NEW YORK — The graphic surveillance video shows a man on a sidewalk suddenly punching someone in the head, knocking them to the ground.
With muted screams and gunshots in the background, the video stitches together other surveillance clips of shootings and punching on streets and subway trains as a voiceover says, “You’re looking at actual violent crimes caught on camera in Kathy Hochul’s New York.”
That’s not exactly true.
The ad from Rep. Lee Zeldin, the Republican challenging New York Gov. Kathy Hochul in next month’s election, included video of an assault in California. Some of the footage depicted crimes that took place before Hochul took office last year. While acknowledging a mistake, Zeldin’s campaign defended the ad and said the message was clear: violent crime is out of control.
That’s a theme GOP candidates across the U.S. are sounding in the final month of the critical midterm elections. The issue of crime is dominating advertising in some of the most competitive Senate races, including those in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Nevada, along with scores of House and governors campaigns such as the one in New York.
The rhetoric is sometimes alarmist or of questionable veracity, closely echoing the language of former President Donald Trump, who honed a late-stage argument during the 2020 campaign that Democratic-led cities were out of control. That didn’t help Trump avoid defeat, but experts say Democrats would be wrong to ignore the potency of the attacks.
“When violence is going up, people are concerned, and that’s when we tend to see it gain some traction as a political issue,” said Lisa L. Miller, professor of political science at Rutgers University, who focuses on crime as a political issue in countries across the world.
The FBI released annual data this week that found violent crime rates didn’t increase substantially last year, though they remained above pre-pandemic levels. The report presents an incomplete picture, in part because it doesn’t include some of the nation’s largest police departments.
More broadly, rates of violent crime and killings have increased around the U.S. since the pandemic, in some places spiking after hitting historic lows. Non-violent crime decreased during the pandemic, but the murder rate grew nearly 30% in 2020, rising in cities and rural areas alike, according to an analysis of crime data by The Brennan Center for Justice. The rate of assaults went up 10%, the analysis found.
The rise defies easy explanation. Experts have pointed to a number of potential causes from worries about the economy and historically high inflation rates to intense stress and the pandemic that has killed more than 1 million people in the U.S.
There is a history of candidates relying on racist tropes when warning of rising crime rates. During the 1988 presidential campaign, supporters of George H.W. Bush released the so-called Willie Horton ad that has become one of the most prominent examples of race-baiting in politics.
In this year’s elections, Republicans often blame crime on criminal justice reforms adopted after George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, including changes to bail laws that critics had long contended disproportionately impacted communities of color, along with accusations that Democrats have not been sufficiently supportive of law enforcement.
Some GOP candidates are trying to make their case in communities of color. Zeldin, for instance, has delivered his anti-crime message while speaking at buildings and bodegas in diverse New York City neighborhoods.
In Pennsylvania, the Republican nominee for Senate, heart surgeon-turned-TV talk show host Dr. Mehmet Oz, has toured the state holding “safe streets” forums in Black communities.
Asked by a reporter about his focus on crime, Oz pointed to a conversation he had with Black Republican ward leaders in Philadelphia that turned from economic issues to struggling Black-owned businesses.
“The African Americans in the group said, ‘Well, the deep problem is … people don’t feel safe,” Oz said in an interview.
Malcolm Kenyatta, a Democratic state lawmaker from Philadelphia, said Oz is using crime victims to get votes but rejects steps like limiting the availability of firearms that would reduce gun violence.
“Oz does not live in a community that is struggling with this kind of crime and nobody, nobody believes that he actually cares and would actively advance policy solutions that would help deal with this problem,” Kenyatta said.
Despite the GOP messaging, it’s not clear that crime is a top priority for voters.
In an AP-NORC poll conducted in June that allowed U.S. adults to name up to five issues they consider most important for the government to be working on in the next year, 11% named crime or violence, unchanged since December and well below the percentage naming many of the other top issues for Americans. A September Fox News poll asking people to name one issue motivating them to vote this year found just 1% named crime, even as most said they were very concerned about crime when asked directly.
Still, Democrats are responding to Republican efforts to portray them as soft on crime.
Hochul in recent days announced the endorsement of several law enforcement unions and released her own ad with a public safety message titled, “Focused on it,” to remind voters that she toughened the state’s gun laws.
During a debate last week in Colorado, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis responded to his Republican opponent Heidi Ganahl, who has repeatedly portrayed him as soft on crime, by suggesting her plan to cut taxes would “defund the police” by cutting prison and police budgets.
Ganahl denied that, calling herself a “law-and-order girl,” and blamed Polis for rising crime rates.
In Oregon, the Republican candidate for governor is making crime a top issue in a three-person race, where an independent candidate who is a former Democratic state lawmaker could take enough votes from the Democratic nominee to help the GOP win the top office in a blue state.
Democrat Tina Kotek has joined her opponents in pledging to increase police funding but has also backed tougher gun laws as part of a plan to tackle crime.
That approach is one embraced by gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety Victory Fund, which is spending $2.4 million combined on ads in Wisconsin and Georgia to convince voters that Republicans who don’t support tougher gun laws are actually the ones “soft” on crime.
“We can reset this narrative and neutralize the GOP’s, what I would call, artificial advantage on the issue,” said Charlie Kelly, a senior political advisor to Everytown.
In some states, candidates are raising alarm about crime rates that remain relatively low or have even fallen.
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, said in a recent debate as he runs for reelection that the state’s crime is “going down despite some of the fearmongering you hear.”
State data shows violent crime rates in Connecticut dropped 9% in 2021 from 2020, which Lamont pointed out in a recent debate with his Republican challenger, Bob Stefanowski, who has made “out of control” crime a central plank of his campaign.
When asked how he can keep making the argument that crime is on the rise when the numbers tell a different story, Stefanowski said people are afraid of rising crime, but he denied stoking those fears.
“If we weren’t highlighting this, we wouldn’t be doing our job. I can tell you when we’re out there, people are afraid. I’m not trying to make them afraid,” he said. “They’re coming to me afraid and saying, ‘What are you going to do about it?'”