POLITICS

Defund the FBI? Why Republican rallying cry could boost Democrats in midterm elections

  • Republicans have pushed a mantra of "defund the FBI" in the aftermath of the FBI’s search of Trump's Mar-a-lago residence.
  • Democrats are framing calls to "defund the FBI" as the latest example of an increasingly extreme "ultra-MAGA" Republican Party.
  • Experts are divided on what extent “defund the FBI” will hurt Republicans during the midterms.

WASHINGTON –  Don Bolduc, the front-runner to win the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, said he's open to eliminating the FBI, prompting loud cheers during a GOP primary debate this month.

Bruce Fenton, another contender, was more unequivocal: "We should abolish the FBI and replace it with nothing."

The third Republican on stage, Kevin Smith, town manager of Londonderry, New Hampshire, took a more tempered approach, calling for an investigation but praising rank-and-file agents.

The audience was unforgiving – Smith was booed.

Republicans from the far right of the party have pushed a mantra of "defund the FBI" in the aftermath of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's search of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence – a stark contrast to the GOP's historical legacy as the party defending "law and order" and backing police officers during Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. 

Threats against law enforcement, particularly the FBI, have reached levels not seen since the 1990s, amid a barrage of online attacks against the agency.

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It's created an opening for President Joe Biden and Democrats less than 80 days before the midterm elections. In recent elections, Republicans seized on the "defund the police" slogan of progressive activists to argue Democrats are soft on crime. Now, Democrats are framing calls to "defund the FBI" as the latest example of an increasingly extreme "ultra-MAGA" Republican Party.

"While the other side wants to defund the FBI, we want to fund our kids' future," said U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, the Democratic Senate nominee in Ohio.

Some Republicans are pushing back.

"That's not where 99 percent of Republicans are at, of course," U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, said in an interview Aug. 21 on CNN.

It's unclear whether Democrats can make Republicans pay a price politically for the "defund the FBI" phrase – or how aggressively Democrats will seize on the slogan in their broader midterm message. Few Democratic candidates in competitive Senate and House races have brought up the FBI's investigation into Trump on the campaign trail.

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"This time, they likely misfired," Donna Brazile, former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said of the "defund the FBI" push. But she said voters care more about gas prices, 40-year-high inflation and their child's education.

"There's so much on the plate right now," Brazile said. "I hesitate to say that this is gonna be an issue in the fall."

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GOP divided in attacks against the FBI

Biden, who has not commented directly on the FBI's search of Mar-a-Lago, condemned the calls to defund the FBI through a spokesman. 

“Just like President Biden rejects defunding the police, he rejects defunding other law enforcement, including the FBI," said Andrew Bates, deputy White House press secretary. 

Top Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, slammed the FBI's Mar-a-Lago search as political retaliation from the Biden administration immediately after the warrant was executed. More hard-line Trump loyalists have also pushed for the FBI's elimination and bought into Trump's conspiracy of a "deep state" aligned against the former president. 

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Anthony Sabatini, a Republican state House member in Florida and a candidate for Congress, called to "sever all ties with DOJ immediately" and to arrest FBI agents carrying out duties "upon sight."

Sandy Smith, a Republican nominee for Congress in North Carolina, tweeted a poll that included "abolish the FBI" as one of the possible responses to Democrats who have "weaponized the FBI and are now targeting innocent Americans." Seventy-five percent of respondents said the FBI should be eliminated. 

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And then, of course, there's Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., the Trump-aligned conservative firebrand who has become the face of the small "defund the FBI" movement. Her campaign has branded the slogan on "defund the FBI" T-shirts and hats, that they are selling to supporters. Last week, Greene compared the FBI's "political targeting" of Trump to its monitoring of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. under J. Edgar Hoover. 

"They always abuse their power to take down their political enemies," she said in a tweet.

Former President Donald Trump and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene at a golf tournament in Bedminster, N.J., on July 30, 2022.

Adam Laxalt, the Republican Senate nominee in Nevada, described the search as "just another example of the growing weaponization of our federal agencies by the Left while people like Hunter Biden live freely," in a tweet

His opponent, incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, slammed Laxalt's attacks on law enforcement in a statement to USA TODAY. 

"Adam Laxalt led efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Nevada for Trump and he helped spread the Big Lie that fueled the violent mob at the Capitol that day," Cortez Masto said. "If Adam's attacking our federal officers, he's not standing with our law enforcement." 

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Democratic U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill., said Republican attacks against the FBI were unsurprising given their actions in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack.  

"We are putting people's lives at risk because Republicans are using their public platform to not only hurt the safety and security of our law enforcement professionals, but the republic's safety," Casten said. "And whether or not that's good politics, I don't care. It is horrible for the country." 

Some Republicans have worked to separate their party from the "defund the FBI" push in a sign they recognize the potential for political damage. Former Vice President Mike Pence urged his fellow Republicans to end the rhetoric during remarks in New Hampshire this month, calling Republicans "a party of law and order" who support law enforcement at all levels of government. 

"These attacks on the FBI must stop," said Pence, who is weighing a 2024 presidential bid. "Calls to defund the FBI are just as wrong as calls to defund the police."

White Ayres, a Republican consultant and pollster, called the 'defund the FBI' slogan "the height of political stupidity" because it undercuts the GOP's identity as the party of law and order. 

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"Republicans calling to defund the FBI are being as politically idiotic as Democrats calling to defund the police after George Floyd's murder," Ayres said. Instead, he said the GOP should, "focus on the failures of the Biden administration."

Experts split on whether 'defund the FBI' will impact midterms

Navin Nayak, president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund, which has helped craft messaging for Democrats, said outcries to defund the FBI are another "proof point" of growing Republican extremism. He pointed to Republican support to ban abortion nationally and oppose gun regulations as other examples. 

"I think that's the real vulnerability for them," Nayak said. "It's a reminder to the American people just how extreme Republicans have become and how far they're willing to go for power."

Similarly, Eric Ward, an extremism expert who runs the Western States Center, said the attacks against the FBI are meant to politicize a criminal investigation.

"For the Republican Party, it is likely the case that it will hold on to that narrative, because it has no real solutions to offer to America right now, except for fear and anxiety," Ward said. "That said, I think more and more Americans are beginning to realize that this is not simple television entertainment, that it carries a real cost to our communities and to our country."

A protester holds a sign that reads "Defund Police" during a rally for the late George Floyd outside Barclays Center, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in New York.

Several political experts told USA TODAY that Republican attacks on the FBI might not provide traction for Democrats.

Brendan Buck, former top communications adviser for Republican House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, said that while defunding the FBI is "crazy," he doesn't believe it will hurt Republicans in the midterms in the same way "defund the police" hurt Democrats in the 2020 election. 

He said "defund the police" attacks from Republicans worked because it played off fears of rising crime in cities as some local governments actively debated reduces the sizes of police forces. In contrast, Buck said most voters have "baked-in perceptions" about the Republicans talking about defunding the FBI and will dismiss their rhetoric. 

"I don't think voters are going to take it quite as seriously because I don't think the people presenting it are saying it quite as seriously," Buck said. "And I don't think that it's actually happening in the same way as when there was a real debate about police funding."

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Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political rhetoric and professor of communication at Texas A&M University, said she isn’t sure that Independents or Democrats will be motivated to vote in the midterms solely due to the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago. Other issues like abortion are more important to voters, she said.

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“I think the biggest consequence will be for the reputation of the FBI with Republicans. I think they'll be the ones that suffer,” Mercieca added.

Progressive activists like Rukia Lumumba, executive director of the People's Advocacy Institute and co-director of the Electoral Justice Project from the Movement for Black Lives, said voters will see through Republicans' "defund" mantra in November. 

"I hope that people will see that it is just yet another tactic of them using movement talking points to move their own personal agenda that only benefits them," Lumumba said. " And I hope that people will move to the polls, because they recognize that."