Defund-Police Push Has Key Dem Candidates on Defense
For Theresa Greenfield, the Democratic candidate trying to unseat GOP Sen. Joni Ernst in a state President Trump won by 9 points in 2016, the media’s focus over the past few months on the country’s violent racial unrest and demands to defund the police is at best a distraction from her down-to-earth Midwest “farm kid with farm kid values” campaign messaging.
With just four months left before voters go to the polls, the soft-spoken middle-aged mom and former commercial real estate broker has been focused on wooing swing rural and suburban women and older voters, with an emphasis on a traditional Democratic platform of preserving Social Security and other social safety nets. And Greenfield has a powerful personal backstory. Her husband, Rob, a lineman at the local power company, was killed in workplace accident years ago, and she depended on Social Security to get by as a single parent before getting a degree and becoming the president of her Des Moines-based real estate firm.
Greenfield’s campaign has been slowly gaining traction in recent months as President Trump’s poll numbers have sputtered in key battleground states, dragging down Ernst and other Republican candidates across the country. In mid-June, a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll showed Greenfield edging Ernst by 3 percentage points, within the margin of error but still ahead. In late June, Trump held just a 1-point lead in the state over Joe Biden.
To maintain momentum, Greenfield is trying to avoid being defined by the Democratic Party’s leftward lurch and its embrace of expansive programs like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, as well as the Black Lives Matter campaign to defund the police. But carving out a more nuanced position hasn’t been easy. Seeing a potential vulnerability, Ernst in early June called on Greenfield to denounce the growing calls to “defund or abolish our police officers.”
For the first few weeks, Greenfield remained quiet on the police-funding issue. Meanwhile Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, has taken GOP fire for changing his tune on the movement over the last few weeks. At first Biden said he didn’t support protesters’ demands to defund the police but said reforms are needed and backed a plan to condition federal aid to local police departments adhering to certain standards of behavior.
This week, during an interview with the left-wing outlet This Now, Biden said the police are over-militarized and “become the enemy” when they go into neighborhoods in armored, military-style Humvees. He also clarified in the same interview that he would “absolutely” be willing to direct police funds elsewhere to mental health care, affordable housing and other Democratic priorities.
Greenfield’s campaign spokesman on Thursday told RCP she doesn’t view it as an either/or funding choice.
“Instead of defunding the police, Theresa believes we need real reform with more transparency and body cameras, more civilian oversight and Department of Justice reviews, and better racial bias and de-escalation training and standards, along with other long-term investments to address racial disparities in policing, housing, health care and education,” Sam Newton, her spokesman, told RCP in a statement.
Meanwhile, Ernst has tried to highlight her law-and-order differences with Greenfield by sponsoring a bill to deny federal funds to local leaders who allow autonomous zones such as the one protesters dubbed the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ, in Seattle to operate. Ernst’s “Ending Taxpayer Funding of Anarchy Act” would block federal funds from flowing to “anarchist jurisdictions” – areas which city and local officials allow to operate independently without immediate access to police, fire or emergency services.
“The Seattle mayor said the CHAZ was like a block party, and then we’ve had shootings there -- people have been killed – and an alleged rape,” Ernst told RCP in an interview. “When local officials aren’t allowing law enforcement, EMS and fire services into certain areas of the city, that’s an abdication of their constitutional obligations to protect their citizens.”
“I’m pretty fired up about it – I think it’s absolutely ridiculous,” she added.
President Trump at his 4th of July “culture war” speech at Mount Rushmore and elsewhere has pledged to “be a law-and-order president” and uphold the nation’s heritage. The president’s Twitter profile features a photo of him posing with a group of policemen in front of Air Force One.
Vice President Mike Pence continued the theme Thursday by headlining a “back the blue” campaign rally at a lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police in Philadelphia. Pence argued that Biden would cut funding for police if elected in November. He slammed the Minneapolis City Council for defunding its police department and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for his cuts to law enforcement.
“I want you to hear this directly from me,” he said. “Under this president, and this administration, we’re not going to defund the police. Not now, not ever.”
The Trump campaign has been running an ad depicting Black Lives Matter protesters as dangerous anarchists, planning to “unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities” and “chaos in our streets.” It depicted Joe Biden as “kneeling to the Left,” and predicted he would fail “to stand up to the radical leftists fighting to defund and abolish the police.”
Democrats and several media outlets have labeled Trump’s ads purposefully misleading and say the president’s campaign is distorting Biden’s position on cutting police funding. They are pushing back hard because they believe Trump’s law-and-order messaging could be very powerful in the months leading up to November, especially among suburban women and independents.
Even though polls show Trump and several GOP Senate incumbents are running behind in key states and races, Democratic strategists are worried that the national defund-the-police movement and the national “cancel culture” push is an overreach that could hurt them in swing and red-leaning states this fall.
A new Pew Research Center national poll, conducted June 16-22 and released this week, found that 73% of respondents thought local police funding should stay about the same or be increased, while 42% of African Americans and 21% of whites favored cutting it.
Still, the poll uncovered some shifting feelings on police – that opinions of law enforcement officials are less favorable today than they were in a similar poll Pew conducted four years ago. Some 58% said they believe the police do a “good” to “excellent” job of protecting the public from crime, slightly down from the 62% who answered that way in Pew’s 2016 survey. Additionally, two-thirds (66%) of those polled rejected the notion of “qualified immunity,” that individual officers should be shielded from lawsuits unless they commit clear violations of the law.
Greenfield is hardly alone in trying to side-step the defund-the-police movement while advocating more realistic responses to concerns about police brutality and racial inequality. The strong majority opposition to the defunding movement is forcing the two Senate Democrats in the toughest re-election contests to openly denounce it.
“I do not support defunding the police,” said Sen. Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat facing off against GOP combat veteran John James, when first asked about his position on the issue in early June. “The police departments are out there protecting citizens, and the overwhelming majority of law enforcement and police are protecting citizens.”
Sen. Doug Jones, an Alabama Democrat considered the most vulnerable Democrat this cycle, said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Defunding and disbanding is not something I would ever, ever support.”
With the issue hardly fading away in recent weeks, as Black Lives Matter protests continue coast-to-coast, in early July Peters hosted an online forum on racial justice and was joined by the Michigan NAACP and former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder.
Peters said police reform is part of a “long list of issues” needed to address racial inequalities and incidents of police brutality. While stopping short of cutting funds to law enforcement, he said more accountability is needed for officers and police departments, including a way to keep track of officers with bad records so they can’t simply move and join another department.
Peters also blasted Senate Republicans for failing to get a police reform bill passed in late June, although Peters had joined Senate Democrats in blocking discussion of the measure, sponsored by Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican in the Senate.
John James, a West Point graduate and African American business owner who is challenging Peters, labeled Peters’ stance a “PR stunt.”
“Gary Peters doesn’t speak for black people. We speak for ourselves,” the Republican candidate told a Michigan news outlet.
James is attracting national GOP donors, outraising Peters for the fourth straight fundraising quarter while edging closer to him in the polls. A CNBC/Change Research survey, released July 1, found Peters ahead by 7 points, 49% to 42%. It’s James’ second attempt to topple a sitting Democratic senator. James fell 6 points short of defeating Sen. Debbie Stabenow in 2018.
Several other Democratic challengers in close swing-state Senate contests also have rejected the defund-the-police movement while supporting nuanced reforms.
“This is not the approach we need,” Mark Kelly, a former NASA astronaut challenging GOP Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona, said in mid-June.
“We have some deep systemic issues here with racism in the country, and we’ve got to demand accountability,” said Kelly, the son of two police officers. “There needs to be a justice system that doesn’t discriminate against anyone because of their race, but I do not agree that we should defund the police.”
Kelly listed the adoption of body cameras for all police, along with the need for more transparency and independent oversight, as well as employing de-escalation techniques.
“There’s a lot that can be done here. It should have been done decades ago,” Kelly said.
Cal Cunningham, the Democratic challenger leading North Carolina GOP Sen. Thom Tillis by 10 points in a recent CNBC poll, in mid-June said, “Twenty-first century policing reform will require increased investment in law enforcement, not defunding it.”
Days earlier, Tillis tweeted that “defunding law enforcement is irresponsible, would make our communities less safe and is void of common sense.”
“Anyone afraid of saying that is simply unfit to lead,” he concluded.