/In Minnesota and Beyond, ‘Defund the Police’ Weighed on Democrats

In Minnesota and Beyond, ‘Defund the Police’ Weighed on Democrats

MINNEAPOLIS—In the state where “defund the police” became a progressive rallying cry following the killing of George Floyd, the phrase is now being blamed for harming down-ballot Democrats both here and nationally after some suburban voters were repelled by the message.

President-elect Joe Biden easily carried Minnesota, but the push to cut police funding contributed to Democratic losses of a U.S. House seat in western Minnesota and six state Senate races, say political strategists here. They add that critical Republican ads that followed the defunding calls also hurt Democrats.

“It definitely impacted the regional results,” said Blois Olson, a communications strategist in Minnesota who publishes a newsletter about the state’s politics. “Republicans just hammered Democrats on ‘defund the police.’ ”

The outcomes in Minnesota were echoed elsewhere, too, as Republicans found success in local and congressional races by turning progressive slogans such as “defund the police” into political weapons. Some races have yet to be called, but Democrats might lose close to 10 U.S. House seats.

Clockwise from top: Carpenter Patrick Henry voted against Rep. Ilhan Omar this year, and said she ‘has a radical agenda’; retired nurse practitioner Elaine Barclay voted for the progressive Democrat, but has asked her to ‘tone it down’; a Minneapolis storefront.

After the election, House Majority Whip James Clyburn criticized calls to defund the police and suggested the phrase hurt Democrats in down-ballot races, specifically pointing to Rep. Joe Cunningham’s loss in South Carolina.

The defund theme is currently playing in television ads airing in Georgia as part of two runoff elections that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. In one sponsored by Republican incumbent Sen. David Perdue, the phrase is highlighted along with other liberal proposals as a narrator suggests they would “radically change America.”

The issue wasn’t enough to help President Trump in Minnesota, where he finished 7.1 percentage points behind Mr. Biden, even after heavily investing in the state. In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton defeated Mr. Trump in Minnesota by just 1.5 points.

But down-ballot in Minnesota and beyond, a different story played out. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a progressive Democrat who has sparred with Mr. Trump, received a vote share more than 15 percentage points lower than Mr. Biden’s. She supports dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department and reallocating its resources.

Biden Outperforms Omar

Joe Biden received a significantly larger share of the vote in Minnesota’s Democratic-leaning 5th Congressional District than Ilhan Omar, who was first elected there in 2018.

Difference between Joe Biden’s percentage of the vote and Rep. Ilhan Omar’s

A Wall Street Journal analysis of this year’s results shows Mr. Biden outperformed Ms. Omar by at least 10 percentage points in 88% of the 5th Congressional District’s precincts. His advantage was especially strong in suburban areas.

Patrick Henry, 62 years old, a carpenter who lives in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina, said he voted for Ms. Omar in 2018, but couldn’t this time, even as he backed Mr. Biden.

“To have somebody say she wants to defund the Minneapolis police, to me, is just irresponsible for a person in her position,” he said. “She has a radical agenda in that instead of trying to find solutions, she just wants to wipe it all clean.”

Edina is home to the precinct that produced the district’s largest gap in vote share between Mr. Biden and Ms. Omar, 67.9% to 39.6%.

Ms. Omar declined an interview request, but provided a statement through her spokesman that stressed work her campaign had done to help others on the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor ticket.

Minneapolis has been a national focus of criminal-justice issues since the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of police.

“In Minnesota, Black Lives Matter was on the ballot, George Floyd was on the ballot, and racial justice was on the ballot,” Omar spokesman Jeremy Slevin said in a written statement. “As a result we saw record turnout, a swing toward Democrats and gains in the suburbs. The lesson here is that we should not shy away from talking about these issues.”

In 2016, fewer than 4 percentage points separated Mrs. Clinton and then-Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat who is now the state’s attorney general, in the district. In both that election and this year’s contest there were three names on the ballot. In 2020, a year where turnout was up, Ms. Omar received about 6,000 more votes than Mr. Ellison did four years earlier.

The voting outcome in Minneapolis, a Democratic stronghold, in many ways exemplifies broader rifts within the party. The city has been a national focus of criminal-justice issues since the May 25 death of Mr. Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of police.

After George Floyd’s death, protesters across the country called on officials to defund the police. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday examines what the phrase means and how it might work. Photo: Ragan Clark / Associated Press

Since then, crime has risen sharply, exacerbating longstanding fault lines between community activists and elected officials. Memories are still fresh from summer protests that at times spun out of control and resulted in the takeover of a police precinct, fires and widespread looting. Residents are still blocking police from entering the intersection where Mr. Floyd was killed, an area covered with flowers, murals and messages spray-painted on streets.

So far this year, there have been 73 murders in Minneapolis and 3,425 car thefts, compared with 48 murders and 2,873 car thefts for all of 2019.

As violent crime spreads, the defund message is now viewed as a mistake by many, including those who want to see changes to policing.

“It was a catastrophe,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil-rights activist and lawyer in Minneapolis. She criticized city-council members for failing to engage with the Black community. “Within the Black community, we don’t have a rallying cry, per se, for no police,” she said.

Ms. Levy Armstrong said she supports shifting some resources from police to social services. “We spend far too much on law enforcement and criminal justice, without adequate accountability,” she said.

On Friday, several people outside a

Starbucks

in Edina said they wanted Mr. Biden to lead the country, but some were less comfortable with Ms. Omar, who has been trailed by several controversies.

Clockwise from top: A George Floyd memorial in Minneapolis; civil-rights activist Nekima Levy Armstrong considers the defund message to be ‘a catastrophe’; and graduate student Qui Alexander said hiring additional police would only criminalize more people.

Last year, Ms. Omar apologized for using language that was criticized as being anti-Semitic. This week, she said she was cutting ties with her husband’s political-consulting firm, after reports that her campaign paid the firm nearly $2.8 million.

Elaine Barclay, 71, a retired nurse practitioner, said she voted for Ms. Omar because she “didn’t see another option,” but she added that she sent a note to the congresswoman this year telling her to “tone it down.”

“We still need the police,” Ms. Barclay said. “We just need to figure out how to stop those things that happened to George Floyd.”

About 10 miles to the northeast, Ms. Omar got the highest percentage of votes in her district, with 88.2% of the total, in a precinct that includes a predominantly Black and low-income neighborhood.

Qui Alexander, 34, a graduate student in education at the University of Minnesota, said he voted for Ms. Omar and he thinks hiring additional police would only criminalize more people.

“I support defunding the police,” Mr. Alexander said. “A progressive agenda is just going to make sure people survive.”

Brian Peters, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said his organization has traditionally backed more Democrats than Republicans in the state’s legislative races. That changed in this year’s election, after Democrats pushed numerous pieces of state criminal-justice legislation.

“That signaled to us that they were coming after law enforcement,” Mr. Peters said. “We mounted a very aggressive stance and it hurt the Democrats considerably.”

Write to Kris Maher at kris.maher@wsj.com and John McCormick at mccormick.john@wsj.com

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