Shortly after Democratic Rep. Val Demings entered Florida's closely watched 2022 Senate race, incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio went on the offensive.
The Miami Republican listed several criticisms of Demings, calling the congresswoman a "far left liberal Democrat" who supports defunding the police. It's an attack he plans to repeat.
"Congresswoman Demings has turned her back on police officers in order to be accepted by radical left-wing activists," Rubio told USA TODAY in a statement Monday.
Demings, who served as an Orlando police officer for more than 25 years, didn't let Rubio's claims go unchallenged.
Demings' campaign shared a photo of the congresswoman decked out in her police chief uniform. She said Black and Hispanic communities, hit hardest by crime, "don't want to defund the police, they just want to be treated with dignity and respect."
"Defunding the police is not the answer, and I think I've been pretty strong on that, so Marco Rubio and his enablers can say whatever they want to say," she said during her campaign rollout.
The early sparring between Rubio and Demings could be a preview of how Democrats and Republicans plan to push their message to voters about America's thorny police debate in the 2022 election cycle.
As murder rates rise in major cities and videos of Black Americans having violent encounters with law enforcement draw condemnation, Democrats search for a better way to package to voters the demands of left-leaning activists while fending off GOP attacks.
The party's slim majorities in both chambers of Congress are on the line.
A new Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll focused on Milwaukee residents' attitudes toward police underscores the challenge for Democrats.
Fifty-seven percent of residents say they oppose the phrase “defund the police,” the slogan that has gained popularity among activists. That includes 44% of Black Milwaukee residents who say they are against the term versus 35% who say they support it.
Along party lines, the poll found, almost half of Democrats (48%) oppose the phrase compared with 84% of Republicans and 61% of independents.
Among the 500 adults polled, a majority say they do support moving taxpayer dollars away from law enforcement to other agencies. When asked about "cutting some funding" from police budgets and using those resources for social services, such as for the homeless or mentally ill, 55% favor that idea.
It is a position held by a majority across many demographics, including white, Black and Hispanic residents, as well as Democrats and independents. Among Republicans, the majority (76%) oppose the idea.
'Defund the police became very catchy ... But it wasn't message-tested'
Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University whose research focuses on post-civil rights leadership in African American politics, said the Milwaukee numbers parallel national data, which shows a skepticism and confusion about what "defund" means.
"Blacks are more likely to perceive discrimination from the police, they're more likely to talk about having been personally discriminated against, and I think we need to take that seriously," Gillespie said. "And they may even express greater skepticism of the police, but that is by no means a declaration of their being anti-police."
The Milwaukee survey found 71% of Black respondents say police treat them differently from other races. Only 17% say police do an excellent or good job compared with 46% of whites.
The poll shows Black Milwaukee residents have a vastly different view of police from their white counterparts. Black residents are less likely than white residents, by a 30-percentage-point margin, to ask a police officer for help if they need it. More than a third say police are "racist in the way they treat people."
Gillespie said studies about the movements calling for stiffer police accountability found a diverse debate among organizers and activists. She said there was a greater appeal for calls such as "divest and invest" as the goal for changing law enforcement.
"Defund the police became very catchy, and it was very attention-grabbing," she said. "But it wasn't message-tested. And had it been message-tested, I think you might not have come up with something that might get a greater sense of what actually has more traction."
'We're not a monolith': Democratic 2020 autopsy sends warning about outreach to voters of color
Tolulope Kevin Olasanoye, national political and organizing director for Collective PAC, which sponsored a study of the 2020 elections showing issues with Democrats' messaging, said the Milwaukee numbers are reminiscent of the fallout in 2010 around President Barack Obama's federal health care overhaul.
Polling during that period repeatedly showed parts of the Affordable Care Act – such as removing insurance barriers for people with preexisting conditions – were popular with voters.
'This could end up ... the defining issue of 2022'
Yet conservatives assailed the changes as a government takeover of the health care system, and the accusations succeeded in many races when the law was attached to Obama and viewed less favorably.
"This is Obamacare 2.0," Olasanoye said. "This is Republicans using the term 'defund the police' as a way of turning what are fairly reasonable policy proposals into something that is scary for white voters specifically."
Olasanoye said Democratic strategists and campaigns have to become more aggressive about accentuating police accountability measures voters want rather than playing defense on a term they fear.
He said conservative attacks around police issues "demonize people of color, who are legitimately concerned about watching their kids and kids that look like them die on the streets at the hands of police."
GOP operatives are open about their 2022 plans to ramp up rhetoric that liberal policymakers are anti-police and that Democrats' ideas will allow crime to worsen.
"This could end up ... the defining issue of 2022. I actually think it could be a bigger problem for Democrats than it was in 2020," said Steven Law, president and CEO of Senate Leadership Fund President, a super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
For starters, Law said, Republicans plan to argue that "defund the police" has turned from a rhetorical slogan to an active policy pursuit by some Democrats. They will couple that with anxiety about rising violent crime; homicides jumped by 25% and assaults by 12% in 2020 compared with the previous year, according to the FBI's National Incident-Based Reporting System.
Republicans have a history of running as the party tough on crime that stretches back to Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign, gaining a foothold with voters within and outside their tent who have fears about violence in their communities.
Historians, including Ohio Wesleyan professor Michael Flamm, have traced how conservatives, such as Ronald Reagan, sharpened the crime message at the tail end of the 1960s in response to protests, riots and racial unrest spurred by the civil rights movement and other social upheavals.
The Milwaukee survey asked respondents if they feel safer with more or less police in their neighborhood, and an overwhelming 62% say more cops made them feel safer, including 58% of Black residents.
That data has Republicans emboldened, especially without former President Donald Trump – whom Law described as a "wave of one" in the 2020 election – on the ticket.
"You have an issue that has been completely quiet for decades, and all of a sudden, people are noticing it in their communities and feeling very personally threatened by it," Law said. "You will see political problems the Democrats suffered in 2020 and see it significantly amplified, because it's now a bigger issue than ever."
Some Democrats, still feeling anxiety about 2020 being a letdown electorally, point to the results in New Mexico's special House election June 1 as a sign Republican attacks about public safety won't work.
Democrat Melanie Stansbury won in a landslide against a Republican who repeatedly attacked her views on policing.
But that was in a heavily Democratic district that Hillary Clinton won by 16% in 2016. The criticisms are likely to be more potent in swing districts where Republicans made gains last year.
Democrats point to Jan. 6 as a counter to Republican attacks
Brett Broesder, executive director of Democrats Serve, a national group that supports Democratic candidates with public service backgrounds, said the Florida Senate race will be a ripe testing ground for the party.
"In Congresswoman Demings, we're talking about somebody who is so well equipped to tackle this issue as a candidate, especially juxtaposed against Marco Rubio," who voted against supporting a commission to investigate the attack Jan. 6 on the U.S. Capitol, Broesder said.
As the 2022 campaigns take shape, Broesder said, Democrats must go on the offensive when confronted with defund the police attacks.
The attack on the Capitol, where dozens of law enforcement officers were injured by rioters upset about Joe Biden's election victory, makes many of these criticisms about police funding void, he argued.
"You will start seeing people using Jan. 6, especially as more survey data comes out that I would imagine is going to show that that's a salient hit against Republicans who are against looking at what role politics played in the insurrection," he said.
Law, the McConnell ally, said he expects Democrats will use the Capitol attack against Republicans, but he feels it won't hold the same visceral reaction as crime does with voters.
"I'm not saying (Democrats) won't try it," he said. "But if you're sitting in a community where there are break-ins and thefts and violent crime escalating rapidly around you: One candidate wants to beef up police support, and the other candidate has a record of either assailing the police or wanting to dramatically cut back funding for them."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Defund the police' is 'Obamacare' 2022 messaging struggle for Dems