Centrist Democrats struggling to understand their losses in state and federal elections that were expected to be part of a “blue wave” are putting some of the blame on the “defund the police” movement that began in Minneapolis.
Even as Joe Biden won the White House, Democrats in swing districts across the country were hammered with attacks tethering them to calls within the Minneapolis City Council to “begin the process of ending” the Minneapolis Police Department following the killing of George Floyd.
President Donald Trump and Republican candidates nationwide immediately seized on the mantra of “defund the police,” juxtaposing the imagery of fewer cops patrolling the streets with burning buildings during civil unrest following Floyd’s death.
South Carolina U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the Democratic House majority whip, compared the defund slogan to the “burn, baby, burn” chants of the 1960s that helped propel Richard Nixon to the White House. On election night, Republicans chipped away at Democratic majorities in both the U.S. House and the Minnesota House.
Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, noted that Biden won in a half-dozen state Senate districts that DFL candidates lost. He thinks the ill-formed rollout of the council’s proposal to reshape policing was part of the reason. Senate Republicans maintain a one-vote majority in the chamber.
“Everybody’s words and the way they message, that matters,” said Hayden, who lost a primary race in August to Democratic Socialist opponent Omar Fateh. “If we’re going win legislative races, we’re going to have to figure out how to appeal to some of these folks, because clearly they switched their ballot from the top of the ticket to the bottom.”
Progressive leaders in Congress and Minneapolis point to a historic surge in turnout in large cities across the nation, part of the winning coalition that delivered key states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania to Biden. They see themselves as an easy scapegoat for Democrats trying to explain away critical losses, particularly in an election that was as much about Trump as any one issue.
“The number of daily voter registrations in Minnesota quadrupled in the month following George Floyd’s murder. Voter turnout surged, not just in Hennepin County, but across the state. And President-elect Biden outperformed Secretary [Hillary] Clinton by almost 8 points,” said U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar. “So while some folks want to point to progressive policies as the reasons Democrats underperformed, it’s just not true. Our values don’t turn voters off — they turn voters out.”
Omar backed the move to “dismantle” the department after a group of nine City Council members stood on a stage in Powderhorn Park and took the pledge. Reading off a prepared statement, they said they didn’t have all the answers about “what a police-free future looks like, but our community does.”
At the time, there was little clarity for voters about what defunding or dismantling the police would look like.
In Minneapolis many people turned to individual council members for help interpreting the pledge. Some used the word “abolish.” Others preferred “defund.” Others focused on boosting violence prevention efforts and access to social services.
Republicans seized on “defund” and “abolish,” a lifeline for the party at a time when Trump’s approval ratings were dipping and the administration was losing the messaging battle on handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while high voter turnout helped Democratic candidates in liberal urban districts, Clyburn and others blame the “defund” movement for losses in suburban swing districts that were more open to the GOP’s message on crime and lawlessness.
Glen Bolger, a partner in the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, said a majority across the country opposes the message of defunding the police.
“It’s just one of those things where, every time the Democrats who supported it talked about it and touted it, as a Republican campaign strategist, I was like, ‘Yes, please keep talking about this,’ ” Bolger said. “In areas where Republicans did better than expected, that certainly was a factor.”
For the months of August and September, it was the main Republican attack against Democratic candidates in battleground races for the state Senate. Bemidji mayor and DFL Senate candidate Rita Albrecht said she faced a flood of mailers, television and radio ads attacking her as the “defund the police” candidate, despite consistently supporting police budgets.
“For about two months it was the only conversation we were having,” said Matt Little, DFL-Lakeville, who represents a suburban district that was another top target for Senate Republicans. Both candidates lost.
In her own campaign post-mortem, DFLer Bonnie Westlin said there were a number of reasons they lost a suburban Senate seat by about 900 votes. They didn’t door knock for public health reasons, and some people split their votes between parties, while others didn’t vote all the way down the ballot. But defund the police attacks were “ubiquitous and pernicious” in her race, and she wished Democrats had crafted a response.
“I think globally there was a decision to try to not give it more oxygen by not buying into that particular frame, but I don’t think it was an effective pivot from that line of attack,” said Westlin, who is running again in 2022. “We have to figure out, if something like this comes up like this again, what is our effective pivot.”
Minneapolis Council Member Linea Palmisano didn’t take the pledge in Powderhorn Park but did attend the event to watch. Palmisano said some in political circles had told her privately that if Democrats lost this year, “the blame will be laid in Minneapolis.” She declined to name them, saying she didn’t want to betray their confidence. “I think some of that is really fair,” she said. “Some of it is not.”
But those dynamics have seeped into discussions with the state Legislature, including the debate over helping Minneapolis recover after the looting and arson. Palmisano said legislators in some parts of the state supported those efforts and then “got slammed by their own constituents.” She added that “some of the language used to sideline police, while in the moment justified, hasn’t really helped the conversation move forward.”
A ballot initiative proposed by the council to replace the Police Department with a new Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention was rejected by the city’s charter commission. But Minneapolis Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who took the pledge, said “our efforts are inevitable as the community continues to demand change.”
“The old guard leadership seems determined to continue to reach for this make-believe constituency that they believe they are losing out on at the expense of the constituency that continues to show up and deliver Democratic victories,” said Ellison. “The Minneapolis City Council feels like an easy target for lazy and cowardice political analysis. … I think it will backfire and it will alienate a lot of people who do want to see immense change to public safety.”
Minneapolis Council Member Steve Fletcher, another supporter of the amendment, said he didn’t think the future of any political party or movement “is going to be rooted in backing away from the hard problems because we’re worried about our message.”
Mark Jones, a political-science professor at Rice University in Houston, said even though the election is over, Republicans will continue to prod at fault lines between progressives and moderates on issues such as the Green New Deal and the future of policing.
“It’s a problematic issue for Democrats, because on one hand the progressive base wants to talk about it, but the more moderate centrists do not,” he said. “You can expect Republicans, if they maintain the control of the Senate, to exploit it and try to put things on the agenda to reinforce that split in the party.”