SAN FRANCISCO – Democrats on Wednesday braced for renewed Republican attacks on their management of crime across the U.S. after residents in San Francisco voted overwhelmingly to recall the city's progressive district attorney, suggesting that even the party's most loyal supporters are frustrated with the way in which violence and social problems are being addressed.
Chesa Boudin was swept into the district attorney's office pledging to seek alternatives to incarceration, end the racist war on drugs and hold police officers to account. But the city’s longstanding problems with vandalism, open drug use and robberies proved too much for voters, who blamed him for making the situation worse.
While a single city race is hardly a barometer of the national mood, the rejection of Boudin by residents in the nation's progressive epicenter carried symbolic significance for members of both parties. Republicans were emboldened by the vote, planning to highlight crime in several critical Senate races. At the White House, meanwhile, President Joe Biden acknowledged that the vote sent a “clear message” about public safety.
“Both parties have to step up and do something about crime as well as gun violence,” Biden said ahead of a trip to California, noting he sent “billions of dollars and encouraged them to use it to hire police officers and reforming police departments.”
“It’s time to move,” Biden continued. “It’s time that states and the localities spend the money they have to deal with crime as well as retrain police officers.”
The Democratic president's tough-on-crime comments come as his party continues to face pointed attacks from Republicans about its commitment to public safety two years after progressive activists responded to the police murder of George Floyd by championing calls to “defund the police." Biden has rejected such calls, as have the overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress, yet polling suggests that voters have become increasingly likely to trust Republicans more than Democrats on public safety.
Republicans, pointing to the San Francisco election, signaled that they would continue to hammer vulnerable Democratic candidates in states like North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin for their record on crime or associations with the Black Lives Matter movement. While the economy is widely considered the central issue of this midterm season, Republicans believe a focus on crime will help them this fall, especially among suburban voters.
“The very first thing that I talk about everywhere we go is ending the war on our police, ending the war on cops,” said Andrew Giuliani, a Republican candidate for New York governor.
Public safety remains a potent political issue, even as the numbers suggest a more complicated reality.
Crime statistics for the first quarter of 2022, released by the FBI on Monday, suggest that a rise in violent crime is not the fault of either party's criminal justice policies. Democratic-led cities such as Detroit, Fort Wayne and South Bend, Indiana, as well as Wichita, Kansas and Portland, Ore., listed fewer murders for the first quarter of 2022 than 2021. The same could be said for several cities with Republican mayors at the helm. The reverse also was true in a number of Democratic and Republican-led cities with several showing rises in violent crime rates and murders.
Still, Republicans have effectively convinced voters, in some cases, that Democrats are more to blame.
In June 2021, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that roughly the same number of U.S. adults trusted Democrats and Republicans to handle crime. But in April 2022, the same poll found that 47% trusted the Republican Party to do a better job handling crime, compared with 35% preferring the Democratic Party.
Republican pollster Gene Ulm said the perception that Democrats are weak on crime is pushing swing suburban voters toward the GOP in midterm elections across the country, even if crime is not a defining issue in the campaign.
“The Democrats have basically tattooed themselves with defund the police,” Ulm said. “It's too late to change it.”
Republicans point to key Senate races in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where they have already begun to attack Democrats on crime, sometimes relying on false charges.
In North Carolina, the Senate Republican campaign arm already launched two ads against Democratic nominee Cheri Beasley, a former state Supreme Court justice, for failing to protect victims of violent crime. The ads were removed by some local television stations for being inaccurate.
“Sheriffs from across North Carolina condemned these dishonest and despicable attacks because they know Cheri’s record: as a judge and chief justice, she partnered with law enforcement to keep North Carolina communities safe and hold violent offenders accountable,” campaign spokesperson Dory MacMillan said. “Washington Republicans are lying.”
Still, the GOP rhetoric is likely to persist. Republicans are also telegraphing weak-on-crime attacks against Wisconsin Democrat Mandela Barnes, a Senate candidate photographed holding a shirt critical of immigration officers; and Pennsylvania Senate nominee John Fetterman, who used his powers as lieutenant governor to help increase the number of pardons.
Campaign spokesman Joe Calvello noted that Fetterman has a history of confronting crime as the chief law enforcement officer of Braddock, Pa., where he served as mayor.
“Under John’s leadership, Braddock went five and a half years without a gun death," Calvello said. "John not only has worked hand-in-hand with the police, but he knows what challenges our police force face and how to support them.”
Back in San Francisco, Boudin blamed his loss on “right-wing billionaires” who exploited understandable frustration over a pandemic and city government that has failed to deliver on basics.
Former Mayor Willie Brown also warned against reading too much into the recall, given that Boudin won election in 2019 with 36% of first-place votes in San Francisco’s ranked-choice system. On the same night as the recall, voters statewide overwhelmingly supported progressive state Attorney General Rob Bonta, who earned more than 50% of the vote and now advances to a runoff in November under California’s top-two primary system.
No candidate – Republican or Democrat -- can ignore the public’s need to feel safe, Brown said.
“There is an absolute need for people to feel safer, and if they, the public, voter interprets your advocacy as not being sensitive to that component … they will probably not vote for you,” Brown said. “They will vote for somebody that does give them some level of comfort, that safety is as important as all the other factors.”
Beyond San Francisco on Tuesday night, a reform-minded progressive in Contra Costa County was keeping her seat while in Alameda County, which includes Oakland, the progressive favorite heads to a runoff against a long-time prosecutor in November for an open seat being vacated by a more traditional law-and-order district attorney.
Ludovic Blain, executive director of the California Donor Table, which seeks to elect progressive candidates, pointed out that the population of Contra Costa and Alameda counties dwarfs the size of San Francisco, which is under 900,000.
“If we were to look at one election to decide whether Democrats are vulnerable or not, it wouldn’t be the San Francisco one,” he said.
Peoples reported from New York. AP writers Hannah Fingerhut and Gary Fields in Washington contributed.