Trump focuses on law and order, but will other Republicans follow?

Some GOP consultants see support for protests dropping after surge

President Donald Trump accepts the Republican nomination for another term Thursday in a speech to more than 1,000 supporters on the White House South Lawn. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump accepts the Republican nomination for another term Thursday in a speech to more than 1,000 supporters on the White House South Lawn. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Posted August 28, 2020 at 3:55pm

As protests against racism and police brutality continue to rock the country, President Donald Trump made preserving “law and order” central to his reelection campaign at this week’s Republican convention, arguing that a Joe Biden presidency will result in socialism and anarchy.

“The most dangerous aspect of the Biden platform is the attack on public safety,” Trump said as he accepted the GOP nomination for president at the White House Thursday night.

“No one will be safe in Biden’s America,” Trump later added.

That message has slowly started to pop up in House and Senate races, as Republicans look to hold onto their Senate majority and flip the House by winning districts Trump carried four years ago.

“Today, Washington is failing us: socialists trying to abolish the police, radicals trying to tear down our country And career politicians, they just point fingers and play games,” Iowa GOP state Rep. Ashley Hinson said in her latest TV ad launched Thursday.

The 30-second spot flashed an image of protesters attempting to tear down a statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square just north of the White House. Hinson is challenging Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer in Iowa’s 1st District, which Trump won by 4 percentage points in 2016.

Democrat accused of backing ‘cop haters’

On Wednesday, the GOP super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund launched five new ads against Democratic House members, with one saying New York Democratic Rep. Max Rose “marched with cop haters.” Rose, who is fighting for a second term in a district Trump won by 10 points, did join a Black Lives Matter protest in June but he does not support cutting police funding.

Even though the coronavirus and the economy have continued to dominate voters’ concerns in internal polling, some Republicans expect candidates to further embrace Trump’s “law and order” message as protests and violence continue.

“House Democrats have failed to confront the violence that’s ravaging cities, choosing to focus on defunding the police, excusing Antifa and voting to free violent criminals,” said Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Nancy Pelosi and company have blood on their hands and voters are prepared to hold them accountable.”

GOP pollster Chris Wilson wrote in an email that he does expect issues of law and order and public safety to “emerge in a number of campaigns.”

“‘Defund the police’ was an effective message, but it might not have stuck against all Democrats,” Wilson wrote. “But ‘too woke to stop the riots and looting’ is beginning to look more and more like the Democrat platform to anyone with access to a television or internet connection.”

Democrats counter that the recent unrest has happened on Trump’s watch, and Trump and Republicans not only failed to address concerns about racism at the root of the protests, they may have made them worse.

“In Donald Trump’s America, safety is pitted against justice, Americans are pitted against one another, and the violence that Trump warns of plays out on the streets of communities across our country — stoked by his own words and actions.” Biden’s deputy campaign manager and communications director Kate Bedingfield said in a statement Thursday night.

Support for protests shifting?

Some Republicans believe voters’ attitudes towards the Black Lives Matter movement may be shifting after enjoying high levels of support over the summer. Two GOP strategists pointed to a Marquette Law School poll released on Aug. 11 that showed support for Black Lives Matter among Wisconsin voters had dropped 10 points since June, with 49 percent of those surveyed expressing a favorable view of the movement.

That survey was conducted before the recent unrest in Kenosha, Wis., in response to the police shooting a Black man, Jacob Blake, multiple times in the back, leaving him paralyzed. On Tuesday night, two people were killed, allegedly by a 17 year-old from Illinois who was reportedly part of a group of armed men who wanted to “defend” the city. Trump did not mention Blake in his Thursday night speech, but he did reference Kenosha.

“In the strongest possible terms, the Republican Party condemns the rioting, looting, arson and violence we have seen in Democrat-run cities like Kenosha, Minneapolis, Portland, Chicago, and New York,” Trump said.

Suburban voters targeted

The “law and order” message appeared aimed at rallying the GOP base but also appealing to suburban voters, where Republicans lost House seats during the 2018 midterms. Democrats won control of the House two years ago by focusing on health care, and they’re continuing to do so this year as the country is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s not clear if stoking fear about impending violence will resonate with independent voters or GOP women who backed Democrats in 2018, since these voters also tend to be turned off by Trump’s rhetoric. But some Republicans believe it could, since unrest in cities hits close to home.

Even so, Republican ads so far have largely focused on other issues.

Aside from the ad attacking Rose on police, the other four ads the Congressional Leadership Fund released Wednesday underscored a message Republicans are planning to deploy in House races across the country: that freshman House Democrats aren't the bipartisan moderates they promised to be in 2018.

The same is true in competitive Senate races. Outside GOP groups have attacked Democratic challengers, going after their business records or attempting to tie them to liberal Democratic policies such as “Medicare for All.”

One Republican strategist involved in Senate races expected those messages to continue to dominate paid advertisements, even as Trump frames the presidential race as a choice between law and order and socialism and unrest.

“Susan Collins and Thom Tillis aren’t running against Joe Biden,” the strategist said, of vulnerable senators from Maine and North Carolina. Referencing their opponents, the strategist added, “Voters need to know who Cal Cunningham and Sara Gideon are.” 

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