Quick Take: Crime and Safety in the 2023 Election
November 14, 2023
Insha Rahman, Brian Tashman, and Sam Raim

Democrats need to lead with a message on safety.

Once again, the GOP bet that running ads to scare voters about crime would help them win key races in Kentucky and Virginia. But their losses demonstrate that, contrary to conventional wisdom, this tactic isn’t a surefire political winner, and Democrats can lead with their own message on safety.

In Virginia, which many saw as a bellwether for both parties coming into 2024, Republicans ran ads on crime to paint Democrats as “too extreme.” Two Democratic Senate candidates hit hardest by tough-on-crime ads were Schuyler VanValkenburg and Russet Perry, with Perry being accused of aiding “violent criminals” and VanValkenburg of “putting criminals first and victims last.” Nevertheless, both Democrats won these pivotal races, keeping the state Senate blue. In one of the most competitive state House races, Del. Joshua Cole overcame dog whistling ads, including one juxtaposing Cole with a hooded gunman and boldface warnings about “violent criminals.”

Even in deep-red Kentucky, Daniel Cameron’s “soft-on-crime” attacks alleging that Gov. Andy Beshear  was a “criminal-coddling governor” who “released rapists” didn’t work. Instead, Beshear demonstrated that owning the issue of safety, accountability, and justice—by affirmatively defining your own platform and policies—is a winning strategy.

Beshear restored voting rights to formerly incarcerated people and supported criminal justice reform. In the early days of COVID-19, his administration issued a directive to curb the use of money bail and commuted the sentences of more than 1,800 people in prison to avoid the spread of COVID. According to Ad Impact, the GOP flooded the airwaves with crime ads, with Cameron and his allies attacking the commutations. Beshear didn’t duck but responded to the attacks with his own ad narrated by law enforcement officials backing the policy.

While scare tactics didn’t work in Kentucky and Virginia—just as they by and large didn’t help Republicans win in the 2022 midterm election cycle despite spending $157 million on ads painting Democrats as “soft on crime”—that doesn’t mean voters don’t care about crime. In a September 2023 poll commissioned by Vera Action, 57 percent of voters said crime was a very serious problem, while 34 percent called it a somewhat serious problem. But Vera Action’s own research shows that voters reject “tough-on-crime” tactics when given an alternative that emphasizes a comprehensive approach to preventing crime and addressing its root causes.

The conventional wisdom needs to catch up to the reality that fear is not a winning message.

While violent crime is falling nationally, worry about crime has only gone up in recent years, and there is no reason to believe that it will dissipate in 2024. Voters consistently say they hear more from the GOP on crime than Democrats, but Democrats have an opportunity to inoculate against crime attacks by owning an affirmative message on safety, justice, and accountability.