With violent crime on the rise in many parts of the US, Republicans see a winning strategy in portraying Democrats as soft on crime ahead of this year’s election. In ads, campaign appearances and interviews, the GOP has criticized liberal policies and blamed Democratic lawmakers from the White House to city halls for the violence.
But in Oklahoma, where Gov. Kevin Stitt is being targeted by mass commutations and a crime involving cannibalism, the attacks are different: Stitt is a Republican.
In one ad, a woman’s voice says that Stitt commuted the prison sentence of a man who later “brutally murdered his neighbor and then tried to feed his family with his organs.” The ad, paid for by a group called the Conservative Voice of America, concludes: “Oklamans deserve a governor who cracks down on violent criminals, not one who lets them go.”
Democrats have borne the brunt of the political blame for the rise in homicides and other violent crimes in recent years. In some cases, that has meant rolling back major criminal justice reforms or insisting they don’t want to defund police departments, as some activists have argued.
But now the attacks on some fellow Republicans are intensifying a split within the GOP between hardliners and conservatives who have moved to support alternatives to prisons, largely as a way to save money. Groups advocating various kinds of criminal justice reform fear the attacks could jeopardize significant changes that have taken place, many in heavily Republican states such as Oklahoma, which has one of the highest incarceration rates, and Texas.
“We had been seeing a kind of growing bipartisan consensus on the reforms,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. But that has become more difficult due to the increase in crime and politics.
“There are still some of those old holdouts who are just the ‘lock ’em up, throw away the key’ type,” Ring said. “They have always been there, and I think they have used the increase in crime to defend a return to that position by the party.”
Brett Tolman, executive director of the conservative criminal justice advocacy group Right on Crime, said “the charge of being weak on crime is thrown around very quickly,” causing “a lot of hesitation” in Congress. The former federal prosecutor said he now has to work with people mostly behind the scenes.
Republicans who support the changes say they can reduce crime and costs to taxpayers. When Stitt approved the 2019 mass commutation of more than 450 inmates in a single day, he said the release would save Oklahoma an estimated $11.9 million over the cost of keeping them behind bars. The commutations mainly benefited those convicted of drug possession or low-level property crimes.
Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, says his state saved billions of dollars by investing in alternative sentencing and closing prisons. He now defends Stitt, who is facing an avalanche of attack ads as he seeks a second term as Oklahoma governor.
“I see Texas reforms have proven to be tough on crime but soft on taxpayers, as any conservative policy should be,” Perry wrote in a newspaper column defending Stitt.
Attack ads targeting Stitt were paid for by dark money groups, which do not have to disclose their donors. Stitt is criticized for signing the parole of a man now accused of three murders, including those of a 4-year-old girl and a neighbor whose heart he cut out and tried to feed his relatives, according to authorities.
Donelle Harder, a spokeswoman for Stitt’s re-election campaign, said it’s unclear who is funding the groups.
“Undisclosed special interest groups are not conservative and they are not being honest about their intentions,” Harder said. “Gov. Stitt’s commitment to leading as a conservative political outsider is clearly upsetting a few.”
Trebor Worthen, a GOP political consultant who runs one of the dark money groups, Sooner State Leadership PAC, said he is dedicated to public safety and has raised $10 million. Worthen declined to identify specific donors.
“We are funded by business and community leaders who care deeply about our future and want to exercise their First Amendment rights to advocate for the policy changes Oklahoma needs and deserves,” Worthen said.
The issue has also come up in Nevada’s Republican gubernatorial primary. Former Sen. Dean Heller has criticized Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, saying he wants to defund the police. Lombardo told The Associated Press and other media outlets that he has no problem with his department losing funds if the money is used in another area that would benefit law enforcement.
“Who goes to NPR and says they want to defund the police?” Heller told a Nevada television station during an interview, comparing Lombardo to progressive Democrats who often draw the ire of conservatives, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “AOC, the Squad and Sheriff Lombardo. They are the ones who say that.”
In Illinois, Democrats who control state government scrambled this spring to provide more funding to law enforcement after passing major criminal justice reform last year that set strict standards for police behavior and eliminated bail. in cash from next year. Republicans have criticized the criminal justice legislation.
Among the most vocal critics is Republican gubernatorial candidate Richard Irvin, a former prosecutor and defense attorney who is now mayor of Aurora, a Chicago suburb. Irvin, who is facing several Republicans in the Republican primary, often touts his experience as a prosecutor while criticizing Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker.
However, the Democratic Governors Association and Irvin’s Republican rivals have questioned his tough-on-crime credentials. In an announcement, the DGA criticized Irvin’s work as a defense attorney, and other Republicans attacked Irvin, who is black, for voicing his support for Black Lives Matter.
An Irvin spokesman dismissed the attacks. Eleni Desmertzis said Pritzker is “running scared” and facing “a former criminal prosecutor, mayor tough on crime and a staunch supporter of law enforcement who has shown that he is not afraid to defend all lives in Illinois.”
Burnett reported from Chicago.