J. B. Pritzker, the governor of Illinois, was standing on a suburban sidewalk, chatting with Terra Costa Howard, a state legislator, when a passing Honda S.U.V., windows down, slowed to a crawl. “Boo, J. B.! Boo! You’re a tyrant!” the driver called out. He said something about “the trans agenda” and sped away. Pritzker brushed it off. The Chicago Democrat, seeking a second term, has absorbed much worse from his Republican opponent, Darren Bailey, a downstate farmer and state senator, backed by Donald Trump. “J. B.’s an arrogant liar,” Bailey said during a recent debate. He told reporters that Chicago is a “crime-ridden, corrupt, dysfunctional hellhole.”
This may not be a winning strategy. Sixty-seven per cent of the Illinois population lives in and around Chicago. To indicate that he cares about the city, Bailey, who lives some two hundred miles south, near Louisville, leased an apartment in the Michigan Avenue skyscraper known as the John Hancock building, close to Tiffany & Co., Neiman Marcus, and a Rolex store, on the Magnificent Mile, a neighborhood where crime has increased this year. “I want to immerse myself in the culture,” he informed reporters. Recently, he told a Fox News interviewer, “My wife and I are now residents of Chicago. We have a place here. We’re here on the streets every day.”
Bailey’s defeat seems assured, especially given that Pritzker, a popular Democrat, has won solid support for his tell-it-straight persona during the pandemic, and his budget-savvy progressive agenda, which includes the expansion of voting rights and a minimum-wage increase. Pritzker has also championed bail reform and a raft of criminal-justice plans in the SAFE-T Act, nearly eight hundred pages long, which he signed last year. He acknowledges that crime is a significant problem, but stresses that lawbreaking has more causes than immediate solutions. (This year, the murder rate in Chicago has dropped by seventeen per cent, though it remains higher than it was in 2019, before the pandemic.) For Republicans, who haven’t won a statewide race in Illinois in eight years, the narrative may be just as important as the numbers. What defines Bailey’s campaign, and the work of his backers, as voter-mobilization efforts get rolling ahead of the November 8th election, is their appeal to fear.
“Crime is out of control,” Bailey’s first television ad against Pritzker claimed, showing staccato scenes of criminal mayhem on urban streets. Last week, the first three tweets on Bailey’s campaign Twitter feed echoed the theme. One referred to an increase in crime on Chicago’s L trains. Another linked to an op-ed by the chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, who wrote, “Pritzkerville is the dystopian version of Chicago.” The piece referred to “thugs” and “mobs of teens” and warned of politicians who “kowtow to the loudest voices on the radical left.” The third linked to a story by a Pritzker critic who emphasized that the state’s recent criminal-justice overhaul was passed “at the urging of the Black caucus in January 2021 as part of Black legislators’ response to the murder of George Floyd.”
It is a repeat of an old Republican gambit: when in doubt, scare people, particularly white people. At the heart of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy was his effort to brand himself as the “law and order” candidate, a title that Trump later adopted for himself. Alongside images of urban riots and protests against the Vietnam War, Nixon declared, in the voice-over to a 1968 campaign ad, that freedom from violence is “the first civil right of every American.” Twenty years later, George H. W. Bush accused Michael Dukakis of being soft on crime, spotlighting the case of Willie Horton, a Black inmate who raped a white woman and stabbed her boyfriend while on furlough. The Bush campaign strategist Lee Atwater said that he would “strip the bark off the little bastard”—meaning Dukakis—and “make Willie Horton his running mate.” Three years later, as Atwater was dying of cancer, at thirty-nine, he apologized to Dukakis for the “naked cruelty” of his remark.
Across the country, Democratic candidates have been demonized on crime this campaign cycle. In a contest for the House seat anchored in Grand Rapids, Michigan, John Gibbs, a candidate endorsed by Trump, called his Democratic opponent, Hillary Scholten—a church deacon and a former Justice Department attorney—“terrifying” and “pro-crime.” In North Carolina, voters received a mailer that photoshopped “Defund the Police” onto an ordinary T-shirt that Rep. Ricky Hurtado was wearing. In Pennsylvania, a video ad, sponsored by the super PAC Make America Great Again, Inc., says that the Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman “wants ruthless killers, muggers, and rapists back on our streets, and he wants them back now.”
A Wisconsin ad, produced by the National Republican Senate Committee, on behalf of Senator Ron Johnson, is especially stark. In a scene evidently designed to suggest danger to the suburban voters who may decide the election, viewers see Johnson’s Democratic opponent, Mandela Barnes, the state’s current lieutenant governor, in what seems to be a grimy alleyway covered in graffiti. Barnes, who is Black, appears alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. A voice-over declares, “Mandela Barnes, a dangerous Democrat.” The implication is clear: this is what life is like under Democrats in the big city. (On Thursday, Johnson sent out a fund-raising e-mail with the subject line “Coming soon: Criminals loose in your neighborhood.”)
This line of attack—that crime soars under Democrats—suggests to voters that Republicans would swiftly clean it up. Since 2016, Trump has often told one of his “sir” stories about Chicago’s crime, in which a police officer, “a tough guy,” tells him that law enforcement could stop hundreds of murders each year, if only officers were given the chance. “How long do you think it would take you to fix this killing problem in Chicago?” Trump claims to have asked the unidentified man. “He looked at me and said, ‘One day, sir. These cops are great, they know all the bad guys, sir, they know exactly what to do. We could straighten it out so quickly that your head would spin.’ ”
But crime rates, and the trends behind them, often hinge on circumstances that defy political control. In 2020, the final year of Trump’s Presidency and the first of the pandemic, murders jumped almost thirty per cent, according to F.B.I. figures. Rates continued to climb in the first year of Biden’s term, when at least a dozen big cities broke annual homicide records. Big cities tend to be run by Democrats, but cities and states led by Republicans saw similar spikes. When calculated per capita, researchers at Third Way, a center-left think tank, found that murder rates in states won by Trump were forty per cent higher, in 2020, than in states won by Joe Biden. This year, as the pandemic has eased and inflation has spiked, murder in big cities is down four per cent, but property crime has increased sharply, after falling during the previous two years.
Democrats, perennially on the defensive regarding crime, often struggle to respond to Republican efforts to blame them. As the political adage goes, if you’re explaining, you’re losing. While campaigning this month in the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook, Pritzker told me,“Effective lies usually are ten-per-cent true, and then everybody points to the ten-per-cent truth to give credibility to the entire lie. That’s what they’re doing about Chicago. Is crime high? Yeah, but so is crime across the country. Not to suggest to you that we don’t want much lower crime, but let’s recognize what we’re fighting against.” The key, Pritzker said, is to call a lie a lie: “You can’t just sit around and be frustrated by it. You’ve got to message back.”