Images of a town on fire and people cheering, an obliterated storefront window, and a burning flag. Spliced in between are shots of Theresa Greenfield, the Senate Democratic candidate in Iowa. A voice warns that if she wins, “the mob wins.”
“Stop them now,” he adds.
The new ads from the National Republican Senatorial Committee are an effort to brand Greenfield as a threat to public safety, after months of nationwide protests following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It’s part of an effort led by President Donald Trump to mark Democrats as the party of violence and Republicans as the party of law and order.
The NRSC launched the ads portraying Democratic candidates as anti-police in Iowa and Maine, two largely white states where the message could prove more salient than in more diverse areas. But Democrats say that Republicans will have a hard time trying to distort the record of moderate Senate candidates like Greenfield and Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon.
“It’s going to become a matter of can you sell the lie,” said Pete D’Alessandro, a senior Iowa adviser to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential race. “Can you sell the lie that this pretty standard – in a good way – more moderate Democrat is actually a progressive Democrat? That’s what they’re trying to do, and that’s what’s disingenuous.”
Stacey Walker, the first Black person elected to the Linn County Board of Supervisors in Cedar Rapids, said that he supports Greenfield but that they differ on whether to “defund the police,” or as he put it, re-prioritize police funding.
“I can tell you as a progressive that is deeply involved in racial justice politics, the assertion that Theresa Greenfield supports the defund movement, or comes anywhere close to that, is false, and ridiculous,” Walker said. “That’s just not where she’s at. Theresa and I have talked about racial justice, and her approach to police reform tends to be more measured, and I would say traditional, than where folks on the progressive left are.”
Instead of defunding the police, Greenfield has said she supports policies that would de-escalate police training, along with other programs to address racial disparities in policing, housing, education and health care. Her campaign dismissed the attacks as a sign of desperation, as recent polls show the race with their opponent, Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, has no clear front-runner.
“Theresa has been clear that she does not support defunding the police,” said Greenfield spokesperson Izzi Levy. “Senator Ernst only pushes these false smears because she’s down in the polls and desperate to distract from her failed record of voting to gut health care protections for Iowans with pre-existing conditions and getting caught illegally coordinating with a dark money group set up by her own top aides.”
In Iowa, 49% of likely independent voters said racism in the criminal justice system is a bigger problem than riots in American cities, compared to 42% who said the opposite, according to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, however, thinks their ads could be effective at wooing “center-right, independent voters,” according to communications director Jesse Hunt.
“There are a lot of voters out there, especially undecided voters, who are concerned about safe, secure communities,” Hunt told CNN. “They don’t like what they’re seeing from the radical mob that believes in violent justice. So I think that’s something that voters are grappling with as they continue to see cities burn across America. And they see Democratic politicians unwilling to really confront them in a meaningful way.”
The debate over racial justice in America was re-energized after Floyd died in Minneapolis, Minnesota in May underneath the knee of a police officer, after he was arrested for allegedly using a fake $20 bill at a convenience store. More than 90% of the ensuing protests have been peaceful, according to a recent report by the US Crisis Monitor at Princeton University. But some have turned violent, and the study found that the counter protests to the Black Lives Matter movement became violent nearly 12% of the time.
Trump has fueled the clash, warning that if Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden beats him in November, there will be violence in the suburbs. “If I don’t win, America’s Suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters and, of course, ‘Friendly Protesters,’” the President tweeted earlier this month.
The protests have continued. On Wednesday, a grand jury decided to indict one officer on counts of wanton endangerment in connection with the fatal police shooting of Taylor in her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky. Two officers were shot during protests in that city last week.
Republican Maine Sen. Susan Collins’ campaign has attacked Gideon over the issue, falsely alleging she voted to defund the police when she voted to raise higher police budgets.
The new NRSC ad goes after Gideon on the same topic and concludes that “you just can’t trust her.” It notes she employed staff who have donated to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, an organization that pays bail for people who have been arrested and await trial, and she attended a fundraiser with Tom Steyer, a billionaire who founded a group called NextGen America, which has supported the defund the police movement.
The ad also cites her 2015 vote on a bill it claimed would cut police departments by over $200,000.
But it fails to mention that the bill, the state’s two-year, $6.7 billion bipartisan budget, increased the state police’s funding overall, by nearly $4.5 million over the previous budget.
Like Greenfield, Gideon also does not support defunding the police. In a recent debate, she explained her position before Collins pressed her on whether she would refund campaign donations from those who support doing so.
“I just want to be very clear, I do not support defunding the police,” Gideon said. “I do think we need to make sure that we make changes that ensure that people of color do not continue to be brutalized or killed.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.