From left to right, Adam Laxalt, Ron Johnson and J.D. Vance
CNN  — 

In the final month of the midterm election season, Republican candidates have made crime central to their closing message.

In Nevada, Republican Senate nominee Adam Laxalt is running an ad touting police groups who have flipped from endorsing his opponent, Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, in 2018 to him in 2022. In Wisconsin, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson has spent millions tying his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, to efforts to defund the police and called him “dangerously liberal on crime.” And in gubernatorial contests in Pennsylvania and New York, GOP candidates and outside groups have used graphic crime video in campaign ads – including clips from outside the states they hope to represent.

With control of Congress and governors’ mansions on the line, Republicans now are placing nearly as much emphasis on rising violent crime across the country as they have on the economy for over a year. This lasered-in focus has forced Democratic campaigns – many of which have spent the last few months focused on abortion as the dominant issue motivating voters – to defend their records and push back against Republicans’ leveraging of high-profile crimes against them.

“The challenge that Democrats are running into is that the party has gotten everything they could get out of abortion,” said Chris Hartline, the top spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “And now that the abortion message has run its course for them, the focus returns back to crime and the economy.”

The GOP strategy tracks with nationwide polling and ad spending.

A Gallup poll from earlier this year found 72% of Americans were dissatisfied with the nation’s policies to reduce or control crime. Other polls, including a survey by Monmouth University released this month, have found voters see crime among the most important issues ahead of the 2022 midterms.

In September alone, Republican campaigns and groups spent $39.8 million on 157 unique ads focused on crime, according to ad tracker AdImpact. Democratic campaigns and groups, mostly in response to the Republican attacks, spent $32.9 million on 119 distinct ads on the issue – a significant increase from the amount these groups were spending on the issue in August.

This is clear in Nevada, where Republicans – bolstered by national conservative media’s focus on the issue – have been leveling crime attacks in both English and Spanish ads, hoping to use violent crime as a way to further cleave Latino support from Democratic candidates.

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  • Millions of dollars have been spent on Spanish language ads targeting Cortez Masto, the first Latina to be elected to the Senate, including ads from the Club for Growth, a conservative super PAC, that say in Spanish that the senator is “so weak on crime it’s dangerous.”

    Cortez Masto has responded by touting her record – including legislation to crack down on organized crime and her tenure as Nevada attorney general – as well as the endorsement from a host of policing groups. She has also run ads tying Laxalt to the events of January 6, 2021, branding him the “proud face” of election denial in the state. Laxalt was central to filing election lawsuits on behalf of Republicans seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential result in Nevada.

    “The January 6 insurrection was the direct result of Adam Laxalt and Donald Trump falsely claiming the election had been stolen,” Cortez Masto said at an event earlier this month. “Five police officers died that day and Adam Laxalt couldn’t bring himself to show an ounce of remorse for his actions. It’s unforgivable.”

    But even some Democrats acknowledge the crime attacks – coupled with continued Republican pressure on the economy – is working.

    “This is always a very, very difficult issue because you are ending up trying to have to prove a negative,” said Doug Jones, a former Democratic senator from Alabama and a CNN political commentator. Jones argued that while Democrats on Capitol Hill have worked to counter the “defund the police” allegations with legislation, when the party has “certain voices” that push the issue, some Democrats “get painted with a broad brush.”

    He added: “It has an effect. It absolutely has an effect. And it is one of those things that is really easy to put fear factors in people and it is not as easy to neutralize. It is just not.”

    Aggressive pushback

    The focus on crime – and the Democratic pushback on the issue – was front-and-center at the Ohio Senate debate on Monday night, with Republican nominee J.D. Vance saying Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan “threw the police under the bus” and arguing Ohioans “deserve streets you can walk down safely.”

    Ryan aggressively pushed back against the attack. After arguing “we need more cops… and, yeah, we have to get rid of bad cops,” he pivoted to Vance and used the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, where scores of officers were injured, against the Republican who helped raise money for the legal defense fund of the insurrectionists.

    “I am not going to take a back seat to JD Vance on law enforcement,” Ryan said. “Can you imagine one guy saying out of one side of his mouth he is pro-cop and out of the other side of his mouth he is raising money for the insurrectionists who were beating up the Capitol Police?”

    To a top Ryan aide, that kind of aggression is needed when pushing back on crime attacks.

    “That is something Democrats need to do a better job of,” said a Ryan aide. “No one wants to defund the police and it is very, very stupid to let people claim that we do.”

    Cheri Beasley, the Democratic Senate nominee in North Carolina, took a similar tact during her debate against Republican Rep. Ted Budd earlier this month. Not only did she distance herself from defund the police efforts – “I do not support defunding the police,” she said bluntly – but she also turned the issue on Budd, who did not vote to certify the 2020 election.

    “Congressman Budd is really all talk. He is not trying to keep us safe. He is just talking. Actions really do speak louder than words,” she said.

    ‘Everything on Barnes is crime’

    Still, Democrats messaging has not been uniform – and the effectiveness of the pushback has ranged from race to race.

    While some have pushed back by touting their policing bona fides and using police voices to defend their records, others have gone on the offense, following Ryan’s lead by questioning how Republicans can make such accusations when many in the party have minimized the January 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill.

    The Democratic candidates in two of the closest watched Senate races this cycle have exemplified these differences.

    Barnes, the Democratic nominee in the Badger State, has been subject to the most persistent attacks on crime, primarily because of his past comments about reallocating police funding and his ties to liberal organizations that back defunding the police.

    “Everything on Barnes is crime,” said a Republican operative working on Senate races when asked about the attacks that work against the Democratic candidate.

    Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, Barnes’ opponent, has run ads running ads tying the Democrat to efforts to “defund the police” and routinely touted his own law enforcement support.

    Barnes has responded with more defense than offense. He has run ads refuting the defund accusations, including one spot that shows a retired sergeant for the Racine Police Department testifying that Barnes “does not want to defund the police.” He has also opened ads focused on abortion with blanket statements that the attacks against him are “false” and “misleading.”

    And in a series of interviews, he has used Johnson’s repeated attempts to diminish the January 6 riot to argue it is the Republican who is anti-police.

    “I won’t be lectured about crime from somebody who supported a violent insurrection that left 140 officers injured,” he recently told MSNBC.

    ‘Fetterman stood with us’

    John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor and the Democratic Senate nominee in the commonwealth, has taken a less defensive posture – and even publicly thumbed his nose at attacks by Republican opponent Memhet Oz.

    Like Barnes, Fetterman has run ads defending his record on crime, including one that features a sheriff from Montgomery County who says he is “sick” of Oz’s attacks on Fetterman’s crime record.

    But Fetterman has focused more on proactively touting his own record on public safety criminal justice reform, both as the mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, and as lieutenant governor, where Fetterman was a member of Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons. In that role, he forcefully advocated for commutations for Dennis and Lee Horton in February 2021. The brothers were convicted in 1993 and served nearly three decades behind bars. After they left prison, Fetterman’s campaign hired them to help turnout voters in the Philadelphia area.

    In September, Oz attempted to use the Hortons’ role on the campaign as a way to attack Fetterman on crime, with a spokeswoman saying, “If John Fetterman cared about Pennsylvania’s crime problem, he’d prove it by firing the convicted murderers he employs on his campaign.”

    Fetterman initially called the attacks a “smear” from a “sad and desperate” Oz campaign. And he doubled down late last month, at a rally with supporters in Philadelphia, when he invited both of the Horton brothers to join him on stage in a bid to turn the tables on Oz.

    “John Fetterman stood with us when nobody was going to stand with us. He stood with us when it wasn’t beneficial. He could have walked away and said I tried,” Lee Horton said.

    He also recalled that Fetterman told his sister, “I am going to fight to get you brothers out even if it means I am going to lose every single election after this.”

    As the Pennsylvania race tightens, Republican outside groups have also sought to revive a nearly decade-old controversy dating back to Fetterman’s time running Braddock. In 2013, Fetterman – after hearing gunfire nearby while outside his home with his young son – confronted someone he believed to be running from the scene. That man, a Black unarmed jogger, was quickly released by police and the incident, controversial at the time, became an early flashpoint in the Democratic primary.

    The jogger, Christopher Miyares, maintains that Fetterman has been untruthful about the details surrounding the incident, but wrote in a letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer last year that, despite it all, “I hope (Fetterman) gets to be a Senator.”

    Oz has steered clear of the story, but a pair of groups supporting him – American Leadership Action and the Republican Jewish Coalition’s political arm – have run ads about the incident in an apparent attempt to drive down support for Fetterman with Black voters.

    The Fetterman campaign says the dissonance between Oz’s soft-on-crime attacks and accusations of “outrageous vigilantism” from the RJC underscores Oz’s own lack of experience or a coherent plan for dealing with crime and public safety.

    “There’s a reason all these attack ads never say what Dr. Oz would do about crime – because he doesn’t have a clue. They’re using fear and lies because they don’t have any real solutions,” Fetterman spokesman Joe Calvello said.

    “While Dr. Oz was living in his gated mansion in New Jersey, John was doing the work to make Braddock safer, and worked with the police and the community to go 5 ½ years without a murder.”