Election 2022

The Crime Backlash Mostly Failed To Materialize on Election Night

Apocalyptic attack ads about crime failed to drive a red wave, and criminal justice reform candidates were still successful in several local races around the country.


Despite predictions that rising violent crime would sink candidates that backed criminal justice reforms, those candidates mostly survived Tuesday night's elections, and reform-minded prosecutor and sheriff candidates even defeated incumbents in a few key races.

After the recall earlier this year of progressive San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, opponents of criminal justice reform were confident that voters' concerns over crime would translate into a national backlash—and polling seemed to back them up. In an ABC/The Washington Post poll released in late September, 52 percent of respondents favored the Republican Party to handle crime, compared to 38 percent for Democrats. A Greenberg Research survey this fall asked voters what they feared most if Democrats win full control of the government; 56 percent chose "crime and homelessness out of control in cities and police coming under attack."

But while rising crime created headwinds for candidates who supported criminal justice reform, the apocalyptic reaction never quite materialized.

Democratic New York Gov. Kathy Hochul survived a challenge by Republican candidate Lee Zeldin, despite attacks linking her to the state's bail reforms and an endless stream of New York Post headlines depicting New York City as a gore-soaked hellscape. It was still a very good night for New York Republicans, but not the red wave they were hoping for.

Bail reform backlash did appear in Ohio and Alabama, though. As Reason's Billy Binion reports, both states passed ballot initiatives restricting when defendants can be released on cash bail.

In Pennsylvania, Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman won, despite a barrage of Republican attacks on his criminal justice record, such as serving on the state's Board of Pardons, opposing mandatory life without parole sentences, and supporting progressive Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.

In Oregon, another state where Republicans were hoping crime, homelessness, and general dysfunction would propel them to the governor's seat for the first time since 1982, Democratic candidate Tina Kotek is narrowly leading her Republican opponent. The race has yet to be called, though.

Down the ballot is where things get more interesting.

In Los Angeles, dictatorial sheriff Alex Villanueva is trailing his challenger Robert Luna by a significant margin. Villanueva has been embroiled in a series of baroque scandals and drama for much of his tenure, using his powers to retaliate against whistleblowers, reporters, other city officials, and the inspector general's office that is supposed to oversee his department. Voters appear to have tired of the clown show.

And if you needed a literal sign of the times from Los Angeles:

Minneapolis voters elected Mary Moriarty, a career public defender, as their new district attorney. Moriarty defeated Holton Dimick, a former district court judge and prosecutor who complained to Mother Jones that "defund the police" rhetoric "was basically giving the criminal element in our city and across the county, the go-ahead and commit crimes sign."

Voters also showed the door to Massachusetts' longest-serving sheriff, Republican Tom Hodgson. Hodgson was recently described as the "Arpaio of the east," a reference to former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was infamous for degrading conditions and constitutional abuses within his jail. Hodgson's jail has been dogged by suicides and allegations of medical neglect and unsanitary conditions.

In King County, Washington, Leesa Manion held a comfortable lead over Jim Ferrell in the race for county prosecutor, as of last night. The Seattle Times reported that, while both served as prosecutors in the office, Ferrell has run on a platform of rolling back many of the reforms of the previous county prosecutor:

Ferrell campaigned on "resetting" an office he portrayed as having gone overboard on social justice reform. In particular, he criticized certain diversion programs offering alternatives to traditional prosecution and incarceration because they lack judicial oversight.

He also said thresholds for filing some types of cases, such as felony theft, are too low, and promised a review.

Not all progressive prosecutor candidates were successful. Civil rights attorney Pamela Price narrowly lost her bid to become district attorney in California's Alameda County.

Although every election is the result of its own very specific time and circumstances, one takeaway from Tuesday night is that criminal justice reform, as both a local and national issue, may not thrive during rises in crime, but it can survive.