The hidden key to the midterms: the police vote

Popular “What happened?” diagnoses include then–FBI Director James Comey’s letter, the Russians or a lack of visits to Wisconsin. But Jeff Roorda says the turning point of 2016 came on night two of the Democratic National Convention. “The minute that Michael Brown’s mother walked out on stage, Hillary Clinton lost that election.”

Wearing an orange polo shirt and slacks, 53-year-old Roorda leans back in an office chair at the Saint Louis Police Officers Association. His title is “business manager,” but he’s unofficially a lightning rod — for his aggressive critique of Ferguson protesters and defense of local cops such as Darren Wilson, who was not charged in Brown’s 2014 shooting death. The case sparked street battles between police and protesters that have left deep scars in the region.

Roorda is also a lifelong Democrat who has served in the Missouri state legislature and is running for county executive this year in bellwether suburban Jefferson County. He says Clinton’s biggest error came in embracing the mother of someone who tried to kill a police officer. “The most persuadable voters in this country live in suburban communities around large cities,” Roorda says. “Your blue-collar working-class men and your soccer moms are a very persuadable class of voter, and they also tend to be very pro-police.”

Donald Trump assiduously courted the law-and-order vote in 2016, earning an endorsement from the national Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). At a time when police shootings and viral videos of cops behaving badly were sparking rolling, racially charged protests — most recently in Sacramento following the death of Stephon Clark — Trump channeled the emotions of a group that felt under threat. New research shows that Trump swung tens of thousands of votes and flipped at least one state on the backs of cops alone.

Now that law-and-order vote is up for grabs again for this year’s Missouri Senate contest and other critical races around the country. The Democratic Party is fielding multiple candidates with law-enforcement backgrounds. In close races, some Democrats are steering clear of contentious debates that pit cops against Black voters. But wooing two conflicting constituencies can backfire: What if neither trusts you? Republicans, on the other hand, want to hold on to a pillar of their 2016 coalition. In a year when Democrats are widely expected to make gains in Congress, one question is leaving some among them uneasy: Will the boys in blue block the blue wave in 2018?

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At the moment, the law-and-order vote is for the Republican Party to lose. Harvard researcher Michael Zoorob found that police officer political engagement jumped from 2012 to 2016 on volunteering for a campaign, displaying a political sign and donating money, while the general public was less engaged. His research analyzed the Trump law-enforcement phenomenon in a paper he has submitted for publication. Zoorob found that places where police unions are strongest had the biggest shift from Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, to Trump. Critically, his analysis found the police mobilization effect accounted for more than 13,000 votes in Michigan — greater than Trump’s narrow margin of victory over Clinton — and more than 27,000 votes in Pennsylvania.

Zoorob, a graduate student in the school of government, attributes this to the way Trump talked about the police. “Those peddling the narrative of cops as a racist force in our society — a narrative supported with a nod by my opponent — share directly in the responsibility for the unrest in Milwaukee, and many other places within our country,” Trump said in an August 2016 speech in a mostly white Wisconsin suburb, shortly after a police shooting in nearby Milwaukee. “They have fostered the dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America.”

A month later, the FOP, the nation’s largest police union, endorsed Trump. The union did not endorse in 2012, freezing out Romney for supporting an Ohio bill that would have sapped power from public employee unions. In office, Trump has continued his pro-police rhetoric — notably encouraging law enforcement officers to be “rough” on suspects in a speech in Long Island last year — and delivered a policy win by giving them more access to military surplus equipment, which the Obama administration had restricted in the wake of the shooting and subsequent unrest in Ferguson.

But Democrats are hardly ceding the law-and-order constituency. At least six former federal prosecutors are running as Democrats for the U.S. House this year, according to a Wall Street Journal tally. And the political calculations are far more complicated in a midterm year. Rather than a national group mobilizing its members in support of one name at the top of the ticket, a hodgepodge of local and state races will raise myriad issues. “For police unions concerned about wages, pensions, that kind of thing, Democrats can be more favorable,” Zoorob says. “It’s about local politics. It’s a different ballgame.”

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In Missouri’s Senate race, one of the closest in the country, two-term incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, 64, and Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley, 38, are both courting the FOP endorsement. McCaskill was a well-regarded prosecutor in Kansas City in the 1990s who says the local FOP approached her at one point about being the organization’s attorney. “I have got a long history of working with police officers,” she says. “And I want to make sure that we have enough money for law enforcement that they can get back to community policing, that they can build up trusting relationships in the communities that are most stressed by crime.” Hawley — McCaskill’s likely GOP opponent this fall — stresses his position as the state’s chief law-enforcement officer and tough-on-crime stance when it comes to immigration.

McCaskill’s outreach to law enforcement is part of her appeal to swing voters, but it risks blowback in the Black community. Cori Bush was drawn to the Ferguson protests as a nurse and minister, aiding the marchers and providing trauma counseling. At night she often joined them, and she well remembers the tear gas and beatings she endured. And she remembers McCaskill keeping her distance. “Every single thing that happened out there, I feel like her voice could have made a change in it,” says Bush, who is now running in a long-shot Democratic primary against her local congressman in Saint Louis, William Lacy Clay. “It’s hard for me to go out and rah-rah-rah Claire McCaskill, because I have never known her to really be in the community, this community anyway, outside of when it’s time for her to run.”

But McCaskill was on the ground in the early days of the Ferguson protests, calling for federal intervention in the simmering scene. In the aftermath, she pushed to limit military surplus for local police and for more body cameras on officers. McCaskill — who has faced persistent griping from Black elected leaders in recent months about taking African-American communities for granted — tries to bridge the gap when asked if the Ferguson scars are still fresh. “Most of the people in law enforcement and most of the people who were protesting in Ferguson want there to be a trusting relationship,” she says. “They want the support and protection of law enforcement. But that means we have to be careful and make sure that there’s not unfair profiling. And that’s what we all want, including all of the great police officers I know.”

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Keeping both sides happy in polarized times is tough. McCaskill, in trying to hold a state that Trump won by 19 percentage points, can’t rely on the Democratic base alone. She needs the cop vote and the Black vote to survive.

“There will be a lot of elections for a lot of years to come where candidates will have to answer the question: Which side were you on in Ferguson?” Roorda says. “That seems like a stark way to ask that question, but that’s just the political reality. Voters do see these things in a very black-and-white way.”

Roorda doesn’t get that question, given his prominence — he admits his frequent cop-defending appearances on CNN and Fox News gave him a local reputation as a “media whore,” though he wanted to make sure a law-enforcement voice was heard — as he runs for county executive as a pro-gun, pro-life centrist Democrat. But he does dodge another critical question about which side he was on in 2016. Did he vote for Donald Trump? “Um,” Roorda grins. “I’d rather not say.”

This story was originally published on June 18, 2018 by OZY.

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