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In their efforts to seize control of the House and Senate, Republicans around the country are attacking their Democratic opponents on criminal justice issues. The focus on "crime and safety" is an effort to shift attention away from abortion rights and "onto political terrain that many of the party’s strategists and candidates view as favorable."
Curt Anderson, a top strategist for National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRCC), said that crime is "the worst issue for the party in power." In September, Anderson said Republicans planned to attack Senator Raphael Warnock (D-GA), in particular, on crime.
One of the challenges of attacking any Democratic incumbent on crime is identifying a basis for the attack. Democrats have controlled Congress for two years and, for better or worse, have not done anything to reform the criminal justice system or reduce the power of law enforcement. Both the Senate and House have passed legislation, the Invest to Protect Act, that would provide tens of millions of additional funding to local police departments.
That didn't stop Republican candidates and the groups that support them from running 53,000 commercials on crime during the first three weeks of September. Over the same time period, "50 percent of all Republican online ads in battleground states…focused on policing and safety."
Currently, the Senate Leadership Fund (SFL), the Super PAC controlled by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), is running ads claiming that Warnock "chose felons over Georgia families."
The ad claims that Warnock voted "to send almost a billion in COVID relief checks to hundreds of thousands of convicted criminals in prison." There are similar attack ads currently being run against Democratic Senate candidates in Ohio and Florida. And the NRSC has made the same claim against Democratic Senate candidates in New Hampshire, Arizona, and Nevada.
These ads, however, are extremely deceptive. If Democrats "chose felons" over law-abiding families, so did almost every incumbent Republican Senator and former President Trump.
Since the start of the pandemic, there have been three rounds of direct COVID relief. The first round, the CARES Act, passed the Senate on a 96-0 vote. It provided stimulus checks of $1200 to individuals with earnings of $75,000 or less. It was signed into law by President Trump. There was no language in the legislation that excluded prisoners from receiving the checks.
The IRS began sending checks to people behind bars. But a month after the bill passed, the IRS shifted its position and issued guidance declaring prisoners ineligible. That guidance was challenged in a class action lawsuit. In October 2020, a federal judge ruled that "the IRS can’t keep withholding coronavirus relief payments from incarcerated people."
Two months after the federal ruling, Congress approved another round of COVID relief checks, this time for $600, as part the appropriations bill. The legislation, which was approved in the Senate by a vote of 92-6, included no provision excluding prisoners from receiving checks. An earlier version of the second round of COVID relief included such an exclusion, but the language was dropped.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) voted for both rounds of COVID relief checks without any exclusions for prisoners. He's now running ads against his opponent, Congresswoman Val Demmings (D-FL), that feature this image:
It wasn't until after Biden took office and proposed a third round of stimulus checks of $1,400 in March 2021 that Republicans in the Senate proposed an amendment that would exclude prisoners. It was defeated on a party-line vote. One of the sponsors, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), acknowledged that the amendment was proposed so it could be used to attack Democratic candidates. "Get ready for campaign ads," Cotton tweeted.
Why did Democrats vote against the amendment? Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) explained that it would have penalized the families of incarcerated people, including their children.
Mr. President, this amendment will cause harm to the families of incarcerated individuals, joint filers who would receive only half of the payment that the families are owed while the spouse is incarcerated… Children should not be forced to go hungry because a parent is incarcerated. Relief payments would allow families to replace lost income and pay rent and put food on the table.
In other words, COVID was particularly disruptive to families with only one breadwinner. So in voting against the restriction, Warnock and other Democrats are actually protecting the interests of the most vulnerable "Georgia families."
Another version of the ad targeting Congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH), who is running for Senate in Ohio, and Warnock further claims that vote for COVID relief resulted in "checks to [the] Boston Marathon Bomber."
Tsarnaev, however, never saw this money. He was issued a $1400 check but it was garnished and used to pay "outstanding criminal monetary penalties, including unpaid special assessment and restitution." Tsarnaev owes a total of $101 million in restitution.
Larry Nassar sexually abused hundreds of young women as the team physician for USA Gymnastics. Nassar received a $1400 check from the Biden-era relief program and a $600 check from the Trump-era program. He is also featured in some ads. But both of his checks were also garnished and distributed to his victims.
Who is paying for these ads?
Many of the misleading ads are financed by the SLF, McConnell's Super PAC. The SLF recently received a $3 million donation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents virtually every major corporation in the United States. Although the Chamber keeps its membership list secret, its board of directors includes representatives from FedEx, Bristol Myers Squibb, Facebook, AT&T, United Airlines, Abbott, 3M, Microsoft, Deloitte, Fidelity, Chevron, Intuit, Xerox, Pfizer, Dow, AllState, and Delta. The $3 million donation, which is helping finance these misleading ads, comes from dues paid by these and many other companies.
Ironically, the Chamber supported the third round of stimulus payments that are being attacked in these ads.
Other major donors to the SLF include Occidental Petroleum ($4 million), Chevron ($2.75 million), Rupert Murdoch ($2 million), Charles Schwab ($1.5 million), and the American Petroleum Institute ($1 million).