It may seem like ancient history after a decade and a half of war and economic upheaval, but it was not so long ago that “law and order” was one of the key dividing lines in American politics. Specifically, it was a wedge issue that allowed Republicans, beginning in the mid-1960s, to break off white working-class voters from the Democratic coalition.

John Judis
As a visiting scholar at Carnegie, Judis wrote The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
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At some point in the 1990s or early 2000s””as crime fell and the country became preoccupied with terrorism”””law and order” went into abeyance as a wedge issue. But now, in the wake of a spate of widely publicized killings of African-Americans by white policemen, questions about crime and the role of law enforcement are once again front and center in U.S. politics. And if you want a test case for how these issues might play out nationally in the years to come, look no further than the congressional special election currently unfolding in Staten Island.

Unlike New York’s other four boroughs, Staten Island is overwhelmingly white. (Blacks and Hispanics represent just 10 percent of the population each.) It has a thriving middle class, but it lacks Manhattan’s pockets of extreme wealth or extensive subway lines. In many ways, it more closely resembles New York state’s midsize towns than it does the rest of New York City.

Last July, a Staten Island policeman killed Eric Garner, a 43-year-old black man who had been arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes. As captured on video, the officer used a choke hold prohibited by the New York City Police Department to subdue Garner, whose last recorded words were “I can’t breathe.”

Under pressure from civil rights activists, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan empaneled a grand jury to decide whether the officer should be indicted. On December 3, the grand jury announced that there would be no indictment. Demonstrations ensued.

A few weeks later, Staten Island’s congressional seat (which also includes a slice of Brooklyn) opened up after Republican Rep. Michael Grimm pled guilty to tax fraud and then resigned. A special election was called for May 5; local Republicans nominated Donovan to run for the seat.

It was a controversial move: Not only had Donovan overseen the grand-jury deliberations, but afterward, he had defended them””and resisted pleas that he ask permission from the courts to release the grand-jury transcripts. (Donovan, it was reported afterward, had also not asked the grand jury to consider a lesser charge of reckless endangerment.) Liberals, of course, were appalled. Al Sharpton said that electing Donovan to Congress “would almost be seen as rewarding someone who has become the national symbol of what we are fighting.” On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart described Donovan as “the prosecutor who couldn’t or wouldn’t get the grand jury to indict the cop who choked out Eric Garner,” and dismissed his nomination as a “joke.”

Donovan, tall, balding, and stolid, has had no experience as a legislator, and during the campaign, he has displayed only a passing acquaintance with national issues. Moreover, he is running in a district where Democrats enjoy a whopping 45-to-29 percent edge in voter registration. Democrats Andrew Cuomo and Chuck Schumer carried the district easily, and President Obama claimed it by 4 points in 2012.

In short, Donovan should have faced, at the very least, a competitive race. But from the beginning, he has been a heavy favorite. The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball have both rated the outcome as “likely Republican,” and The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report labeled it “safe Republican.” “There aren’t any signs this race is truly competitive,” The Cook Political Report concluded.

So why is Donovan apparently cruising to victory? There are no shortage of possible explanations, beginning with the fact that the Democrats’ two best prospects declined to run. The person they eventually nominated””a short, feisty, able city councilman named Vincent Gentile, whom I followed on the campaign trail for a day last week””is from Brooklyn rather than Staten Island, a serious handicap given that Staten Islanders make up about 70 percent of the district’s voters and generally prefer supporting one of their own. In addition, while Donovan has money to run TV ads, Gentile has been limited to mailings. And the fact that the race is a special election hurts the Democratic nominee: Special elections suffer from abysmally low turnout””estimates are that about a fifth of the voters who went to the polls in 2012 will show up””and these days, voters in low-turnout elections tend to be more conservative than general-election voters.

Yet while these factors are undoubtedly important, the death of Eric Garner is also lurking in the background. There is no question that it hasn’t helped Gentile. Staten Island Advance columnist Tom Wrobleski wrote recently that “the Garner case, for all its heat, isn’t a winning issue.” But it seems possible that the situation for Gentile is even worse than that: Not only has the Garner case not helped Democrats; it may have actually benefited Republicans.

The evidence for this is circumstantial, but tough to ignore. On issues of law and order, after all, Staten Islanders tend to line up with the police. The borough’s population includes many second- and third-generation Irish- and Italian-Americans who are police officers and firefighters. In the 2013 mayoral election, Democrat Bill de Blasio””who ran partly on a platform of curbing police abuses””got 74 percent of the vote citywide. On Staten Island, however, he lost to Republican Joe Lhota 53-to-44 percent.

In the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision in the Garner case, Staten Island residents reacted very differently from other New Yorkers. In a December Quinnipiac poll, 67 percent of New Yorkers thought there was “no excuse” for the police action in the Garner case, while only 27 percent thought the police officers’ actions were “understandable.” On Staten Island, 42 percent thought there was “no excuse,” while 48 percent thought the actions were “understandable.”

In January, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee commissioned a survey of registered voters to assess the Democrats’ chances of beating Donovan. Pollsters from the Global Strategy Group matched Donovan against Staten Island Assemblyman Michael Cusick, who was seen at the time as his most formidable opponent. The results were devastating and contributed to the DCCC’s decision not to fund Gentile. Donovan was the respondents’ choice over Cusick by 40-to-21 percent, and when leaners were counted, by 48-to-28 percent. (White voters, meanwhile, favored him by 46-to-16 percent, and, when leaners were counted, by 57-to-22 percent.)

Pollsters also asked for respondents’ views on the Garner case. By 50-to-34 percent, voters approved of the grand-jury decision””white voters by 58-to-27 percent. Informed of arguments for and against Donovan’s handling of the matter, voters approved of what he had done by 57-to-32 percent””white voters by 66-to-25 percent. After highlighting the Garner case, the pollsters then asked respondents to consider again whom they would vote for. The overall result was a wash: Donovan led by 18 points. He did lose support among younger and nonwhite respondents, but he also gained 4 points among whites and seniors, and 3 points among Staten Island residents. And these are the (overlapping) groups most likely to vote on May 5.

In other words, the poll shows that Donovan wasn’t really hurt by the Garner case. And while it doesn’t prove outright that he was helped by it, his massive early lead had to be attributable to something””and it stands to reason that Staten Islanders’ positive feelings about how he handled the Garner case were a factor.

During the election, Donovan has insisted on keeping the grand-jury deliberations secret. And while not focusing on the case in his campaign, he has tried to take advantage of the backlash against the Garner protests. In March, Donovan’s campaign manager sent out a fundraising letter warning that Sharpton’s “National Action Network is working under the radar and doing their best to hurt Dan’s campaign.” Sharpton is widely hated by the police and often distrusted by the district’s whites. (The enmity goes back to his involvement in the Tawana Brawley hoax.)

Gentile, for his part, has largely steered clear of the Garner case. It is not mentioned on his website or in his campaign platform, and he didn’t cite it during two campaign stops on which I accompanied him last week. At the single televised debate of the election, on April 14 (which began with the ejection of a protester who was shouting, “I can’t breathe”), Gentile responded to a question about the case by criticizing Donovan for not trying to release the grand-jury transcripts; but he stopped well short of saying the grand jury had erred in its findings. When I asked him the next day whether he thought the officer who killed Garner should be fired from the police department, he replied that it was “hard to say” because he wasn’t privy to the internal investigation that the department was conducting””a cautious position that suggested he might be worried about taking a stand.

In some respects, the Staten Island election is atypical, since the island has often defined its politics against those of Manhattan and the other boroughs. But America is dotted with near-replicas of Staten Island. Baltimore, St. Louis, Richmond, Houston, New Orleans, and Atlanta have suburbs or exurbs that define their own politics against those of the more liberal cities nearby. In these places and others, the debate over police brutality, if it continues, is likely to serve as a wedge issue that splits the electorate along racial lines. And Dan Donovan and the rest of the GOP may well be the ultimate beneficiaries.

This article was originally published in the National Journal.