In the past two weeks, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes have warned Democratic donors about a burst of Republican advertising in their states, with both U.S. Senate candidates warning that it could shift the outcome of Democrats’ two best pickup opportunities for the chamber.
What has gone unsaid is the topic of basically all of those Republican ads: crime. In both states, the GOP has essentially abandoned any advertising on economic issues, instead hammering Barnes and Fetterman with over-the-top and sometimes misleading ads about crime.
Despite the highest inflation in decades and a multitude of evidence pointing to the economy as the top issue ahead of November’s midterm elections, the GOP has settled on crime as the way to convince voters that Barnes and Fetterman are out of touch. The result is a vivid test for the viability of liberal ideals on criminal justice in two states at the core of the modern American political battleground.
“We take Barnes and Fetterman at their word: They have openly and repeatedly advocated for going easy on criminals and letting prisoners onto our streets,” said Jack Pandol, the communications director for the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC — a political action committee controlled by allies of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that’s responsible for much of the advertising.
“It’s not only dangerous; it will prove to voters beyond a shadow of a doubt these two have no business representing them in the Senate,” Pandol added.
Barnes and Fetterman, who have both downplayed ideological labels during their campaigns, are the first candidates with roots in the progressive movement to win Democratic Senate nominations in major swing states in a decade. The two have been handed one of the toughest jobs in the modern Democratic Party: winning states dominated by white working-class voters in a difficult political environment.
The two lieutenant governors won statewide office by running alongside notably more muted governors in 2018. The pair, who have a long history of backing criminal justice reform efforts, are heading similar class-based campaigns against their wealthy GOP opponents.
There are also differences between the two and how they can fend off the attacks. Fetterman worked directly with police officers as mayor of the small city of Braddock, while Barnes was only a state legislator. And of course, Barnes is Black — a fact that the GOP seems all too happy to remind voters of.
“The GOP has a history of using racist imagery and racist connotations in their advertising,” said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, a Democratic-leaning political action committee. “In many ways, it’s been effective. Of course they’re going to go there.”
In an ad featuring urban graffiti and pairing Barnes with two other lawmakers of color — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — the National Republican Senatorial Committee says Barnes is a “defund-the-police Democrat.” (Barnes does not support defunding the police.)
A separate ad from the NRSC says Barnes would join “the socialist Squad” — a reference to a small group of progressive and left-wing House Democrats that includes Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and other lawmakers of color.
Another ad, from a super PAC funded by two GOP megadonors, seems to suggest that Barnes was present at a crime scene.
In Pennsylvania, the senate campaign of celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz has aired an ad featuring a gravel-voiced narrator declaring, “John Fetterman wants to release convicted murderers from prison.” The ad then shows an image of Fetterman alongside a parade of criminals, as the narrator recites grisly details of what they’ve done.
Democrats are confident that both men can fend off the attacks using a combination of their records and personal charisma. Victories in the two states would make it nearly impossible for the GOP to win control of the 50-50 Senate.
“I think what you see are candidates that are really talking to a majority of people in their state — not some sort of fringe, not just some small demographic,” said Natalia Salgado, the director of federal affairs for the Working Families Party, a progressive group.
“This idea of going after these folks by attributing a label to them, as if they are somehow fringe and off the deep end, is really the sort of worst case of political projection from MAGA Republicans that I’ve ever seen,” she continued, referring to former President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
Barnes and Fetterman are far from the only Democrats facing a barrage of crime ads. In the week of Sept. 10-17, a full 48% of the GOP’s digital advertising in battleground states dealt with the topic, according to data compiled by Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC . Just 36% dealt with the economy.
Guy Cecil, the chair of Priorities USA, said the Republican shift comes after evidence that focusing on the economy wasn’t working for the party — forcing it to return to a tired-and-trusted strategy.
“This is not a new approach for the Republican Party,” Cecil said. “It happens every single election: race-baiting, fearmongering, divisive tactics.”
A Strategy With Risks
Republicans returned to crime in 2018 as a frequent topic in advertising, well before COVID-19-era increases in such activity. But Democrats say that those ads became more effective over the past four years, as crime rose and the GOP worked to link its opposition to left-wing campaigns to “defund the police” — despite an overwhelming majority of Democratic elected officials rejecting the slogan and the policy behind it.
President Joe Biden has held multiple events bragging about billions in additional funding for communities to hire law enforcement officers, and the House of Representatives voted last week to pass legislation — almost certain to be ignored by the Senate — to fund additional police officers and reform police training. Democratic candidates up and down the ballot are running ads, often featuring police officers or local sheriffs, to defend their records on crime.
The attacks have hit Democrats regardless of their history. Even Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a former Orlando police chief who is now challenging Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, has been accused of wanting to defund the police.
Determining the effectiveness of the crime attacks is difficult: While Democrats acknowledge that the ads have driven up the number of voters who have negative views of Barnes and Fetterman, that’s also simply a function of them being attacked on any issue in a sustained way after triumphing in sleepy Democratic primaries.
A narrow crime emphasis comes with real risk for the GOP, potentially allowing Barnes and Fetterman to focus on contrasting their working-class stories — Barnes is the son of two union members, while Fetterman oversaw a struggling Pittsburgh suburb as mayor — with the wealth of their opponents: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Oz. The electorates in both states view the Republican candidates as out of touch on key economic and social issues.
A recent Monmouth University survey of Pennsylvania, for instance, found that just 9% of voters said crime was one of the top two issues facing the country, compared with 31% who said inflation, 30% who said the economy and 13% who said abortion rights.
And while a poor economy is supposed to be the basis of GOP campaigns this cycle, the poll found that 41% of voters trusted Fetterman to better handle the economy and cost of living, compared with just 36% for Oz. Fetterman also had an edge of 43% to 34% on which candidate would be better at “defending your values.”
The Monmouth survey did not include a ballot test, but public polls have consistently shown Fetterman with a solid lead over Oz.
The race between Johnson and Barnes is much closer. A Marquette University Law School poll released earlier this month found Johnson earning 49% of the vote and Barnes earning 48%. The survey pointed to crime as the second-most important issue in the state, trailing inflation.
But the poll found that Barnes had an edge of 44% to 40% on understanding “the problems faced by ordinary people in Wisconsin.” A 51% majority of registered voters said Johnson doesn’t share their values, contrasted with just 41% who said the same of Barnes.
‘Wouldn’t Last Two Hours Here In Braddock’
Both Barnes’ and Fetterman’s campaigns are firing back with their own ads. Even before Oz began his crime-based attack, Fetterman’s campaign had filmed an ad featuring the former mayor rebutting him.
“Doc Oz, in his Gucci loafers, is attacking me on crime. Dr. Oz wouldn’t last two hours here in Braddock,” Fetterman says in the 30-second ad, which adds that the Democrat “wears Braddock’s past on his sleeves” with tattoos for the dates that murders took place. “We did whatever it took to fund our police.”
The Democrat’s team has since released four additional spots, a sign that it is eager for a back-and-forth on the issue.
In a statement, Fetterman’s campaign said that he “literally funded the police” by winning grants to pay for surveillance cameras in Braddock and regularly showed up at crime scenes when he was mayor.
“John’s whole career in politics started because of gun violence. When two of his students were shot and killed, he ran for Mayor to stop the violence,” said Fetterman spokesman Joe Calvello.
Barnes took a different approach. In an ad filmed in his kitchen, he talks directly to the camera and calls Johnson’s attacks “lies,” promising to fully fund police departments. But he quickly pivots to issues far more favorable to the Democrat: his push to revitalize manufacturing and expand the child tax credit.
“Johnson has problems with Social Security and abortion,” said Bill Neidhardt, a Democratic operative who was the communications director for Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) during her successful 2018 reelection campaign. “If I’m Mandela’s team, I’m focused more on making sure voters know Johnson’s positions on those issues than I am on arguing with him about criminal justice.”
In the past week, however, both campaigns turned to outside help to rebut the attacks. Barnes’ campaign unveiled a new ad featuring a retired police sergeant from Racine speaking about Barnes’ support for law enforcement.
“Mandela doesn’t want to defund the police,” the man says in the 30-second ad. “He’s very supportive of law enforcement.”
Meanwhile, Fetterman’s team released a new ad featuring the sheriff of Montgomery County — a large Philadelphia suburb — rejecting the idea that he’s soft on crime.
But to Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, neither campaign is doing enough to answer the attacks. She argued that they need to be more proactive in arguing for their solutions on crime, whether that’s cracking down on illegal guns or supporting more economic opportunities in major cities.
“Using the Republican framework to address the concerns of white voters — that’s just a loser,” she said. “It’s wrong to assume only Black voters care about gun control and the underlying causes of crime.”
In 2020, the most recent year for which full data is available, both Wisconsin and Pennsylvania had violent crime rates below the national average. But murders have spiked in the states’ largest cities, with Philadelphia topping 300 homicides for 2022 in July and Milwaukee now on pace to break its record of 193 homicides, which it set just last year.
Two Wisconsin Democrats, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private research, said focus groups in key areas of the state — including Eau Claire and Green Bay — had found that Milwaukee-centric crime ads did not resonate with voters there.
The Marquette poll backs that up: While 74% of voters in Milwaukee said they were “very concerned” about crime, that number dropped to just 48% for voters in the Green Bay media market and 53% for the rest of the state’s north and west. Only 15% of voters in those areas said they were worried about crime in their day-to-day lives.
The calculus may be different in Philadelphia, where commuter rail lines directly connect the city to its vote-rich suburbs. Milwaukee, by contrast, is famously one of the most segregated cities in America, and transitioning from city to suburb invariably requires a highway trip.
The campaigns against Fetterman and Barnes also rely on misleading inferences. For instance, one of the NRSC ads quotes Barnes as saying funds could be reallocated from police budgets and then notes that Milwaukee’s homicide rates have jumped 40%, linking the two together. But Milwaukee’s police budget was never cut, and it actually increased from 2021 to 2022, thanks to federal money from the American Rescue Plan — which Johnson voted against in the Senate.
An ad from the Senate Leadership Fund employs a clip of Fetterman to imply that he promised “there isn’t anything that I won’t do within the limits of the law and my office to make sure” that people convicted of felony murder go free. But Fetterman was actually talking about two specific people convicted of felony murder: the Horton brothers, who were wrongfully convicted and had their sentences commuted in 2021.
The ad also says Fetterman wants to “end life sentences for felony murder,” which is called second-degree murder in most states and refers to any felony that leads to a death, even if the person committing the crime did not mean to kill anyone. Unlike most other states, Pennsylvania mandates life sentences for people convicted of felony murder. Fetterman wants to end mandatory life sentences, not prevent judges from issuing them.
Other attacks have veered into the absurd: Oz suggested Tuesday that Fetterman has loyalty to the Crips, a street gang originally based in Los Angeles.
‘The Gravitational Pull Of The National Democratic Party’
Republicans have found plentiful material to attack Barnes and Fetterman, in part because criminal justice issues were central to both of their ascents within the Democratic Party. As lieutenant governor, Fetterman has relatively few official duties — but one of those is chairing the state’s Board of Pardons. Fetterman promoted his work to shrink the state’s prison population, winning progressive plaudits.
Now, he seems to be backing away. He deleted a video from his campaign website touting his work on the pardon board.
Barnes has staked out left-wing positions on an array of criminal justice issues, including calling for the elimination of cash bail — something Fetterman does not support — and for significantly reducing the state’s prison population. He also drew national attention for his role in helping convince the Milwaukee Bucks to play following the 2020 shooting of an unarmed Black man in Kenosha.
To Ruy Teixeira, a scholar at the center-right American Enterprise Institute who has warned Democrats about the political dangers of shifting too far to the left, these positions are destined to undercut any economic messaging that Barnes or Fetterman hope to deploy.
“It’s very difficult to be both a contemporary Democratic progressive, with all the cultural baggage that entails, and to be, you know, a working-class hero,” said Teixeira, a longtime Democratic strategist. “In states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, it’s hard to escape the gravitational pull of the national Democratic Party.”
The challenge may be more difficult for Barnes, who is running to be the first Black senator from a state where more than 4 of every 5 people are white. Former President Barack Obama’s two victories in the state prove that such a task may not be impossible, and Democrats are confident Barnes has the skills to navigate the tricky racial politics.
“I have no doubt in my mind that he needs to move differently and that things impact him in a different way,” said Salgado from the Working Families Party. “Lt. Gov. Barnes, like any person of color in this country, is conscious of race.”
Some Barnes allies have also suggested the ads risk creating a backlash and driving up Black turnout — something that happened in the 2021 Georgia Senate runoffs after vicious attacks on now-Sen. Raphael Warnock.
“It sends a message about who Ron Johnson is, who the Republican Party is,” Shropshire said of the ad campaign against Barnes. “It creates a motivation where there might not have been a motivation before – to say this is not OK.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.