Former deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee Keith Ellison was reelected as Minnesota’s attorney general in November. His Republican challenger, Jim Schultz deployed a tough-on-crime campaign, hoping to capitalize on Ellison’s support of Black Lives Matter and the movement to defund the police.
Schultz’s campaign mirrored that of many Republicans across the country hoping to inflame fears in the suburbs of rising crime in America’s urban centers. In New York, Lee Zeldin relentlessly criticized Governor Kathy Hochul for her support of bail reform measures in New York City, amid numerous high-profile assaults in the city’s subway system. Keith Ellison, however, doubled down on his reform-driven campaign, calling for an expanded definition of public safety that includes consumer protections and poverty alleviation.
In the eyes of Republicans, Keith Ellison was an easy target. While Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith declined to support “defunding the Minneapolis Police Department,” Ellison, along with Representative Ilhan Omar, supported it. And Minnesota voters did ultimately reject Question 2, which would have created a “department of public safety” in lieu of the Minneapolis Police Department, with 56 percent of voters deciding against the measure.
While defunding the police was unpopular during the election, especially among white voters, Ellison nevertheless pointed to his history as a progressive attorney general, leading the prosecution of Derek Chauvin who was convicted of murdering George Floyd and spearheading a working group on police-involved deadly force encounters. As Ellison listed priorities for his upcoming term, he focused on “[Minnesota’s] statewide expungement program, where people who have committed crimes…have an opportunity to dream of a second chance.”
Ellison’s campaign performance, though ultimately successful, was lackluster, while Minnesota voters reelected Tim Walz as governor and Democrats gained control of the Senate. It is possible that Jim Schultz’s tough-on-crime rhetoric was persuasive to voters skeptical of Ellison’s progressive record. However, the Schultz campaign also came under intense scrutiny for its use of racist, fear-based ads. Faith in Minnesota Action organized a letter signed by over 90 clergy members in Minnesota who denounced the Schultz campaign’s advertisements.
In one ad, an actor playing an incarcerated individual is heard saying, “Hey, I want you to know why the inmates are supporting Attorney General Keith Ellison. Keith Ellison supports us. He praised a cop killer and even asked a crowd to help free this woman who put bombs on cop cars.” The ad concludes with, “Keith Ellison: the criminal’s choice for attorney general.” While Schultz’s campaign could not be reached for comment, Ellison called the advertisement “a tremendous disservice to meaningful public policy.” The Schultz campaign is also currently under investigation by the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board for illegal coordination with the super PAC Minnesota for Freedom, which is financed by the Republican Attorneys General Association.
As Minnesota continues to reckon with the aftermath of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, the Schultz campaign’s decision to focus its ads on tough-on-crime rhetoric points to a growing trend among Republicans hoping to take advantage of white voters’ disillusionment. For JaNae Bates, communications director at Faith in Minnesota Action, “when a handful of politicians try to leverage Minneapolis in the very particular ways that Jim Schultz did, it was saying: Be afraid, be very afraid that Black people are coming to a suburb near you. And that’s completely unacceptable.”
While Ellison declined to comment on the racialized nature of the attack ads, in a conversation with The Nation, he did call out the Schultz campaign’s inability to engage his issue-based priorities. For an attorney general that has prioritized taking on corporations like ExxonMobil, Schultz seemed like an obvious distraction from more substantive problems facing Minnesotans. For Ellison, “the demagoguery around crime just obstructs the important conversation.” However, Ellison did acknowledge that it would be a mistake to dismiss crime outright as an issue that voters aren’t concerned with.
The real difference between the two campaigns is their definition of “crime.” Schultz focused on individual instances of street crime. According to Bates, this reflects a disconnect from impoverished communities, ignoring corporate pandemic profiteering and the many ways rich Americans have accumulated more wealth during the pandemic. Ellison also called out Republicans for their handling of gun violence: “It is the height of hypocrisy for Republicans to talk about crime when they’re making the instrumentalities of death and crime available.” And in the days since Ellison’s election, his stated priority of protecting Minnesota consumers has been reflected in his actions. After Fairview Health Services and another large health care corporation in South Dakota announced a merger, Ellison organized a series of town halls for public comment, raising concerns about the impact on Minnesotans.
If Democrats hope to fend off future Republican attacks on vulnerable Democratic representatives, they could draw on Ellison’s playbook. In a state scarred by division in the wake of the protests of June 2020, Republicans were able to capitalize on voters’ fears and create a close race for an otherwise popular Democratic official. He faced a difficult reelection challenge—but won. What worked for Ellison might not work in other areas of the country, but his message on crime as a broader phenomenon impacting consumers and communities resonated with voters. Ellison met voters where they were, saying “crime is a serious issue,” but adding that “it should not be reduced down to just fear tactics.” Ultimately, Ellison was able to point to his substantive record as Minnesota’s attorney general fighting profiteering and protecting consumers. That proved to be enough. Barely.