WASHINGTON – Republicans relished attacking Democrats with the “defund the police” label during the 2020 election. What’s playing out in Minneapolis now could prove critical for a party still facing the fallout of that slogan.

As voters in the city decide the future of the Minneapolis Police Department, the political risks of the defund movement are coming into focus once more for Democrats heading into the critical 2022 midterm campaigns. It isn’t lost on some Democrats how the slogan was used nationally against the party by Republicans.

“We should have crafted a much better way of saying that we need to re-engineer policing,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, the former mayor of Kansas City, Mo. “We opened the door and they drove through.”

If Minneapolis voters approve the ballot measure in November, the city could create a new public safety agency without being held to the requirement to fund a minimum number of officers. While a yes vote doesn’t guarantee defunding the police, the head of the U.S. House GOP’s campaign arm is already pointing to Minneapolis while he undertakes a wide-ranging blitz to help Republicans retake the House majority next fall.

“We’ve won campaigns across the country in the last cycle as a direct result of this insanity,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. The Minnesota Republican added that “Minneapolis is just part of the problem.”

“You can look at Minneapolis, New York, Portland, you can pick your city, this is a Democrat issue,” Emmer said.

The “defund” slogan gained attention in the weeks following the police killing of George Floyd last year. Thirteen days after his death, nine Minneapolis City Council members stood on a stage in Powderhorn Park, the words “defund police” spelled out in front of them. Together, they promised to “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department.” The months that followed tested their commitment to that pledge, and some council members have increasingly sought to distance themselves from the “defund” message.

With Election Day about two weeks away, the ballot measure is dividing high-profile Democrats. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a prominent supporter, said he thinks the measure would make people safer. He opposes defunding the police and said the measure isn’t an attempt to do that, despite GOP attacks.

“What they’ve taken is essentially a hashtag, a provocative slogan, accused the Democrats of making it a program and now the Democrats who are afraid of that, they’re doing the worst thing by somehow crediting that,” said Ellison, a Minneapolis resident. “What I think they should do is say, nobody’s saying defund the police as a program. People are saying refund the community.”

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who lives in Minneapolis, and Gov. Tim Walz have come out against the measure. Other opponents point to the potential political fallout for Democrats if the question passes.

“I think it will have a negative effect on the party nationally,” said Sam Kaplan of Minneapolis, former U.S. ambassador to Morocco during the Obama administration. “Because people will say that the Democrats are not sensible when it comes to the basic issue of protecting the people.”

Cleaver, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, warned that Republicans are likely to use the larger defund attack line in 2022. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s accurate or not,” he said.

In the 2020 election cycle, Democrats lost U.S. House seats but still held onto the majority in the chamber and took control of the Senate with the narrowest of margins. In 2022, Republicans have a prime opportunity to win back power. Democrats face tough odds, given how the party of the president typically struggles in the midterms.

The decision facing Minneapolis voters comes at a pivotal moment in the national police reform debate. Eric Adams, a retired police captain, became the Democratic nominee for mayor of New York City earlier this year and opposes the defund movement. Democratic President Joe Biden has said he does not support defunding the police. During his first year in office, Biden championed Democrats’ stalled federal police reform legislation named after Floyd.

That hasn’t stopped Republicans from throwing the defund label at Democrats.

During a recent rally in Iowa, former President Donald Trump used Minneapolis as an example to rile up the crowd, telling them that “with the Republicans, there’ll be no defunding of the police,” as his supporters cheered.

“You see in Minnesota, Minneapolis. They’re not doing too well,” Trump said. “They defunded the police and they cut it and it’s a disaster.”

The Minneapolis Police Department’s funding has fluctuated since Floyd’s killing. MPD entered 2020 with a $193 million budget, enough to employ 888 officers. After the pandemic forced city leaders to trim spending citywide and some council members pushed to shift police funding to other city services, the department began 2021 with a $164 million budget. Over several months, city leaders added money to the Police Department, taking money from a public safety reserve fund and from dollars the city received from the Biden-led federal relief package.

With that backdrop, Democratic U.S. Rep. Angie Craig publicly opposes the Minneapolis policing ballot measure even though she doesn’t live in or represent Minneapolis. Craig, who represents a nearby swing seat Republicans are eager to win, said the measure is “not fully thought through as a plan and it’s bad politics.” While she doesn’t describe it as a defunding effort, she is concerned by the vagueness of the proposal.

With 2022 looming, Craig said she also feels that Emmer, her fellow Minnesotan on the other side of the political spectrum, will do all he can to associate the defund movement with every Democrat.

“I think it’s toxic,” Craig said of the defund slogan. “I think the words themselves are toxic to Democrats across the country and in front-line districts like myself, because it doesn’t acknowledge the nuance of we need our police officers and our first responders to protect our communities. And we need them to police our communities in a fair and equitable way.”

Opposition from Craig and the state’s DFL governor hasn’t deterred Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who represents Minneapolis, from backing the question.

“I just really can’t understand how people will disregard the needs and the desires of a whole city because it is politically expedient for them,” Omar said. “We are not to be used as a political football. Our city has gone through a lot.”

Staff writer Liz Navratil contributed to this report.

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