In Crime v. Abortion, Crime Wins

Things are looking bleak for Democrats in the mid-terms. Inflation remains stubbornly high. Gas prices were heading back up even before OPEC announced a production cut yesterday. Mortgage rates have gone through the roof. Talk of a recession is getting louder.

There’s little of that that Democrats could control, but they’ll take it on the chin for these things simply because they’re the party in power in Washington.

So, they’ve tried to change the subject to abortion, one of the few top issues on which they enjoy an advantage. Republicans had a wider array of choices. They have the upper hand not only on the economy but also on crime and education. I suppose as the result of internal polling, the GOP decided that crime was the issue that would move voters their way, so that’s what they’ve been hammering on in key races throughout the country.

Here in Wisconsin they’ve hit Senate candidate Mandela Barnes and Gov. Tony Evers hard on that issue. It pretty much comes down to this: Democrats are leading with abortion while Republicans are leading with crime, and crime is winning. That is understandable since abortion is an abstract for most people (it’s an option we want for others) while everyone could be a victim of crime, though for most of us the odds of that are very slight.

Mandela Barnes has provided Republicans with all the ammo they need.

But what about the veracity of these claims? Are Republicans really anti-choice? Are Democrats really soft on crime? The answer to the first question is clear while the answer to the second is more nuanced.

There’s no question that the GOP is staunchly, even radically, anti-abortion. The party has had a pro-life plank in its platform for decades. Republican presidents have appointed anti-Roe justices. And when the Court overturned Roe this summer, Republican controlled states moved to ban abortions in almost all cases. Now, there’s even talk among Republicans of a national ban, even though the party’s position has long been that all they wanted to do was return the issue to the states. So, Democratic attacks on the Republicans’ position as being way out of the mainstream (where about two-thirds of Americans want at least some abortions to be legal) are accurate.

But now let’s turn to crime. The Democratic record on this doesn’t fully justify the Republican attacks, but those criticisms aren’t totally off base either.

Let’s start with the stats. Yesterday, in its annual report, the FBI reported that overall violent crime for 2021 was down 1% while murders were up only 4%. That murder rate had jumped 30% from 2019 to 2020. So, based just on those numbers alone, we would have to conclude that Democrats have been wildly successful at reducing crime. After all, the big jump in murders took place on Donald Trump’s watch, while the numbers plunged after Biden took over.

You could argue that crime fighting is largely done at the local level through police forces and county prosecutors, but that landscape was fairly stable over the last few years. And in at least one high profile case, progressive prosecutor Chesa Boudin was recalled by the heavily liberal, heavily Democratic voters of San Francisco because of his soft on crime policies. Even liberal New York elected Eric Adams their new mayor based largely on his get-tough stance on crime.

But here’s where it gets complicated. Republicans long ago (going back to at least Richard Nixon) nailed down the image of being the party that was tough on crime, while Democrats have earned a reputation for being more holistic in their approach. Democrats always want to talk about “root causes” and to blame poverty for crime while Republicans want to simply lock up the bad guys. When people are more fearful of crime — despite the actual numbers and trends — the Republican approach looks stronger.

So, when crime’s a big issue, Democrats are at a disadvantage generically. And then there’s the record of actions and statements of individual candidates. For Barnes and Evers this is not good.

Evers is getting hit for his record number of pardons (which he directly controls) and for a relatively high number of paroles (which he influences only indirectly). In both cases the criticisms don’t hold up on the merits, but anybody could see that they’d be a problem politically. Evers holds the record among Wisconsin governors for granting pardons to people convicted of crimes who have served their sentences and turned their lives around. He holds that record only because his predecessor, the ostentatiously Christian man Scott Walker, granted no pardons in eight years. Evers was just doing what all other governors had done, but he had a backlog to clear. Now, some of us argued that, while this was the right thing to do, it was a right thing that might have been done starting on the Wednesday after the first Tuesday this November.

Same goes for paroles of people who were eligible because they started serving their sentences before parole was all but abolished two decades ago. Evers’ Parole Board did their job under the law while Walkers’ took a harder stance. Again, you could see the political attack ads coming. So, overall, in Evers’ case he’s not objectively soft on crime, but I think he made a horrible mistake by ignoring the obvious political costs of doing what I’m sure he thinks is the right thing.

Barnes’ is different. As Lieutenant Governor he has no power and as a State Representative he had less than no power, so he cannot be legitimately accused of having any responsibility for people’s real or imagined worries about crime. But, like Evers, he’s guilty of unforced errors.

Barnes now claims that not only is he not for defunding the police, but he actually supports an increase in police funding. That conflicts with his statements after the George Floyd murder in which he said that “bloated” police budgets should be cut and the money spent instead on social programs, consistent with the long-established Democratic theme of getting at “root causes.”

And he is on record as being for abolishing cash bail, a hobby horse of the hard-left that has always had political disaster written all over it. That was made clear last year in Waukesha when a man out on an inappropriately low bail amount killed several people at a holiday parade. It doesn’t help one bit that his trial is going on right now.

Many of us were concerned that Barnes had planted his own land mines on this and other issues with statements and Tweets going back a decade. And those most certainly have come back to explode beneath his feet. To be sure, Republicans are over-playing their hand against him and there’s no question that they’re shamelessly exploiting race in their attacks, but Barnes has handed them a lot of the ammo. Some of these things going back to when he was in the Assembly are understandable given that he was in his 20’s and probably not thinking about statewide office. But the things he’s done and said in the last four years are really hard to comprehend.

It looks like the closing weeks of the campaign will be more of the same. Democrats will try to make abortion the top thing on voters’ minds while Republicans will want that to be crime. For my fellow Democrats there’s no reason to be optimistic.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

5 thoughts on “In Crime v. Abortion, Crime Wins

  1. Unfortunately, I agree with your post. However, it’s not over yet and I think Barnes still has a puncher’s chance. His most recent ads try to deflect RoJo’s attacks and he’s clearly on defense. I’d like to see him go on offense and highlight Johnson’s weak position on Social Security. The senator would like to see it up for annual debate, presumably so they can cut it. Social Security is largely popular and a lot of old people depend on it. Barnes needs to take off the gloves. He’s no longer ahead and has let himself be defined by his opponent. There’s still time to right the ship. I hope.


    1. Agreed, but I also think Barnes can’t let crime go unanswered. Since RoJo votes against everything, it’s likely he’s voted against public safety funding more than once. Go on the offensive on the crime issue.


  2. Abortion? Crime?

    You’re way off. It’s all about peanut butter. Republicans are now masterfully attacking Barnes’ hamhanded attempt to explain his delinquent taxes. Talk about an unforced error. That’s probably it for Barnes. Would love to know if the Lasry people are having 2nd thoughts.

    Based on the latest commercials against Michaels, Evers is nervous if not downright scared. I didn’t think he’d need to get down in the mud but here we are.


  3. Crime is the major issue in SE Wisconsin. It comes up over and over. It comes up in the most challenged neighborhoods and the privileged.

    The daily barrage of mayhem and violence in the cities of SE WI are exactly what Michels and Johnson need to back up their shock advertisements and social media blitz.

    If you spend any time in the challenged neighborhoods, the crime is visible and not getting better. The drum beat of paroles and the Waukesha triail add to the realization that things ain’t good.

    If readers aren’t seeing the ads on social media and streaming like you tube, you are not seeing the entire picture the right is painting.

    Barnes and Evers have to be beyond perfect in the debates or the video from their debates, in context or out, will be used to seal the deal for the right wing.

    The debates don’t matter as most voters have decided and the viewers are those that have their minds made up – the wonks and loyal faithful.

    The Dem’s got what they asked for. No primary for Senate and keeping Governor Evers too far left to keep the left happy and content as they march over the cliff.

    The real hope and prayer is that Governor Evers squeaks it out and enough Wisconsinites say they either don’t like Michels or the wonkiest vote for Evers to have a semblance of divided – checked and balanced – government.

    If Evers wins, then he needs to govern and make deals or make vetoes.

    If I were him, i would govern, negotiate in public with the legislature, and focus on building a centrist party. But then, he has to win first.


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