Why 'Defund The Police' Attacks Were So Potent Against Democrats

A protester in New York City wears a face mask calling out "Defund Police". The activist cry is now the subject of heated debate among Democrats. (Photo: John Nacion / Getty Images)
This time, Emily Skopov thought she had a good chance of winning a Pennsylvania seat.
Skopov, a former television screenwriter in the North Hills just outside Pittsburgh, first ran in 2018 and put in a surprisingly competitive performance against the Republican State House spokesman. Now she had more experience as an activist and wanted a vacancy. The Democratic Party leaders eyed her as part of their plan to take over the state house in this cycle.
Skopov lost eight percentage points - a similar margin to two years ago, despite having a fundraising advantage over Republican opponent Rob Mercuri.
She has no doubt what made her campaign fail: her association with the slogan "Defund the Police". "I don't think the role it played can be overstated," she said. "It was unexpected that it was so big."
Like many other Democrats, Skopov was clearly moved by the growing outcry against racist policing and police brutality, and she advocated a group of local public school graduates who would like the county school board to adopt "anti-racist" practices such as greater engagement for a variety of settings.
After consulting with a number of people in her district, including black and Latin American families, she found widespread opposition to efforts to cut funding for her suburban police departments. And she believes it is up to each community to determine how they will allocate their resources.
Even so, Skopov endured relentless claims that she supported the police "defunding". Mercuri took up Skopov's signature on the political "pledge" of the national group Future Now, which outlined a set of general progressive principles and was supported by more than 1,000 Democratic legislative candidates. The promise itself only obliges the signatories to end the "mass incarceration" and the creation of race profiles. However, Future Now's library of model laws contains a proposal to "improve public safety by reinvesting policing savings in community-based programs and prevention programs," which Republicans refer to as "defund the police" under a different name.
"We've used Defund the Police in everything we've done," said Mark Harris, a Pittsburgh-based GOP strategist who has worked with Mercuri and other state legislative candidates across the country. "Things like that are poisonous in the suburbs."
One of Mercuri's reports of attacks against Skopov combined her alleged support for defusing the police with her work as a screenwriter, saying that her "Hollywood policies" were "extreme".
The attacks, which reached voters in various formats, according to Skopov, managed to define them in a negative light with the moderates who needed them to win. On phone calls and door-to-door calls with Republicans and Independents, she tried to disappoint the voters she supported, "to disappoint the police," she recalled.
"Most people haven't even asked the question, 'Do you want? "She said." It's already been accepted. "
Emily Skopov, a Democrat who lost an offer for a seat at the state house in suburban Pittsburgh, said she believed the slogan "Defund the Police" undermined her campaign despite unsupporting it. (Photo: Elect Emily 4 PA / Facebook)
Democrats in competitive Congressional races have made similar tones, sparking a national discussion about the political costs and benefits of progressive rhetoric. In a House Democratic caucus conference call two days after the November 3 election, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat and former CIA analyst who won a close race, said "defusing the police" was the main topic they were talking about Voters would have spoken to her. She accused her progressive colleagues and activists for pushing it so hard.
MP Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York left Democrat who was the thinly veiled subject of this centrist snooping, and her ideological comrades have resisted, arguing that some party members are scapegoating a progressive wing in which they must win elections instead of to reckon with their own strategic and philosophical mistakes.
The "Defund the Police" embassy opened up Democratic candidates to attack from Republicans. But it wasn't just a vulnerability because progressive lawmakers and organizations reinforced it, as some more moderate Democrats have claimed. Several factors - including right-wing bias, the lack of other democratic messages, and President-elect Joe Biden's ability to bypass the entire debate - added to its effectiveness.
"The democratic establishment needs to control its news and they shouldn't blame progressives if they are frustrated with the results," said Sean McElwee, whose firm Data for Progress conducts polls for leftist candidates. "Biden's" Restoring the Nation's Soul "theme at the end of the day is a very compelling message to defeat President Donald Trump, but it does not give a reason to vote for Senate and House Democrats."
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) MP, who welcomed the "Defund the Police" message, has opposed claims that the slogan is responsible for the Democrats' underperformance in so many voting rounds. (Photo: Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images)
Among the vast majority of its supporters, Defund the Police never meant taking away all funds from local law enforcement agencies, as Republicans have been fond of claiming.
Shortly after the Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in late May, opponents of racism and police brutality who took to the streets during protests increased their longstanding calls for change. A vocal group of Black Lives Matter activists called for "devaluing the police," and a minority faction among them used them literally - as a synonym for zeroing police funding or the abolition of the police altogether.
But most progressives who adopted the slogan meant it as police reform - a call to shift funding from law enforcement to social services that would reduce violent police encounters and address the underlying causes of crime. Much like a government with a large military justifying the existence of that military through unnecessary wars, these activists argued that cities with overfunded police forces also use armed officers in situations where other responses would work better.
Ocasio-Cortez said in June that a country with "defused police" would look like "a suburb." For her, arguably the most prominent figure behind the activist chant, “defunding” means lowering police budgets in various mixed-income cities to those in whiter, more affluent communities and increasing social spending.
Ocasio-Cortez's approval of the call reflected a broader mainstreaming of the term among democratic progressives. The representatives Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) And Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) Approved the idea as did the elected representatives Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.) and Cori Bush (Mon.).
Officials in New York City and Austin, Texas, depicted cuts in police budgets as a show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, even when they relied on budget gimmicks to make changes seem bigger than they were.
The Minneapolis City Council tried to go a step further and expressed its willingness to downsize its police department and start over.
The "Defund the Police" matter also gripped the advanced organizational world. The Working Families Party, Center for Popular Democracy and NextGen America promoted the slogan. The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate protection group, stated in a tweet promoting a four-day seminar on politics that "the police are only funding one step towards abolition". Even the pro-choice groups NARAL and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which generally focus on women's reproductive rights, helped defuse the police.
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What other movement would have a set of guidelines that an overwhelming number of Americans support and an unpopular label on?
Danny Barefoot, Democratic Campaigning Advisor
For Maurice Mitchell, a veteran of the Black Lives Matter movement who is now the National Director of the Working Families Party, the slogan's rapid spread was a sign of his success.
"The movement for the life of blacks was and is their mission by articulating 'Defund the Police'," said Mitchell, whose Twitter avatar still features a graphic that became common after Floyd's death and the phrases "#DefundthePolice # DefendBlackLife "contains. "This is one of the reasons we are talking about this because the demand is so high."
But for Democrats, concerned about how Republicans would skew the slogan of branding all of the party's candidates as radical opponents of police officers as a whole - one of the most trusted professions in the country - the trend became a source of consternation. These concerns grew when protests against police accountability over the summer sparked riot in a number of American cities.
Support for the Black Lives Matter movement in Wisconsin, a major swing state where a police shot sparked riot and retaliation during the summer, fell 13 percentage points to 48% from June to August.
"I'm not sure why at any point we allowed this conversation to disappoint the police, and we weren't just calling it police reform," said Mark Nevins, a Democratic strategist from Philadelphia. "I'm not even sure I'm 100% clear what it means to defuse the police."
According to a HuffPost / YouGov poll, only 27% of Americans were in favor of "defusing the police" in June, compared with 57% who were against it. At the same time, more moderate reforms - such as the banning of chokeholds by law enforcement officers, the establishment of a federal register for complaints of police misconduct, and the development of a national standard for the use of force - were supported by a large, non-partisan majority of Americans.
"What other movement would have a series of guidelines that an overwhelming number of Americans support and put an unpopular label on?" asked Danny Barefoot, a Democratic adviser who worked on several Senate and state legislative competitions.
Sure enough, the Republicans saw an opportunity. Painting Democrats as supporters of the police "defunding" became the focus of campaign literature, television and digital advertising, and live television debates. This forced Democratic candidates to redirect resources that could otherwise be used to discuss COVID-19 aid, health care or education, to dismiss the slogan and otherwise defend themselves.
Of 31 television commercials that Trump and other allied campaign groups used to attack Biden and other Democrats for controlling law and order, 11 commercials - which aired a total of 77,647 times - specifically mentioned "Defund the Police" analysis by Kantar Media / CMAG for HuffPost. And of 216 Republican television commercials in Congressional races that blew up Democrats, 157 commercials that aired 103,000 times used that phrase.
Overall, television ads that Democrats met for their records of policing accounted for 21% of the total number of ads for Republican presidential campaigns and 11% of GOP ads in Congressional races
In contrast, Congressional Democrats and groups who supported them invested in 78 television commercials - 4% of the total number of pro-democracy television commercials in Congressional races - discussing the topics of race and policing, aired 60,000 times. Of these, only 24 television commercials - 1% of the total number of pro-democracy television ads in congressional races - that aired 21,960 times invalidated allegations that Democrats were trying to "disappoint the police", according to Kantar Media / CMAG.
For Biden, who had a bigger budget and media presence, it was easier to pass the indictment. Although he never felt the need to "disappoint the police" in television commercials, he used his public platform to make it clear where he stood. He proposed a plan to reform police work while increasing law enforcement funding. And Biden's pre-election remarks, in which he flatly condemned the Philadelphia riots with no reference to the police killing that started the riot, was so reminiscent of the centrist message of the Democrats of the 1990s, including then-President Bill Clinton that it angered progressive activists.
The comments - and Biden's consistent efforts to distance themselves from more radical elements of the Black Lives Matter movement who gained new life after Floyd's murder - arose from his awareness of polls that contained even the slightest hint of law enforcement disregard or consent to riot showed politically toxic, someone familiar with Biden's thinking.
But Down Ballot Democrats were more susceptible than Biden to allegations of sympathy for the slogan "Defund the Police". Such a term "brings more outlying Democrats to the defense," said Nevins.
Regardless of whether they lost or competed, these contestants were forced to refute the usually baseless claims that they consented to the police defunding. Even if they successfully dispelled the idea, the mere need was to deplete resources and oxygen that could have been used to amplify their positive messages.
Among the Democrats who have won tough races, Reps Conor Lamb, Pa., Matt Cartwright, Pa., And Jared Golden (Maine) cut television commercials formally refuting the proposal to "defuse" the police . Cartwright and Golden hired police officers to help with the job, while Lamb, who accidentally posed with a protester holding a sign reading "Defund the Police" at a rally, relied on his service as a Marine ensure voter credibility.
And while Montana Governor Steve Bullock (D) missed his Senate bid, some Democrats in the state said his investment in a television commercial highlighting his support for law enforcement helped him get Biden in the state to exceed more than 6 points. The 30-second commercial promoted Bullock's refusal to support the national party platform because he called for a "police redesign" and promised that Bullock, as a senator, would fight defunding efforts.
The spot, which aired 2,336 times, was the second largest ad purchase that featured the “Defund” slogan of a Democratic Congress candidate. (The largest such ad purchase was from Jon Ossoff, the Georgia Democrat who ran a runoff with Senator David Perdue (R) in one of the state's two races that will determine control of the Senate in January.)
Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) and the GOP Senate campaign arm slapped Democratic opponent Sara Gideon in a television commercial for links with a billionaire who defeats the police. The basis for the ad was Gideon's participation in a fundraising campaign for an environmental coalition, which also includes NextGen America. NextGen, funded by the liberal billionaire Tom Steyer, supports the defunding of the police.
Collins also mistakenly took Gideon's vote as legislator for consolidating police services in two small towns as evidence that the Democrat had "defused" the police.
Gideon, who topped virtually every primary poll but also faced a number of challenges, ended up losing eight points. Her campaign did not respond to requests for comment on the effects of the Defund the Police claim on her race.
MP Max Rose (D-N.Y.) Shown here, who welcomed a supporter of President Donald Trump to last month's campaign, repeatedly pointed out his opposition to police funding cuts. He lost anyway. (Photo: Brendan McDermid / Reuters)
By and large, the Democrats who have been successfully targeted by attacks against the police fall into two categories: those whose mistakes gave more oxygen to their Republican opponents, and those who worked hard to distance themselves from the slogan, and yet were bound to it.
An example of the first category is Cameron Webb of Virginia, who lost his race for an open seat in the US home.
Webb, a black doctor who works in a southern Virginia county to give preference to Republicans, was exposed to a barrage of ads using video clips that made him sound like a defunding attorney. Democrats disapproved of characterization, specifically picking an ad for racist innuendo, and Webb, whose father was a police officer, insisted that he did not support reducing police funding.
He even aired an ad attempting to turn the tables on his opponent, Republican Bob Good, for cutting police funding while serving in the county government. Webb was still down about 5 percentage points.
"Associating some candidates with protest movements has likely opened the possibility of people believing they opposed politics, and that has been a problem for them," said Diane Feldman, a Democratic strategist and former pollster. "It becomes a bigger problem for color candidates because people are willing to believe they are part of the far left."
In other cases, however, there was little that candidates could do to distance themselves from the smear, as Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) Shows.
The first-time legislature was charged with associating with Defund the Police supporters and lost his re-election bid in his conservative Staten Island district.
Rose, who has long fought against democratic piety, was beaten up for marching at a rally on Black Lives Matter where some participants reportedly advocated defusing police. A veteran of the Afghan war, Rose ran ads expressing his objection to police defunding in general, and to progressive New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in particular. (He even recorded a six-second digital ad declaring de Blasio the "Worst Mayor in New York City History.")
None of that saved Rose, who lost double digits when he conceded MP Nicole Malliotakis last week.
"They did not attack us on our voting list," said Jonas Edwards-Jenks, a campaign spokesman, who noted that Rose's vote for the Police Justice Act did not appear in Republican advertisements. "They attacked us about something he spoke out against, and that worked here."
But Edwards-Jenks is not sure even if the slogan "Defund the Police" had never come up. Rose would have been spared defeat in a district where the Black Lives Matter movement itself is unpopular and where many active and retired police officers live.
"It would have been different," he said. “Would it have made a difference? I dont know."
Pennsylvania State Representative Summer Lee (D) is among those who oppose the idea that activists should tone down their rhetoric. (Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers / Getty Images)
Progressives say it is not their job to please the party by opposing claims that "disappointing the police" should be blamed for the Democrats' disappointing performance in so many races outside the president. They have pressured democratically ruled cities to deal with racism and police brutality for decades, with limited success, and there is no evidence that the moderation of their tone or demands has served their cause, these activists say.
"Black and brown people dare - so loudly - to demand liberation, security, protection and justice," and they are under no obligation to slow or tone down that urge to please the Democrats, said the progressive Pennsylvania MP, Summer Lee.
She added, "It becomes very easy to shift the blame instead of going through the introspection of the things that lead up to it."
Lee, who is black and ousted a more moderate Democrat in a 2018 primary, has registered her public objection to Skopov's suggestion that "disappoint the police" violate their campaign.
When you hear moderate Democrats attribute their losses to Defund or the Black Lives Movement, it shows how little they actually care about police violence and how little they care about the black death.
Maurice Mitchell, Working Families Party
Mitchell at the Working Families Party was more explicit. "To hear moderate Democrats attribute their losses to 'Defund' or the Black Lives Movement ... it shows how little they actually care about police violence and how little they care about black death," he said.
In addition, Lee, Mitchell, and others found that Democrats were more than happy to take advantage of social movements to generate enthusiasm for their candidates. There is even evidence that the Black Lives Matter movement helped Democratic candidates in quantifiable ways. The street protests following Floyd's death corresponded to a surge in youth voter registration in Georgia and California, according to Target Smart, a Democratic data firm.
And it is clear that other factors could have played an equal or greater role in the demise of democratic fortune. A lack of door-to-door advertising has likely hurt numerous candidates; Some candidates did not invest enough in digital advertising. and party leaders, led by Biden, could have emphasized a clearer economic message.
In a November 10 memo on combating centrist attacks, Justice Democrats, the Sunrise movement, think tank Data for Progress, and communications firm New Deal Strategies noted that the economy was the main concern of voters in polls on exit.
Democrats "failed to fill the void with something resembling a coherent economic message," the memo says.
Nevertheless, as Ocasio-Cortez and the Black Lives Matter movement show, the left is beating above its weight in the national press. Sometimes it's thanks to their skills on social media, but more often it's involuntary because right-wing media pay them undue attention. As a result, comments by left-wing figures can affect the public's perception of the Democratic Party as a whole, just as attention-grabbing Republicans can affect people's impressions of GOP lawmakers who are not as strict as media favorites.
Skopov said she understands that what activists want may not always align with the Democratic Party's immediate interests. She expressed her sympathy for her goals and said that if more people like her want to come to power, she would ask them to give their opinion on the political implications of certain tactics being considered.
“It is not my job to tell black people or people of color how to protest. It is not my job to tell them what words to use, ”Skopov said. “But what I can tell you are the consequences it will have for someone like me. And then it's up to them whether they want to include that or not. "
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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