What the midterms told us about voters and crime
Despite the right's best efforts to scare the hell out of everyone, crime doesn't appear to have been much of an issue at all
That was quite a night. Given the history of midterms and inflation, it’s hard to see these election results as anything other than a clear repudiation of Trumpism. That’s encouraging.
I’ll start this post with a mea culpa. In my last post, I took at face value the building consensus that the Democrats would lose big, and that Republican demagoguery on crime would one of the primary reasons. Given the quality of the Republican candidates, a lot of these races were still far too close. But the political punditocracy was wrong both about the outcome and voter motivation. And I certainly got it wrong in following their lead.
(Also, if you aren’t reading Bolts Magazine, you should be. It provides the most thorough, comprehensive guide to criminal justice, elections, and politics anywhere. It’s an incredibly helpful and important resource, and we’re lucky to have it.)
Here are some key takeaways:
Fear of crime was overblown
According to NBC exit polling, just 11 percent of voters cited crime as an issue that motivated their vote. In the A.P. exit poll it was just 8 percent. I suspect almost all of those people were going to vote Republican anyway.
Moreover, in most of the races where Republicans did make crime a big issue, they did poorly. The GOP really pushed public safety in swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. But in Michigan the Democrats appear to have swept the statewide offices of governor, secretary of state, and attorney general, retaken both houses of the state legislature, and kept their majority on the state supreme court.
The Democrats also appear to have taken legislature in Pennsylvania, where they also easily won the governorship. And of course Mehmet Oz, the senate candidate who probably exploited fear of crime more shamelessly and dishonestly than any other major candidate, lost to John Fetterman.
As for Minnesota, Attorney General Keith Ellison looks to have won reelection despite being high-priority target for state Republicans. And Minneapolis, ground zero for the George Floyd protests, overwhelmingly elected a progressive district attorney. The Democratic governor also won handily, and Democrats appear to have taken both houses of the state legislature here too.
Progressive DAs also won in Des Moines and the Austin suburbs. Several far-right sheriffs also lost, particularly Los Angeles County Alex “Don’t Ask Me About Deputy Gangs” Villanueva, who despite running as a reformer in 2018 morphed into a darling of the MAGA right and frequent guest on Tucker Carlson’s show.
Still, crime may have affected a handful of races, and could tip control of the House
The New York governor’s race was closer than expected, and though Republican Lee Zeldin didn’t win, it seems likely the constant drumbeat on crime by Fox News and the NY Post may have affected some down-ballot congressional races. If the House comes down to just a few seats, that could be important. But it’s worth noting that all the fearmongering about New York City didn’t seem to have much of an effect on people who actually live in the city — Republicans likely flipped seats in the suburbs and upstate.
Most notably, even as House Democrats fared surprisingly well this week, the congressman who spearheaded that effort —DCCC chair Sean Maloney — lost his bid for reelection.Republican challenger Mike Lawler hit Maloney hard on the issue of cash bail, which of course is odd because bail is a state issue over which Congress has little control (and for the record, crime appears to have fallen in Maloney’s district). But Lawler pushed the silly idea that Congress should threaten to withhold federal funding unless New York repeals its bail reform laws. So much for states’ rights!
Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson also won after an exploitative and racist anti-crime campaign against Mandela Barnes, though Democrat Tony Evers did retain the state’s governorship.
It’s also at least possible that Republican messaging on crime kept some races closer than they should have been. But that’s a difficult thing to prove, and the apparently low priority voters gave the issue in exit polls would seem to cut against the point (exit polls are notoriously unreliable, but unfortunately, they’re also the only data we have).
The biggest Republican bright spot was Florida, where Ron DeSantis and Marco Rubio cruised to reelection. But crime was only a major issue for about 10 percent of Florida voters. Still, conservatives groaning about how “New Yorkers must love to live in crime,” while pushing DeSantis as their 2024 savior should probably grapple with the fact that the murder rate in New York City is lower than the murder rate in the entire state of Florida — a pretty remarkable figure given that cities almost always have higher crime rates than states as a whole. (They won’t grapple with this. But they should!)
Finally, San Francisco DA Brooke Jenkins easily won reelection over reformist challenger John Hamasaki. That’s probably the remnant effect of the millions of dollars rich tech guys spent to oust Chesa Boudin. Reformers will argue there’s little evidence that Boudin’s policies caused any spike in crime in the city, but it seems pretty clear that a strong majority of the voting public there disagrees.
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There isn’t much evidence that crime push minority voters to the right
According to exit polls (again, huge grain of salt!) the Democrats did continue to lose ground with Asians and Latinos from their high-water mark in 2018.
It seems abundantly clear now that the Cuban and Venezuelan populations have pushed Florida into solidly Republican territory. But it’s less clear that Latinos outside the state have moved more to the right. Mayre Flores, the congresswoman widely touted as the fresh young face of Latinos rightward drift on issues like crime, lost her South Texas race by about eight points. A Republican Latina did win a neighboring district by about the same margin, but that district was gerrymandered in 2020 to favor Republicans. Incumbent Democrat Henry Cuellar also won handily in South Texas last night, though given that Cuellar is also one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress and beat back a more progressive primary challenger, so it isn’t entirely clear what his victory means.
In the aggregate, the Republicans momentum in South Texas appears to have slowed, and the narrative that they’d ride a surge in Latino support to a big majority just didn’t happen.
Finally, in the days leading up to the election, many conservatives touted polling showing that black people were more likely than white people to say crime is a concern. Democrats still took 85 to 90 percent of the black vote this week. I suspect the disconnect here is that conservatives assume anyone who thinks crime is a problem also believes Republican policies and law-and-order prosecutors are the only way to solve it.
Maybe — just maybe! — some people both want to live in safer communities and think mass incarceration and aggressive policing aren’t the most effective ways to make that happen.
Judicial elections were a mixed bag
In an age in which the U.S. Supreme Court is increasingly outsourcing constitutional rights to the states, state judicial elections have become critically important. Unfortunately, the right has been funding and doing the ground work on judicial elections for years.
Republicans retook the North Carolina supreme court — and in fact swept the statewide judicial races — which could have huge ramifications in a state where the Republican legislature has been pushing a number of anti-democratic policies. Like Florida, North Carolina is one of the few purplish states where Democrats struggled more generally last night. The North Carolina supreme court will switch from 4-3 Democrat to 5-2 Republican.
Republicans also swept statewide judicial races in Texas (though Democrats haven’t won one of those since 1994) and swept the Ohio Supreme Court. In Arizona, wingnut supreme court justice and Joe Arpaio ally Bill Montgomery appears to have retained his seat, despite poor evaluations from a state judicial election and that he got his seat through some pretty brazen court stacking by Gov. Doug Ducey.
But Democrats did keep the Michigan Supreme Court, and a far-right challenger backed by several conservative groups lost his bid to unseat an incumbent on Kentucky’s supreme court by about 10 points. Kansans retained their Supreme Court justices after a 2019 decision to uphold abortion rights in the state. And Arkansas’ most progressive (but still problematic) state supreme court justice Robin Wynne also held off a challenge from the far-right. Relatively progressive state justices also beat back conservative challengers in Montana, Illinois, and New Mexico.
Perhaps the most satisfying result of the night — the Louisville judge who signed the illegal warrant for Breonna Taylor’s home was defeated.
Drug reform was also a mixed bag
Maryland and Missouri legalized marijuana, and Colorado legalized some psychedelics. It speaks volumes about just how far we’ve come on these issues that these weren’t more newsworthy.
On the other side, legalization failed in Arkansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
DAs races varied widely across the country
Other than maybe sheriff, no position is tied more directly to crime than district attorney, so these issues would seem to be a good bellwether for where the country stands on reform. And if that’s the case, the country is . . . confused.
Oklahoma County (home to Oklahoma City) has long a bastion of fiercely law-and-order, pro-death penalty DAs. Per capita, the county has sent more people to death row than any other. So it’s notable that a (relatively) reformist candidate beat a far-right Republican who ran on a promise to not prosecute police officers.
In Indianapolis, moderate reformer DA Ryan Mears has battled police unions, state conservatives who want to strip him of his power, and a challenger who claimed he was turning the city into “San Francisco or New York” (Just FYI prior to Mears, Indianapolis had law-and-order prosecutors, and long had much higher crime rates than both of those cities). Despite being outspent, Mears won handily.
But in other places, results were more status quo. The Republican incumbent defeated her progressive challenger in the race for DA in Maricopa County, Arizona, long one of the most punitive jurisdictions in the country. The more moderate DA candidate in Oakland is leading his progressive opponent, and relatively progressive challengers also lost to incumbent DAs in St. Petersburg, Omaha, and Winston-Salem.
I wouldn’t say that reform had a good night at the polls this week. But I feared crime would be a major drag on the Democrats. At best, reform was always going to be a two-steps-forward, one-step-back process, and for this cycle reformers would mostly be playing defense. The good news is that right-wing demagoguery didn’t sweep Republicans into power. Except for a few hot spots here and there, crime doesn’t appear to have been much of a factor at all. In an era in which we’ve seen a spike in homicides and increases in other crimes in some parts of the country — and in which the right has done everything it can to exploit those increases — “not much of a factor” feels like progress.