we learned from 2020 is that we have to effectively respond to Republican lies about law enforcement and put our money where our mouth is.”

Vulnerable Democrats are heeding the advice, determined to not let the GOP attacks go unanswered, though Republicans are still slightly outpacing their Democratic counterparts when it comes to advertising spending on the topic: Over the last month, Republicans have spent about $26 million airing 99 ads about crime, while Democrats have spent about $22 million airing 66 ads, according to data from the firm AdImpact.

Reps. Elaine Luria of Virginia and Jared Golden of Maine, and congressional candidates Liz Mathis in Iowa and Adam Gray in California, are among the Democrats who have run campaign ads touting endorsements from members of the law enforcement community. Spanberger, a former CIA officer, also has an ad mentioning how her father was a fellow former law enforcement officer.

Other Democrats have highlighted their support for police in campaign ads. Congressional candidate Wiley Nickel of North Carolina vowed in a campaign ad to “fund the police,” congressional candidate Hillary Scholten of Michigan promised to “uphold the rule of law,” and Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio touted a bill she supported that helped fund more than 100 police officers in her district, arguing in the spot that defunding the police is “flat out wrong.”

Meanwhile, Craig, who was vocal in her opposition to a Minneapolis ballot initiative that would have abolished the city’s police department, has done several ride-alongs with local police departments – an experience that Craig said led her to sponsor a resolution encouraging her colleagues to embark on similar endeavors in their districts.

Craig’s race is one of the most expensive House races in the country, and her seat is a top target for the GOP this fall.

“I’ve been really clear that I am adamantly opposed to defunding the police. And I’ve taken some grief from Democrats for it,” she said. “But … we have to make sure that we have a pipeline of police officers who are going to support our communities.”

In their messaging, Democrats have also tried to link crime to gun safety, a key issue in critical suburban battleground districts. And they also see a new opportunity to turn the table on Republicans, as the MAGA wing of the party has criticized the police after the Capitol riot and called to defund the FBI in the wake of the recent search of Mar-a-Lago – a stance which Maloney called “nuts.”

Malinowski, the New Jersey Democrat, said he has tried to stay on the “offensive” in saying he “stands by the police” by denouncing GOP attacks against the FBI after the search at Mar-a-Lago last month. And he says passing police funding bills can only give Democrats more ammunition to show a contrast with the GOP.

“I think our position would be even stronger if we pass these bills to demonstrate that Democrats, while asking for reasonable reforms in policing, to policing in this country, also stand by the police, defend the police,” he said.

Kaptur cut a campaign ad highlighting how her GOP opponent, J.R. Majewski, attended the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on January 6, 2021, and has been critical of the Capitol Police.

“Majewksi does not support law enforcement. He should not be our congressman,” a sheriff says in the ad.

But it remains to be seen if the Democrats’ carefully orchestrated counter messaging will work, especially amid their struggle to pass the package of policing bills, which comes as Republicans have increasingly leaned into crime as a central campaign theme. They have seized on the recent uptick in violent crime and are also in some cases trying to link the issue with the border and immigration – another issue that revs up their base.

“Democrats’ pro-criminal policies are directly to blame for the crime wave terrorizing communities,” said Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the head of the House GOP’s campaign arm. “Security is on the ballot this November and that’s bad news for every vulnerable Democrat.”

Democrats who support the package of public safety bills say they need the measure to help defend themselves. One vulnerable Democrat pinned the blame squarely on a handful of progressive members for withholding their support for a bill that they even acknowledge is simply meant to send a message on where their party stands – not actually become law.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, is trying to sell fellow members of the progressive caucus on the package of bills being negotiated. Asked why getting a deal has been so difficult, Omar said Tuesday: “These are just a lot of conversations that are constantly in flux. I don’t know if it is hard – things are moving. We feel optimistic that we will reach a deal soon.”

Omar said discussion about using the legislation to rebut attacks against defunding the police “is not” part of the deliberations.

“We just want to do the right thing,” Omar said.

The problem for Democrats is the math: With a narrow margin in the House, and with Republicans expected to unify against the messaging bill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi can only afford a handful of defections in order to pass the bill.

Beatty said the holdup is not due to Democratic infighting.

“I think it’s hard because we have Republicans who won’t support most of the stuff we do,” she said on Tuesday. “This isn’t about Democrats and this isn’t about the Congressional Black Caucus. This is about the United States Congress. And so when you’re trying to present something that we need to have bipartisan support, it’s difficult.”

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