(CHICAGO) — Brandon Johnson, a progressive who won the Windy City’s mayoral race against moderate Democrat Paul Vallas, and Janet Protasiewicz, who won an open seat on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court against GOP-aligned Dan Kelly, clinched victory with muscular support for top issues like abortion rights while fending off avalanches of attacks over their records on crime on Tuesday.
Their successes marked triumphs for a Democratic Party’s left wing beset by prominent wins by centrist candidates up and down the ballot in recent election cycles and incessant handwringing over Republican and moderate attacks on the “defund the police” slogan. But with their wins came warnings from Democratic centrists over reading tea leaves in light of recent setbacks in places like New York where candidates got pegged as soft on criminals.
“The fact that Brandon Johnson could go up against the ‘defund the police’ slogan that was hanging around his neck, go up against the [Fraternal Order of Police], I think it’s incredibly heartening for progressives,” said Joseph Geevarghese, the executive director of Our Revolution. “We don’t have to run away or be defensive on the issue of crime and public safety.”
Johnson and Protasiewicz’s opponents tried to peg each of them as soft on crime throughout their entire campaigns.
Vallas highlighted comments in which Johnson once said defunding the police was a “real political goal” and accused him of planning to slash the police department budget. Kelly, meanwhile, highlighted past sentences Protasiewicz handed down to suggest she was soft on violent criminals.
Johnson defended himself by saying he wouldn’t cut the Chicago Police Department’s budget and would seek to add 200 detectives. And Protasiewicz accused Kelly of cherrypicking her record while shifting much of the focus on abortion, an issue more favorable for her campaign.
“Crime didn’t take off because there was an issue that was more important for voters,” Scot Ross, a Democratic political strategist from Wisconsin said, referencing abortion.
Progressives pointed to those successful rebuttals to suggest that candidates no longer need to fear GOP attacks on crime.
Johnson’s campaign adviser, Bill Neidhardt, a former aide for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, argued both candidates’ approaches could be considered a model for both factions of the Democratic party in how to best approach the issue of crime in upcoming contests.
“I think what you saw in Brandon Johnson’s campaign is a blueprint for not only progressives, but Democrats across the country,” he said.
“This Republican attack [defund the police] comes against every single Democrat,” Neidhardt said. “And the way that you [win] is not only by brushing it aside and putting forth your own platform and public safety, but also connecting with people’s immediate concerns around health care, education, and the economy.”
And nationally, liberals were taking notes.
“To me the big headline is that voters keep showing up for candidates that have a people-first agenda are gonna fight for freedom,” said MoveOn Executive Director Rahna Epting.
Others in the party, however, urged progressives to pump the breaks.
The explosion in prominence of the “defund the police” mantra was blamed by centrist lawmakers for helping Republicans gain House seats in 2020 when they were expected to lose ground. And a near single-issue focus by GOP campaigns in New York last year helped Republicans flip four House seats in the state — wins that ended up being key in the party clinching control of the chamber.
Centrists also warned against over-extrapolating lessons from Chicago and Wisconsin given major victories by candidates who were laser focused on adding funding to police departments, including Joe Biden’s win in 2020 and New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ win in 2021, over candidates with more progressive platforms on criminal justice.
Veteran Democratic political strategist Joe Trippi, who advised Vallas’ campaign, pointed to the roughly 3-point margins in Chicago’s mayoral race, warning the party that if Johnson couldn’t romp in a Democratic stronghold like Chicago, a progressive candidate could struggle in more competitive areas.
“It’s not a complete embrace or rejection one way or the other…Brandon’s, win–he deserves credit. And so does his team. I’m just saying but reading into it is way over the top. What it really said was, there’s a deep division,” said Trippi.
“I don’t think that you’re gonna see anybody running in Georgia, Arizona, Montana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, running anywhere near the kind of rhetoric that Brandon Johnson used to narrowly win a race in Chicago,” Trippi said.
And while Protasiewicz sailed to victory with over 55% of the vote, Wisconsinites also passed with wide margins a GOP-backed constitutional amendment during Tuesday’s statewide election that would widen the criteria Wisconsin judges’ could view to consider setting cash bail and other, stricter conditions for releasing someone ahead of their trial.
“If Democrats let their guard down on crime, it will be a self-inflicted wound that will reverberate for many cycles,” added Jim Kessler, the executive vice president of the center-left Third Way think tank. “This destroyed us in 2020. It really did. Biden won, and there were no coattails. And certainly in 2022, we were paying the price in places like New York, and we were paying them in the suburbs, in the places where it’s less blue.”
Still, strategists saw in Tuesday’s results a possible middle ground between emphasizing only boosted funding or overhauling police departments — neither running away from crime nor embracing all of progressives’ demands.
Jon Reinish, a New York-based Democratic strategist, told ABC News there was “a bunch of PTSD” around Democrats’ losses in the state last year but that leveling with voters that crime is an issue and not dismissing their concerns could open an avenue for talking about reforms.
“I think that when Democrats tried to say, ‘well, crime isn’t really an issue,’ well, yes it is if people don’t feel safe on the subway and public transportation. But if you have a straightforward and frank conversation about what solutions look like and how policy turns into both safety and fairness, and you make that case in a strong way, then it can break through,” he said.
“When you do that, you are way less easy to demagogue,” Reinish said. “When you whistle past the graveyard, you can be easily attacked.”
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