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Jackson confirmation furthers GOP's tough-on-crime narrative ahead of midterms

Biden celebrates Supreme Court confirmation
White House marks Judge Jackson’s confirmation to the Supreme Court with ceremony 02:44

Washington — As Republicans work to regain their majorities in the House and the Senate in November's midterm elections, the recent confirmation process for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court provided an opportunity for them to capitalize on concerns about rising crime and attempt to convince voters that the GOP is the party best equipped to tackle the issue.

The focus by GOP senators on sentences Jackson imposed on offenders in child pornography cases while she was a federal district court judge in Washington failed to thwart her historic confirmation to the high court. But her sentencing record became fodder for Republicans in their broader efforts to paint President Biden and Democrats as soft on crime.

"If Republicans can effectively paint their opponents as soft on crime, that will be very damaging in an environment where crime is on the rise," Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who worked on presidential and Senate campaigns, told CBS News. "Republicans have been on the retreat in cities and suburbs in recent years, and this is a way for them to get back on offense."

The soft-on-crime narrative presented during Jackson's confirmation hearings is likely to be one prong in Republicans' broader campaign to portray themselves to voters as the party that can reduce crime. Mr. Biden is currently underwater in his handling of crime, according to a CBS News poll released Sunday, which found 39% of Americans approve of the president's handling of crime, while 61% disapprove. 

Fifty-nine percent, meanwhile, said they believe crime should be a high priority, behind the economy and inflation. Among Republicans, 74% think crime is a high priority, compared to 50% of Democrats, according to the CBS News poll.

Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor for the Cook Political Report, believes crime will be a critical issue in the upcoming elections, ranked second behind the economy and inflation.

"When voters think of the issue of crime, they're going to look at their city, their state, rising number of murders, robberies, statistics in places," she told CBS News. "That's more personal to them."

Taylor noted that during the confirmation hearings before the Judiciary Committee, Republican senators who were the most vocal in their criticisms of Jackson's sentencing record were likely laying the groundwork for a 2024 presidential run.

GOP Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Tom Cotton of Arkansas ranked among Jackson's most ardent opponents, casting her as too lenient on offenders in child pornography cases and accusing her of handing down sentences that were below federal guidelines. Following the confirmation hearings, Hawley took to the Senate floor to push for swift approval of legislation enhancing penalties for offenders in possession of child pornography and preventing judges from imposing sentences below federal guidelines.

Ketanji Brown Jackson Confirmation Hearing TW
Sen. Josh Hawley questions witnesses as Sen. Ted Cruz looks on during the fourth day of Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on Thursday, March 24, 2022. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

"It is time to tell every judge in America to get tough on child porn," Hawley said in remarks on the Senate floor one day after the Senate Judiciary Committee deadlocked on advancing Jackson's nomination.

Responding to charges from Democrats that Republicans were using Jackson's confirmation hearings to indulge believers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, Hawley told reporters last month that crime is a "topic on people's minds."

"This is a president who is presiding over a historic crime wave," he said. "So, if they want to dismiss parents' concerns about their children's safety, and if they want to dismiss concerns about crime as a conspiracy theory? Take that argument to the polls."

But Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, raised multiple instances of federal judges who imposed sentences below federal guidelines and prosecutors' recommendations in child pornography cases — as Republicans criticized Jackson for doing — and then were confirmed with GOP support to courts of appeals.

Klobuchar, while not identifying them, cited judges nominated by President Donald Trump to the 2nd and 11th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals, as well as to the U.S. district court in St. Louis, Missouri.

The Washington Post identified 18 instances in which six judges appointed by Trump to the appeals courts diverged from prosecutors' recommendations in child pornography cases. Among those judges were Amul Thapar of the 6th Circuit who Trump considered for the Supreme Court, Andrew Brasher of the 11th Circuit and Joseph Bianco of the 2nd Circuit.

"They could all have been dragged through the mud too," Klobuchar said. "They could have been dragged through the mud and called names with these kinds of implications."

Part of what could make the focus on crime a successful issue for Republicans in November's races is how it's felt by suburban voters who voted for Mr. Biden in 2020 but now disapprove of the job he's doing. 

"They moved out of the city to be safer, to raise their families, and in places where we're seeing the issue spread out, I think that's something that is very much a worry for many of these voters that are really the critical voting bloc," Taylor said.

An analysis of crime trends released by the Council on Criminal Justice in January found homicide rates surged in 2020 and were 30% higher than in 2019. The FBI also found the murder rate rose nearly 30% nationwide from 2019 to 2020, the largest spike since the federal government started tracking violent crime in the 1960s.

Crime has in recent elections proven to be a key issue for voters, and not just in Republican-led states. The issue played a prominent role in the New York City mayoral race, in which Eric Adams, a former New York City police officer, was elected. Some Democrats, too, have said amplifying calls by protesters to "defund the police" cost them seats in 2020.

Some Democrats' embrace of the movement gave Republicans an opening to win on the issue of crime amid an increase in rates, Conant said.

"It's a harder issue for Democrats than Republicans because a lot of the Democratic base supports police reform, and any time you have an issue that divides your opposition's base, that's going to be a good issue for you," he said. "Even Biden, who presented himself as relatively moderate on criminal justice issues, is very careful in terms of talking about police reform."

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