California's Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has been branded by Republicans...

California's Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has been branded by Republicans as "soft on crime," and the issue has reportedly held down Newsom’s approval ratings. Credit: AP/Rich Pedroncelli

Violence, crime, and disorder form a national political flashpoint this season in races for governor — not just here but elsewhere.

The partisan lines of debate are generally similar across America. Republicans sound alarms and promise more safety. Democrats vow to fight gun proliferation, pivoting away from an earlier emphasis on their efforts to stem overincarceration, and address racial inequities in criminal justice.

In New York, the GOP targets Democrats’ bail reform, speedy-trial rules, raise-the-age laws, and restrictions on judges’ discretion. For Republicans, linking unacceptable levels of violence and disorder to the record of the dominant party in Albany is a messaging must.

Then there’s Arkansas, where violent crime spiked in 2020 to its highest levels in three decades — and where the Republican Party has been in firm control of the offices of governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and both chambers of the State Legislature for most of the past 10 years.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a prominent Republican in office since 2015, is leaving due to term limits. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, daughter of former Arkansas GOP Gov. Mike Huckabee, is running to succeed him. To address this red-state crime wave, she vows tougher parole conditions and support for cops. Democrat Chris Jones emphasizes gun safety, mental illness services, and an overall need to better address social causes of crime.

Campaign issues are naturally emotional, specific, and narrow.

Shunted to the background are deeper questions. Are politically motivated massacres, the senseless shoving of commuters onto subway tracks, criminal gang crossfire, the insane stabbing death of FDNY paramedic Lt. Alison Russo, and instances of unchallenged daylight store looting all part of one governance issue? And why a crime surge in rural areas of red states?

One could talk about pandemic disruptions, less aggressive policing, internet influences, and a growing sense of contempt for civic authority. For now, we face the realities of campaigns.

The Minnesota governor’s race reflects the events of May 2020. Former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin is serving 21 years for the murder of unarmed detainee George Floyd, which sparked riots, arson, and looting. The city council vowed to defund the police — thus awarding Republicans a tactical gift that keeps giving.

“Defund” fever dissipated quickly. Department funding increased. Now, seeking a new term, Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, cites his directing of the Minnesota State Patrol to supplement local efforts in key areas of the Twin Cities. Law enforcement was beefed up at light rail stops. Walz’s GOP opponent Scott Jensen says it isn’t enough; he urges tougher sentencing for violent offenders and a stronger focus on carjacking.

Crime in Baltimore has generated unusual heat in the Maryland elections. In Arizona, where term-limited Republican Doug Ducey has been governor since 2015, officials from both parties have struggled with the fact that murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault rose faster and remained higher in recent years than the national rate.

A GOP-led recall effort against California Gov. Gavin Newsom failed by a wide margin last year, despite a campaign to brand the Democrat as “soft on crime.” But the issue has reportedly held down Newsom’s approval ratings.

In a debate this week, Illinois Gov. Jay Pritzker disputed Republican challenger Darren Bailey’s assertion that fighting disorder must start with a tighter Mexican border and with ending Chicago’s status as a “sanctuary city.”

Nowhere can incumbents rely on the alibi that crime once was worse. All of this illustrates how the national parties follow policy playbooks, adaptable to the circumstances of each state. That goes for both sides on abortion, fossil fuels, public health measures — and, with increasing visibility, crime and violence.

Columnist Dan Janison's opinions are his own.