Rallying VIP supporters at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport last week, President Donald Trump laid out his plan to carry Minnesota, a potentially pivotal state in the November election.
“You know, the words ‘law and order’ are words that Democrats don’t like to use,” Trump said, also offering a preview of a central theme of the Republican National Convention that begins Monday. “They don’t think they’re politically good. There’s nothing wrong with law and order. There’s law and order, and you shouldn’t be ashamed of it.”
Positioning Republicans as a force for stability in the aftermath of the protests and riots that followed George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, Trump is revving up an issue that has worked over the years to the Republicans’ benefit.
GOP candidates up and down the ballot are following his example, turning Minneapolis into an electoral test case: a city run by Democrats whom Republicans charge with failing to do enough to prevent the devastation, then moving to cut police budgets and redefine policing.
Democrats see instead an electorate with rapidly shifting views on race and policing. In former Vice President Joe Biden, they see a nominee with a centrist record on criminal justice issues who opposes efforts by the Minneapolis City Council to dismantle the traditional police department model.
“Most cops are good,” Biden said Monday night during the Democratic National Convention, the same day Trump was in Minnesota. “But the fact is the bad ones have to be identified and prosecuted and out, period.”
Despite Biden’s disavowal, Republicans see an opportunity: “Minnesotans saw chaos in the streets and they saw their Democratic governor, Minneapolis saw its Democratic mayor, they weren’t stepping up to the plate to protect and defend these businesses,” said Jennifer Carnahan, chairwoman of the Minnesota Republican Party.
Ron Harris, a Minneapolis city official and member of the Democratic National Committee, argues that the Republican message on the unrest oversimplifies the complexity of the situation that Minnesotans witnessed up close.
“Minneapolis and Minnesota have become the epicenter of this global reckoning on race, and it’s opened a conversation about how we got here in the first place,” Harris said. “I think a lot of suburban moms saw the video of George Floyd calling for his mom before he died and thought of their own sons.”
Republicans say the debate has energized their base and swayed independents. But some national polls suggest Trump may not hold the traditional advantage on law and order that Republicans hold over Democrats. A Washington Post-ABC News poll from mid-July found Biden — who has held a national polling lead for months — with a 50-41 advantage over Trump on which candidate to trust on “crime and safety.”
A complicating issue to the GOP message, however, is Trump’s own record of regularly engaging in or talking about pursuing actions that bend or flout the law, including last week when he raised the prospect of sending deputies to monitor polling sites on Election Day, though he has no authority to do so. Trump also has talked about staying in office for more than two terms, which would violate the Constitution, and has been identified as “Individual 1,’’ the unindicted co-conspirator in the successful criminal case against his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, over payoffs to silence two women who said they had sexual relationships with the president before he was elected.
In Minnesota, a few recent polls have shown a closer race than in other battleground states. Some Republicans attribute that in large part to the defund movement in Minneapolis. Trump has never led Biden in a public poll in the state but has come within the margin of error in several, and pulled even in one poll.
“Even if he doesn’t beat Biden here, the president calling attention to this issue in Minnesota could put Democrats like Angie Craig and Collin Peterson” — both running for re-election in House districts Trump carried in 2016 — “in a difficult place,” said Michael Minta, a political-science professor at the University of Minnesota.
Craig’s Second Congressional District cuts across suburbs, exurbs, a few small regional towns and rural areas. Facing a well-funded challenge from first-time Republican candidate Tyler Kistner, she, like Biden, has resisted wholesale dismantling of police departments. But in talking about the issue, Craig also acknowledges a broad concern from many Democrats, and not just on the party’s far left, that racism is an issue law enforcement agencies must address.
“I’ve been very clear I don’t support defunding police,” Craig said in an interview. “We need real, substantive reform to address the systemic racism and inequality in law enforcement. But I’ve said many times eliminating them is not the answer.”
Anger at police officers reached into the Second District earlier this month, when a statue of a policeman was among several vandalized the night the Eagan Police Department canceled a community meeting meant to improve trust between officers and the community. A group of protesters had gathered near the Eagan Tribute and Memorial Plaza ahead of the meeting before the department called it off. The statue of the policeman had “BLM,” or Black Lives Matter, spray-painted across it.
“Democratic control has allowed these rioters to burn down cities and bring chaos and destruction,” Kistner said, adding he believes Craig has “refused to effectively disavow ‘Defund the Police.’ ”
Kistner said he supports more training and other resources for police departments and more hiring of officers who better reflect the communities they’re patrolling. “Hire more officers. They’re gravely understaffed, especially in Minneapolis,” Kistner said. “Hire officers who look like, talk like and truly represent that community.”
Kistner said many voters he’s interacted with in recent months have asked him some version of the same question: Are you going to keep our businesses and communities safe?
Craig said it’s not only police departments that make communities safer. “Of course people want to feel safe from crime in their communities,” she said, adding, “People have asked me many times, how can we make sure my kids are safe when we go to school? How can we make sure we have a good national strategy to get this virus under control? Everyone needs to live in a safe community.”
Calls for law and order in the face of social unrest have long been a part of American politics. President Richard Nixon, who in 1972 was the last Republican to carry Minnesota in a presidential race, defeated Minnesotan Hubert Humphrey four years earlier by appealing to the anxiety of voters amid violent Vietnam War protests, high-profile political assassinations and ensuing urban riots.
“It is time for an honest look at the problem of order in the United States,” Nixon somberly intoned in a campaign commercial that year, over images of bloodied protesters, helmeted police officers and burning buildings.
“If the Republicans can turn this into an election on law and order, that’s a battle that Democrats usually lose, just looking at the polling historically,” Minta said. “If you are Democrats and Joe Biden, you would much rather be talking about the president’s response to the coronavirus.”
Last October — almost a year before the election — Trump highlighted the city’s crime problems, inviting Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, to his rally at the Target Center. After Floyd’s death, Trump initiated his attacks on the city’s Democratic leadership moments after the Third Precinct station was torched: “When the looting starts,” he tweeted, “the shooting starts.”