When Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended Central Florida State Attorney Monique Worrell last week, he portrayed her as soft on crime. Her office, he said, had avoided mandatory minimums, hesitated to charge juveniles and dropped too many cases.
The governor’s move reflects a law-and-order focus that is likely to sharpen as Republicans seize on voters’ increasing fear of crime in their communities. Polling indicates that GOP candidates are more likely to succeed with a “law and order” message than with conversations about wokeness.
For DeSantis, who is running for president, the focus on crime is not entirely new. The governor has for years promoted himself as a tough-on-crime leader and a friend of law enforcement. He expanded Florida’s death penalty, signed an anti-riot bill after the 2020 George Floyd protests, enacted a migrant relocation program and suggested that border patrol agents should be able to use deadly force on suspected drug traffickers.
But his national brand has been shaped more by his pushback on COVID-19 restrictions, his emphasis on reshaping Florida’s education system to forbid some conversations about race and sexuality and his crusade against “gender ideology.”
Worrell said last week that her suspension was a move to help DeSantis’ “failing” campaign, as it came in the midst of news about his decision to switch campaign managers and about continued lagging performance in the polls compared with GOP front-runner Donald Trump. “He needed to get back in the media in some positive way that would be red meat for his base,” she said.
When asked whether DeSantis is refocusing on criminal justice messaging, a spokesperson for the DeSantis campaign said DeSantis believes the nation is in decline, and that he can reverse it.
“Top among Ron DeSantis’ priorities is restoring law and order to our communities,” press secretary Bryan Griffin said. “Under his leadership, Florida has experienced a 50-year crime low. As president, he will prioritize safety and confront the wayward leftist ideology that has allowed crime to grow unchecked in our nation.”
In the year after Trump left office and Joe Biden became president, conservatives grew increasingly fearful of crime in their communities, surveys show.
A recent New York Times/Siena College poll found that Republican voters nationally and in the early primary state of Iowa preferred a candidate with a law and order message and talk of strong borders to one centered on battling “woke ideology.”
From 2020 to 2021, Republican perception of local crime spiked. The number of Republicans who said crime was up in their area went from 38% to 67%, according to a Gallup poll. Democrats and independents saw an increase too, but nothing like the jump among Republicans.
The violent crime rate in the U.S. remained largely unchanged in recent years, though the murder rate did increase in 2020 in both Democratic-run cities and Republican-run cities, according to the New York Times.
“When people talk about how much crime matters to them, it’s not really tied to the crime rate,” said Jon Gould, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine. “It’s actually tied to how comfortable they are with societal changes.”
Conventional wisdom says fear of crime should translate to votes for candidates who promise punishment, said Robert Dunham, special counsel at the nonprofit law firm Phillips Black and the former executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
But that theory didn’t hold up in the 2022 midterms, he said. Republicans poured millions of dollars into advertisements pressing the issue of crime. Yet Democrats performed far better than political pundits expected, winning several hotly contested races across the U.S.
Dunham said the “DeSantis strategy of playing on fear, of taking the harshest possible approach to issues of crime” works among the Republican base, but “makes him less electable in a general election.”
Crime was a big issue in political campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s, but became less salient after the 1990s as incidents went down, said Brian Arbour, associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Since 2020, he said, a bipartisan consensus around reform has broken down.
Republicans go on the offensive when it comes to crime, which gives them the ability to rely on simple rhetoric, Arbour said.
“Crime is bad — it’s the other guys’ fault,” he said. “The rhetoric is simpler, cleaner and comes with less caveats.”
Gould, the UC Irvine professor, said DeSantis brags about Florida’s low crime rate but also pushes for more penalties.
“If crime is low, why is more retribution needed?” Gould said. “From a policy perspective, what’s motivating?”
He said the governor’s push to change the death penalty is an example of that.
A frequent rationale for the death penalty is that it deters crime, though people have questioned the evidence on whether it does. Murder rates in 2020 were highest in death penalty states.
DeSantis this year pushed for a law eliminating the mandate for a unanimous jury in deciding on capital punishment. Florida’s new law requires only eight out of 12 jurors to vote in favor of death for a person to be executed, making it one of two states to not require a unanimous jury. Alabama, the other state, requires at least 10 jurors to vote in favor.
When DeSantis spoke about changing the death penalty, he mostly focused on the idea of lone jurors derailing “proper justice.” He put it in the context of the gunman in the Parkland school shooting not receiving the death penalty after three jurors voted for a life sentence instead of death.
Experts warn that, without the safeguard of a unanimous jury, it is more likely innocent people will be executed. Florida has the highest number of death row exonerations in the U.S.
This past legislative session, DeSantis also signed a bill, which he touts on the campaign trail, challenging U.S. Supreme Court precedent by seeking to execute people who rape children under 12 years old.
He also signed a bill making it easier for prosecutors to level a capital murder charge against people who dispense drugs that result in a fatal overdose.
In the past eight months alone, DeSantis approved five executions. (In his first term, DeSantis signed two death warrants; he has signed far fewer death warrants than his predecessor, Rick Scott.)
Dunham, the former director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said that DeSantis’ moves to weaken death penalty rules seem to “fit the profile” of what a Republican primary voter may want.
“It is low-hanging fruit for purposes of political pandering,” Dunham said.