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Republicans use fear of crime as a wedge issue in Washington’s 8th

caption: Republican Matt Larkin is challenging Democrat incumbent Kim Schrier in the Congressional race for Washington's 8th District.
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Republican Matt Larkin is challenging Democrat incumbent Kim Schrier in the Congressional race for Washington's 8th District.

It’s the week before election day, and Audrey Muliawan and her 5-year-old son are headed into Issaquah's red brick city hall in the heart of Washington’s 8th Congressional District.

Muliawan, who said she’s “Asian Pacific Islander,” moved with her family to the area from Seattle in 2019. Muliawan said they wanted to escape a rising crime rate – a problem she believes has only worsened since then.

“The Seattle area definitely has a lack of police. If I’m going there now, I feel like I have to be a little bit more aware,” she said.

It’s just the sort of personal story that Republicans believe could help them flip Washington’s 8th District and take back control of the U.S. House this year.

Republicans are using crime as a wedge issue to attract voters in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community who live in 8th Congressional District.

Earlier this year, the Republican National Committee opened its first Asian Pacific American Community Center in Washington state in Issaquah, and crime was the focus of a public candidate outreach event at the center this fall.

In attendance at that event was Republican Matt Larkin, who is running against the 8th’s incumbent, Democrat Kim Schrier.

Larkin has made crime his signature issue. His campaign slogan dating back to the primary is “Make Crime Illegal Again.” One of Larkin’s attack ads (he approves this message) against Schrier features a fiery urban hellscape of criminality, scored with what sounds like a horror movie soundtrack.

“Radical defund the police activists are flooding Congresswoman Kim Schrier with cash, and what do they get in return? Exactly what they wanted: Criminals free in our communities, roaming the streets,” the narrator says.

To be clear: Schrier has never voted to defund the police or even said she supports the concept, and the "radical defund" groups backing her campaign mentioned in the ad include the Sierra Club and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Still, the Larkin campaign blames her for rising crime rates, often pointing to crime in Seattle (even though it’s not in the 8th Congressional District).

At the Republican outreach event in Issaquah this fall, Larkin tailored his message on crime to Asian American and Pacific Islander voters.

“People are concerned, and they feel like nobody is listening. Well, we're here today to tell the community that we are listening, we care, and we will do something about it,” Larkin said.

That language – of “caring” and “listening” – is a far cry from the xenophobic and racist rhetoric from the top ranks of the Republican party in recent years. During the height of pandemic, for example, President Trump called Covid-19, “Kung flu,” and “the Chinese virus.”

Then, last year, hate crimes against Asian-Americans spiked 339 percent, according to one report. That spike in hate crimes gave Republicans a political opening, according to Jake Grumbach, a professor of political science at the University of Washington.

They worked to recast the issue of hate crime against Asian American and Pacific Islanders as a part of, “a broader law and order based authoritarian appeal to create more order, in this perceived era of disorder," Grumbach said.

That appeal was often racially divisive, Grumbach said, pointing to conservative efforts on social media. Some highlighted viral videos of Black people attacking Asian American and Pacific Islanders.

It’s a "tried and true strategy" Grumbach said, to try to fracture the multiracial coalition within the Democratic party.

It's important to point out that the Asian American and Pacific Islander community is vast – over 13 million people are expected to be eligible to vote in 2022, according to Pew research. And it's diverse, with big political differences that sometimes correspond, in the case of first-generation immigrants, to their country of origin.

But, broadly speaking, most Asian American and Pacific Islander voters are Democrats who picked Joe Biden over Donald Trump by around two to one, which some analysts think may have "made the difference" in 2020.

To build on that support, this year Democrats are offering a different message on crime (and other issues).

Allen Chen, who oversees Asian American and Pacific Islander community engagement for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Democrats' approach is, “to meet the community where they are, hear their concerns, to develop legislation to address [hate crime], and to hold bad actors accountable.”

For her part, among other things, Kim Schrier has voted for tougher hate crime legislation in response to the spike last year, tougher gun safety laws, and more funding for local police.

Now it's up to the voters in the 8th to decide which candidate and which political party is the right one to represent them in Congress next year.

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