‘Defund the police’ attack doesn’t stick in New Mexico special election. Why it matters

Democrat Melanie Stansbury’s landslide win in New Mexico’s special congressional election Tuesday, against a Republican rival who largely ran on policing, could boost her party heading into next year’s midterm elections, when Democrats are worried about losing seats and giving up their congressional majority.

State Rep. Stansbury will fill the open congressional seat vacated by Secretary of the Interior Deb Halaand in March. Stansbury will represent New Mexico’s first congressional district after beating her Republican rival State Sen. Mark Moores. 

Democrats shy about campaigning on the concept of defunding police departments may find encouragement in the results New Mexico’s special election, particularly as history suggests an uphill battle in the 2022 midterms. And with only a single-digit majority in the House, and an evenly split Senate, Democrats have little room to spare.

Moores positioned himself as the pro-police candidate compared to Stansbury’s more reformative stance, reflecting national concerns about policing in the wake of killings of people of color by police and nationwide protests in favor of Black lives. 

Over 1,100 people were killed by police in 2020, the same year George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man, died after white ex-police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for more than 9 minutes. Chauvin was convicted of murder in April.

Funding law enforcement was one of Moores’s key campaign issues.

Defund the police attacks didn’t work

Moores repeatedly tried to connect Stansbury to national calls to defund the police, a contentious issue among voters.

“Think about who’s in federal prison right now: El Chapo, the co-founder of al Qaeda, the Oklahoma City bomber, the Unabomber,” Moores told Republican voters at a  luncheon last month. “That is how radical this agenda is, and we have to stop it.”

In one attack ad by Moores’s campaign, a voice over set against a photo of Stansbury said that “Melanie Stansbury supports the most dangerous legislation in America,” and suggested “murders, rapists and child molesters” will walk free as a result. The legislation in question, the BREATHE Act, seeks to reform U.S. policing.

But Moores’s attacks failed to deter voters’ enthusiasm for Stansbury. The Democrat beat her Republican opponent by more than 30,000 votes – nearly 25 percentage points.

Proving ground for 2022 midterms

The Washington Post reported in May that Democrats, looking ahead to the 2022 midterm elections, determined that Republican attack ads on defunding the police were more effective than expected.

But news and polling site FiveThirtyEight noted that the New Mexico election was “the first head-to-head match up between a Democrat and a Republican for a congressional seat in Joe Biden’s presidency.” Stansbury’s “comfortable margin could be a positive sign for Democrats headed into the 2022 midterm elections.”

And Jaime Harrison, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, was up front about labeling Stansbury’s victory a warning to the GOP next year.

“This victory should serve as a cautionary tale to Republicans across the country,” Harrison said in a statement. “President Biden and Democrats are offering a bold agenda to build our country back better, delivering on their promises, and getting our country back on track — it’s going to be an easy choice for the American people come these midterm elections.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

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