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GOP uses crime in closing message against Democrats in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania Senate races

Around the corner from the Milwaukee Public Market, Eden Haynes recalled seeing a DoorDash worker's car stolen — while her children were in the car.

The carjacker shot an off-duty detective in the abdomen before fleeing the scene, according to CBS58.

"It's been a crazy year," Haynes, a Democratic voter, told CBS News. "Luckily she was safe. I think he ended up dropping off the car with the [kids] in it. It's just insane. It freaks me out a little bit because he could have come in here and done something."

In Wisconsin's Senate race between Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, crime and public safety is among the top concerns for voters. In an October CBS News poll, crime ranked third, behind the economy and inflation, when it came to "very important issues" for likely voters. And 42% of registered voters said Johnson's policies would make them "more safe from crime."

The issue itself is divided along partisan lines, but 59% of voters who identify as "moderate" said it was "very important." By comparison, 45% of moderates rank the issue of abortion, which Barnes and Wisconsin Democrats have centered their campaigns around, as "very important."

Crime in Milwaukee began rising during the COVID-19 pandemic. Homicides and non-fatal shootings increased by 18% from 2020 to October 2022, according to data from Milwaukee's Police Department. In 2020, there were 3,228 incidents of motor vehicle theft. As of Oct. 28, there were 6,913 motor vehicle thefts, an increase of 114%.

Throughout the campaign and now, in the closing days of the race, Republicans across the country have been hammering Democrats as "soft on crime."

The issue has been especially prevalent in GOP attack ads against Barnes. Since Aug. 30, 70% of the Republican ads that air in Wisconsin's Senate race mention crime, and the pace of these ads airing has remained high since October 18, according to an analysis of data by ad tracking firm AdImpact.

In the Pennsylvania Senate race between Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz, 53% of Republican ads since August 30 have mentioned crime. Since August 30, Republicans have spent $12.3 million on ads about crime, more than the $11.8 million spent on ads about any other topic. 

The Republican ads against Barnes in Wisconsin hit him on his past comments, one on how police budgets should be reallocated and another in which he showed support for reducing the prison population in half. 

Barnes has been trying to refute the ads on several fronts. He's been running one ad since Aug. 30 in which he says, "Look, we knew the other side would make up lies about me to scare you. Now they're claiming I want to defund the police and abolish ICE. That's a lie." He's spent over $3.1 million on this ad, according to AdImpact.

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson has sought to tie himself to Wisconsin's law enforcement community and argued that even though the federal government doesn't have much of a say in local funding for police departments, unequivocal support for law enforcement is needed. 

"If you don't feel safe on your streets, in your neighborhood, in your own home, that's going to animate what your votes are going to be," Johnson told CBS News after an October event where he touted his endorsement from the Wisconsin Fraternal Order of Police. "It's primarily an issue of the disdain that some politicians have shown for law enforcement for far too many years." 

Ryan Windroff, the president of the Wisconsin Fraternal Order of Police, blamed the high level of crime on Democratic district attorneys for bail bonds that are too low and for failing to dole out punishments severe enough to prevent recidivism. 

"Any officer working the street can tell you they are dealing with a small percentage of the population, a majority of the time. It's the same people doing the same things over and over," he said.

In an interview with CBS News, Barnes said defunding police budgets "is not my position at all" and pointed to his support for state budgets that increase law enforcement funding. He argued the root issues of crime, of economic opportunity and education, play a bigger role in the rise of crime than how politicians talk about the issue.

"When you talk about rises in crime, nobody goes out and says,' Oh, well, what are Democrats thinking?' They don't even go, 'What are Republicans thinking?' That's not what makes a person go out and commit a crime. It is the desperation that people are experiencing. It is the lack of opportunity," he said. 

Barnes has called Johnson a hypocrite on his support for law enforcement over comments he's made saying that the Jan. 6 attacks were not an "armed insurrection" —  it's "inaccurate" to call them that, Johnson said in early October — and his ties to an attempt to deliver a false slate of 2020 presidential electors to former Vice President Mike Pence. 

Johnson told CBS News he condemned the violence on Jan. 6 but reiterated his previous remarks. "There weren't thousands of armed insurrectionists," Johnson said. "That's a false narrative." 

Several Democratic voters in Milwaukee told CBS News they feel that Republicans are exploiting the issue of crime, and think the ads hitting Barnes, a Black native of Milwaukee, are racist.

"What worries me is that we don't ever try to address the root causes because it takes time and energy and subtle, nuanced debate, instead of just saying, "Let's throw them under the bus because crime is up," said Suzie Holstein.

"They are equating Mandela — to the fact that he's Black, so therefore his pals are all crooks. And that is the most obscene and divisive ad that's out there," said Nancy Link of Waukesha, a Milwaukee. 

She was referencing one ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee that ties Barnes' support for ending cash bail to Darrell Brooks, who was found guilty of intentional homicide after driving his SUV into a Waukesha Christmas parade, killing six people.

In a statement, NRSC communications director Chris Hartline said overall accusations from Democrats that the ads are racist are "not surprising, considering this is what Democrats and their allies in the media do when they're losing."

"We're using their own words and their own records. If they don't like it, they should invent a time machine, go back in time and not embrace dumbass ideas that voters are rejecting," he added. 

In Pennsylvania, Oz and outside GOP groups have been slamming Fetterman on the airwaves and campaign trail over crime and safety — claiming he wants to release a third of prisoners and legalize drugs. They have also been attacking his votes as chair of the state board of pardons, part of his role as lieutenant governor. 

The Senate Leadership Fund, which is spending more than $40 million on this race alone, started running a number of ads with a focus on crime starting in August, according to tracking by AdImpact. The Oz campaign and NRSC also began running ads mentioning crime around the same time. The focus on crime has increased on the airwaves as Election Day nears.

"It's at the forefront for a lot of voters, particularly suburban women outside of Philly and Pittsburgh as well," said Jess Szymanski, senior adviser at the Republican consulting firm Axiom Strategies. "The Oz campaign and other campaigns in Pennsylvania being able to focus and hone in on that issue is really resonating with people. I think that's why you see the polls tighten in Pennsylvania specifically."

The latest CBS News Battleground Tracker shows Fetterman with a 2-point lead over Oz, within the margin of error. That's down from a five-point lead Fetterman held in mid-September. 

Fetterman has pushed back on the attacks — accusing Republicans of lies. On the stump he has been talking about how he ran as mayor of Braddock to stop gun violence and by working with communities and funding police, killings stopped for five and a half years. 

"I am a Democrat that is running on my record on crime," Fetterman said on the campaign trail in response to attacks. "What does Dr. Oz know about crime? What has he ever done?"

In response to the barrage of attack ads, he has also released his own TV ads featuring state law enforcement officials and declaring his support for police funding.

It's undeniable that crime has surged in Philadelphia in recent years, with homicides skyrocketing in 2020 from 2019 and continuing to climb in 2021. There have been 437 homicides so far this year, only a slight dip from this time last year. 

The latest CBS News Battleground Tracker showed 91% of registered voters in the state said it was important for candidates to talk about crime and police at the debate, making it the second most important issue behind the economy and inflation policies. 

The day before the first and only debate, Oz released his plan to fight crime. Afterward, he hit the campaign trail for an event at the State Troopers Association in Harrisburg and talked about keeping people safe.

"Most of my life I was doing that by talking about health issues. But it turns out that not being safe creates a lot of health issues as well," Oz said. 

Voters are split on who's best equipped to address the issue.

"Crime is an issue, but the Republicans won't do anything about guns, so to me that is a big thing that has to do with the crime," said Anita Altman, a registered Democrat. She said Democrats are better on gun laws.

Rev. Dr. Wayne Weathers, who worked for President Biden's 2020 campaign, said of the constant crime ads, "I call it the 21st century Willie Horton."

Caitlin Huey-Burns contributed reporting.

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