NEW YORK, Nov 3 (Reuters) - The Wisconsin Fraternal Order of Police has endorsed some Democratic candidates in past elections. But this year, in each of the 13 races it weighed in on, the union decided Republicans would be more forceful champions of law enforcement.
That was the case even in a competitive U.S. House of Representatives race, in which Democrat Brad Pfaff has repeatedly attacked his rival, Republican Derrick Van Orden, for attending the Jan. 6, 2021, pro-Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol.
More than 100 police officers were injured in the storming of the Capitol that day. But despite running ads highlighting Van Orden's presence at the rally, the Democrat failed to win the state police union's endorsement.
Van Orden simply seemed more willing to speak out on behalf of police, said Ryan Windorff, president of the Wisconsin branch of the FOP, the nation's largest police union.
Reuters spoke to nine police unions and trade associations across the United States ahead of Tuesday's midterm elections, of whom six said their members were endorsing more right-wing candidates than in previous elections. The groups said Republicans had offered greater support to police in the wake of 2020 protests over police killings of Black people.
The rightward shift held true even in races where a Republican candidate attended the Jan. 6 rally. More than a dozen candidates who have publicly acknowledged being present at the event – none of whom have been charged with a crime – are running for U.S. Congress, statehouse and statewide offices.
Six of those candidates received police endorsements, a Reuters review found. In interviews, union representatives said they felt comfortable backing them because there was no proof they broke any law or supported the violence that ensued.
Democratic calls for police reform after the 2020 protests, on the other hand, had too often implied that all officers were unfit, said Andrea Edmiston, a spokesperson for the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO), which represents about 241,000 officers around the United States.
"We don't judge someone who thinks there needs to be police reform," Edmiston said. "But are you going to work with law enforcement, are you going to support law enforcement?"
In the 2018 midterm elections, NAPO made endorsements in 11 races across the country, and five Democrats earned the group's backing. This year, none of the association's 20 endorsements went to Democrats.
In tight races such as that between Van Orden and Pfaff, experts say, police union endorsements can potentially tip the outcome by bolstering their chosen candidate's claim to being tougher on crime than his or her opponent.
Opinion polls have shown that while the economy remains the top worry, American voters are increasingly concerned about crime. They trust Republicans over Democrats 36% to 26% on the issue, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling.
A union's backing also helps remove the stigma around a candidate's presence at the Jan. 6 rally, experts said.
"It's a way of saying, 'this isn't a big deal that I was there on Jan. 6. Look, even the police think it wasn't a big deal,'" said William Jones, a labor historian at the University of Minnesota with expertise in police unions.
A Facebook post from the day shows Van Orden within a restricted area on Capitol grounds, according to a Daily Beast report that recreated the photo to determine his location. Van Orden has denied entering the grounds and said he left when the protest became a mob. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Windorff, the Wisconsin police union president, said there was no evidence Van Orden had done anything wrong.
"I think some people are correlating one's presence at an event with their participation or even their encouragement of it," he said.
All police unions and trade associations interviewed by Reuters said their endorsement process is non-partisan and based on an assessment of which candidate will best represent law enforcement interests.
The North Carolina Sheriff Police Alliance added a new requirement for candidates who wanted their endorsement this year: proof that they denounced the "defund the police" movement that became a rallying cry for some on the left calling for law enforcement reform after the 2020 protests.
Although Democrats around the country have sought to distance themselves from the movement, none in North Carolina provided sufficient proof that they had denounced it, said Rickey Padgett, the group's state secretary.
In the state's competitive 1st congressional district, the alliance backed Republican Sandy Smith, a businesswoman who live-tweeted photos from her march to the Capitol on Jan. 6 with the hashtag #FightFor Trump, over Democrat Don Davis, an Air Force veteran and six-term state senator.
Smith impressed the group as a candidate who would uphold the law and protect law enforcement personnel from unfair persecution, Padgett said.
"I don't agree with anything that happened on Jan. 6 by any means, but I'm a guy who likes to deal with the facts," he said, noting there was no evidence of Smith doing anything illegal at the event.
When the North Carolina Police Benevolent Association also sought out the candidate who would best stand up for the rights of law enforcement officers, they settled on Davis.
In a state legislative race, however, they backed a Republican candidate who posted on Facebook that he was gassed multiple times at the Capitol rally and was "at the entrance when they breached the door," according to a local news report.
The group's president, David Rose, said it did not discuss attendance at Jan. 6 during the endorsement process.
Police officers have always tended to be conservative, but the political polarization of the United States in recent years has hardened their stances further, said Ron DeLord, a former police officer and public safety union expert.
"If that had been a protest on the left that charged the Capitol, they'd all have been in there (attacking) any politician who supported that," said DeLord, who previously spent 30 years leading the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, the state's largest police labor organization.
Only one police association interviewed by Reuters said a candidate's presence at the Jan. 6 rally played a role in its endorsement decision.
The Arizona branch of the National Latino Peace Officers Association is supporting Democratic Secretary of State candidate Adrian Fontes over Republican Mark Finchem, who attended the Jan. 6 rally and who was filmed close to the Capitol, according to media reports. Finchem has said he did not take part in any violence.
Ron Gomez, the branch's advocacy chair, said Finchem's participation in the rally "absolutely" influenced the group's decision to back Fontes. Finchem's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Gomez agreed that the "defund the police" movement had alienated many officers from the Democratic Party.
But, he added, "what we see on the far right is so extreme that it just overwhelms the decision-making process."
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