By the time Republicans were done with Sharice Davids in 2018, she barely recognized herself. In ads that blanketed her suburban Kansas City district during her congressional race, she was portrayed as “the candidate of the liberal mob,” an enemy of the police, a threat to children, and an ally of “radical left-wing protesters.”
As flabbergasted as she was by the strategy then, she said she was surprised Republicans were at it again, only this time in the presidential election.
“It didn’t work last time,” said Ms. Davids, who won her race by 10 points and is favored to be re-elected to a second term in November. As a former mixed martial arts fighter who learned the importance of developing new techniques in combat, she said her opponents’ attacks seem stale. “I haven’t seen any evolution. The skill set looks the same.”
President Trump is using a fear-based playbook that is as familiar to him as it is questionable in actually helping Republicans get elected in recent years. Some of the players have changed — instead of MS-13 gang members and migrant caravans, now there are rioters and looters — but the target audience and themes are the same: suburban communities that he claims Democrats won’t keep safe. The president is even reusing phrases and imagery from 2018, with slogans like “jobs not mobs” and ads showing Democratic politicians and liberal figures kneeling during the national anthem.
Democrats can point to the 41 House seats they picked up in 2018 to show that the Republican strategy did not work then, and that voters were more concerned about health care than havoc. Even Republicans say there is no solid evidence in their polling that proves the president’s tactics are helping him today.
But behind their confidence, Democrats acknowledge a real risk that Mr. Trump and Republicans could benefit by casting former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the Democratic Party as indifferent to the violence and unrest that has shaken cities across the country, especially in the Midwestern suburbs in Wisconsin and Minnesota where it is not so distant and abstract.
And as the president made clear during a news conference on Monday, he is trying to blame his opponents for far more than that, with unfounded claims that “radical socialist Democrats” would “immediately collapse the economy” and cause “countless deaths from suicide, substance abuse, depression, heart disease” by keeping coronavirus lockdowns in place.
Fear — over crime, street violence, funding cuts to police departments or economic security — resonates with suburban voters of all demographics, said Dan Sena, a Democratic strategist who oversaw the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s strategy to win the House in 2018. “Democrats need to be in a place where they acknowledge the fear that comes with that and put the issue to bed. Then people are willing to listen to you,” Mr. Sena said. “But if you ignore the problem, then you open the door for the Republican strategy to work.”
Republicans point to Minnesota’s First Congressional District as an example of how the playbook can work. The Democratic candidate in 2018, Dan Feehan, narrowly lost after a scorching ad campaign. Ads from Republicans and their outside groups depicted him alongside images of a kneeling Colin Kaepernick and grimacing Hispanic men covered in tattoos, meant to evoke stereotypes of hardened criminals.
When Mr. Trump stopped to campaign in the district last month — he lost Minnesota in 2016 by only 44,000 votes and sees it within reach again this year — he claimed that Mr. Biden would “abolish the suburbs” and “pass legislation gutting every single police department in America.”
Nick Frentz, a Democratic state senator who represents Mankato, Minn., the city about 80 miles south of Minneapolis where Mr. Trump spoke, said he was proud to list endorsements from local law enforcement agencies at the top of his campaign materials in his last election. Mr. Frentz said that Republicans cannot be allowed to conflate the movement to raise awareness about racial inequalities in policing with the anarchists who have exploited it.
“What I’m encouraging people to do is get out in front of it,” Mr. Frentz said of his fellow Democrats and the issue of public safety, which is especially prominent in his district given its closeness to the city that became the epicenter for demonstrations against racial injustice this summer after a Minneapolis police officer was seen on video kneeling on the neck of George Floyd until he died.
It has also erupted as a point of division in the fight for control of the State Senate this year, which Republicans control by just two votes. Mr. Frentz pointed to campaign mail from Republicans that claims Democrats want to “defund the police and destroy the rule of law” next to a picture of a building in flames. “That’s false,” he said. “We have 110 Democrats in the state legislature — not a one calling to defund police departments.”
The suburbs helped propel Democratic gains in 2018, suggesting that if voters were motivated by fear, it wasn’t gangs and migrant invasions they were worried about. Concerns about crime then and now are real, Mr. Sena said, “But not any scarier than the idea of someone taking away their health care.”
Republicans believe otherwise. The looting and property destruction that damaged more than 1,500 buildings and businesses across the Twin Cities and spread to other major metropolitan areas provided instant grist for Mr. Trump, Republicans and conservative media. Ignoring the fact that these bursts of violence were relatively isolated amid the mass demonstrations that drew millions of Americans from Whitefish, Mont., to Miami — and aware that many Democrats were loath to be seen as critical of the broader movement for racial justice — the president and his allies focused on the unrest often to the exclusion of anything else.
And then they accused Democrats of failing to condemn the unrest.
Republican strategists said their research showed a vulnerability for Mr. Biden with swing voters: the belief, advanced frequently and misleadingly by Mr. Trump, that Mr. Biden is overly susceptible to influence from the far left.
What followed was some of the bleakest and dystopian messaging of the campaign so far, with Trump campaign ads featuring fictitious unanswered calls to 911 because of cuts to public safety. An ad that went out in July shows a man prying open the door to an elderly woman’s home with a crowbar. When she reaches 911, a recording tells her, “Leave a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.” The man approaches, and the camera cuts away to a shot of the phone lying on the ground.
Corry Bliss, a Republican strategist who oversaw the political group that made many of the ads targeting Democrats as soft on crime in 2018 and is consulting on G.O.P. races this year, said the strategy is clearly hitting a nerve this time — with voters and Mr. Biden.
“The most telling thing is not what the Republican Party is doing, but what Joe Biden and the Democrats are doing. And they are clearly scared to death that they’re out of step with the American people,” Mr. Bliss said.
Since the phrase “defund the police” first became a mantra among some progressive activists, Mr. Biden has distanced himself from it, saying that while he supports the need for overhauling policing practices, he opposes across-the-board cuts to law enforcement budgets. So do most voters and Democratic Party leaders. But the pressure on the Biden campaign to explain in a more detailed way how Mr. Biden would approach public safety as president, and specifically what he thought about the riots that followed the police shooting late last month in Kenosha, Wis., that left a Black man partially paralyzed, was evident last week.
Mr. Biden gave a speech on the issue, which his campaign quickly turned into an ad. “I want to make it absolutely clear,” he says in the ad, an apparent acknowledgment that there are people who believe he has not been. “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted.”
In Minnesota, the Trump campaign started running a new ad that opens with a jarring juxtaposition. “Lawless criminals terrorized Minneapolis. Joe Biden takes a knee,” the announcer says as an image of Mr. Biden kneeling during a meeting at a Black church appears, superimposed over video of a burning building.
“It started here, sadly,” said Jason Lewis, a candidate for United States Senate who is challenging the Democratic incumbent, Senator Tina Smith. “But the Democrats have overreached. And because of their initial refusal to condemn the riots and to stand down and to not do something about public safety, they own this.”
Mr. Lewis’s campaign conducted a poll last week showing him within two points of his opponent and Mr. Trump down three points.
But Mr. Trump’s gravitational pull is everything in Republican politics, as Mr. Lewis acknowledged. In 2018, he lost his suburban Minneapolis House seat to a Democrat. “With this guy, you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound,” he said. And as much as some voters might be appalled at the street violence, Mr. Trump is taking the wrong approach to winning them over, some Republicans said.
“He actually is talking about issues that people care about, but he’s using language that makes it less effective,” said Frank Luntz, a veteran adviser to Republican campaigns who has been critical of the president.
“The problem with ‘law and order,’ if you ask voters they will tell you they think of cops hitting protesters over the head, and nobody wants that. Trump is using the language of 1968, and it’s 2020,” Mr. Luntz said.
With more Democrats speaking the language of law enforcement, Republicans may find their approach even less effective. From Kansas, Ms. Davids spoke of being raised by a mother who served in the Army and then worked for a time in law enforcement. She said she has attended rallies for racial justice and sat down with police leaders. Somewhere in between, she said, is where most Americans are.
“I do think that there are a lot of people who really want us to have the conversation about racial justice and who really want us to be thoughtful about how we allocate our resources to police,” she said.