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Republicans in competitive contests for the House and Senate are attacking their Democratic opponents by claiming the Democrats support defunding the police — even when they don’t.
Other attacks go after Democrats with connections to groups that support the concept, or claim they haven’t disavowed defunding efforts.
Republicans running for Congress on Nov. 3 are using a proposal that has emerged from nationwide protests — defunding the police — to attack their Democratic opponents, according to a PolitiFact review.
Claims that Democrats support defunding the police have been made in at least 13 of the 18 pivotal House and Senate contests that PolitiFact is tracking.
The ones we’ve checked have fared poorly on our Truth-O-Meter.
In Arizona’s Senate race, for example, GOP Sen. Martha McSally claimed Democratic challenger Mark Kelly wants to "defund the police." That claim is Pants on Fire. Kelly, the son of two police officers, has opposed defunding police departments while calling for other changes.
Calls for defunding the police followed the death of George Floyd, who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis. The phrase doesn’t necessarily mean supporters want to eliminate police departments entirely, though some do. Others want to reexamine the functions of police departments and redirect some of their funding to other services.
Over the summer, President Donald Trump repeatedly tied Democratic nominee Joe Biden to the idea, even though Biden does not support cutting police funding.
Similar political attacks have played out in races in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Maine and California, to name a few. Political scientists said there’s a good reason why.
"The slogan alone allows many people — understandably — to think that the police will lose all of their funding or at least a lot of it," said Samuel Walker, professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. "This only encourages understandable public fears that their neighborhoods will lose police protection and leave them vulnerable to crime."
Experts see the GOP message as persuasive with at least some voters in all states.
"It appeals to voters who value ‘law and order’ and a racial hierarchy but do not want to grapple with the historical legacies and present-day manifestations of policing," said Nadia Brown, a Purdue University professor of political science and African American studies.
Here’s a smattering of claims from races in which opponents have been accused of wanting to "defund" the police.
In Maine, GOP Sen. Susan Collins claimed in an ad that Democrat Sara Gideon "says she doesn’t want to defund the police, but she already voted to defund them." Our rating: False. As a town council member in Freeport, Maine, Gideon voted to consolidate Freeport’s police dispatch services with a neighboring community, saving the town money. Gideon actually voted for higher police budgets as a town council member.
The "defund" claims surfaced in two competitive races in Pennsylvania. In the 8th District, Republican Jim Bognet said Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright "proposes to defund the Wilkes-Barre police." In the 10th District, GOP Rep. Scott Perry said Democratic challenger Eugene DePasquale supports defunding.
Similarly, California GOP Rep. Mike Garcia said Democrat Christy Smith is "supporting the defunding of our local law enforcement." In a special election for the seat held by Georgia GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler, Loeffler said leading Democratic candidate Raphael Warnock "is now openly embracing the defund the police movement." Warnock has said he opposes defunding the police.
Some attacks don’t go quite as far, but appear to be aimed at capitalizing on fears over defunding the police.
In Georgia, Republican Karen Handel predicted on Twitter along these lines, claiming Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath of the 6th District will "defund the police." (We rated Handel’s related claim that McBath "is supporting those who attack the police" as False.)
Asked why Republicans have focused on the issue, Handel campaign spokesman Brian Robinson told PolitiFact: "Americans have watched cities burn and crime spike. They’re worried. The swing voters who determine these close elections are horrified by the rhetoric they hear from the left."
McBath campaign spokesman Jake Orvis called it a distraction: "National Republicans, led by President Trump, are trying desperately to scare Americans into talking about anything that isn’t the historic failures we have seen the last four years."
Other attacks have taken a more indirect approach that falls into two categories: guilt by association or a failure to denounce the movement. Some of the attacks have some basis.
Guilt by association: Some Republican candidates took their opponents to task for views shared by their donors or supporters.
Loeffler went after Rep. Doug Collins, her chief GOP rival in the special election, by claiming that "the same big tech corporations that have donated hundreds of thousands" to him over the years "are now funding the defund the police movement." She cited an article that said corporations including Microsoft and Cisco have given money to groups such as the Black Lives Matter Global Network. Separately, she has also said Collins’ campaign contributions over his years in Congress include $30,000 from Microsoft.
In a House race in Maine, Republican Dale Crafts claimed that "there are extreme liberals who want to defund the police" and Democratic Rep. Jared Golden "sides with them." Golden has said calls for defunding the police are "the wrong approach."
In New York, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC that works to elect Republicans to the House, claimed that Democrat Jackie Gordon’s "supporters want to defund police." It cited Gordon’s support by the Working Families Party, which supports the defund movement. Gordon is running against Republican Andrew Garbarino for the seat being vacated by GOP Rep. Peter King.
There are more: In a race for an open seat being vacated by Texas GOP Rep. Pete Olson, Republican Troy Nehls claimed that Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni "has taken thousands from groups actively pushing to defund the police." And in Virginia, the National Republican Congressional Committee, which works to elect Republicans to the House, said Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger "has ties to radical Virginia Democrats and groups trying to defund the police."
Won’t denounce: In some races, the line of attack is about what the candidates haven’t said.
The Missouri Republican Party claimed that Democrat Jill Schupp, who is challenging Missouri GOP Rep. Ann Wagner, is "refusing to denounce the defund the police movement." Schupp has said she does not support defunding the police, though she’s been supported by Indivisible, a progressive group that supports the proposal. And in Montana, GOP Sen. Steve Daines said his Democratic challenger, Gov. Steve Bullock, has "been silent while left-wing radicals try to defund our police." Bullock has said he opposes defunding the police.
RELATED STORY: ‘Defund the police’ movement: What do activists mean by that?
RELATED FACT-CHECK: No, Joe Biden isn’t 'on board with defunding police'
RELATED FACT-CHECK: Ad Watch: Kamala Harris doesn’t want to ‘defund, dismantle and dissolve’ the police
PolitiFact research and PolitiFact fact-checks as noted
Email, Lucy McBath campaign spokesman Jake Orvis, Oct. 20, 2020
Email, Karen Handel campaign spokesman Bryan Robinson, Oct. 20, 2020
Email, Samuel Walker, professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Oct. 22, 2020
Email, Nadia Brown, Purdue University professor of political science and African American studies, Oct. 22, 2020