PHILADELPHIA — The popular convenience store chain Wawa is closing two locations in the city because of “safety and security challenges,” which is but another symptom of the crime epidemic that has propelled law-and-order issues to the top of voters’ minds in this midterm election cycle.
Violent crime in Philadelphia has surged by 7% over last year, outpacing nationwide figures. The city reported 388 homicides so far this year, on a pace to eclipse last year’s record body count. Property crimes are up by a staggering 30%, with commercial burglaries rising by 50%.
That was the backdrop for President Biden’s visit Thursday for a full-court press to generate support for Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic Senate candidate, less than three weeks before the Nov. 8 election.
While Mr. Biden drummed up campaign cash at a closed-door event for Mr. Fetterman, who has been dogged by accusations that he is soft on crime, city residents outside a soon-to-be-shuttered downtown Wawa said unchecked criminals have become more brazen.
“I’ve been in that Wawa several times when it’s become apparent that there have been people just pulling stuff off the shelf and running,” said Austin Macfadden, a 28-year-old creative writer. “There’s been kind of a carte blanche on some of these petty instances of crime, but it speaks to a larger dissatisfaction. … What do you do?”
The Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, Mehmet Oz, has spent millions of dollars hammering Mr. Fetterman as “dangerously liberal on crime.” Campaign ads highlight Mr. Fetterman’s record of setting convicts loose while he served on the state’s parole board.
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The messaging sunk in, especially with suburban voters, and was a key driver in tightening the race in recent months, said Berwood A. Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College.
“Between our August and September polls, when a variety of messaging around crime — and particularly when Fetterman’s time on the board of pardons became better known through Oz and other advertising — that’s when we saw the race really begin to tighten,” Mr. Yost said. “I think the crime messaging has been effective and continues to be worth hitting on particularly in those suburban communities around Philadelphia.”
Mr. Fetterman, who led by as much as 11 percentage points in July, now holds a narrow 3-point lead in the RealClear Politics average of recent polls.
Philadelphia’s patchwork of suburbs was key to Mr. Biden’s 2020 victory in Pennsylvania, where he edged out then-President Trump by a margin of more than 81,000 votes. Those communities are now important battlegrounds for Mr. Fetterman.
“Those suburbs are certainly vote-rich areas,” Mr. Yost said. “About 22% of the state’s voters live in the southeast. That’s a big chunk. I think the crime messaging gets their attention and it gives them something to think about.”
Last month, Mr. Fetterman enlisted Montgomery County Sheriff Sean Kilkenny for a 30-second ad pushing back against the parole board’s criticism.
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“Here’s the truth: John gave a second chance to those who deserved it ― nonviolent offenders, marijuana users,” Sheriff Kilkenny said. “John Fetterman has the courage to do what’s right.”
More recently, Mr. Fetterman attempted to distance himself from the “defund the police” movement championed by far-left Democrats during the nationwide riots in the summer of 2020.
In an interview Tuesday with Semafor, an online news outlet, Mr. Fetterman declared that “it was always absurd to defund the police.”
Voters say it is not just Mr. Oz’s ads that are grabbing the attention of suburban voters.
“Wawa is a huge thing in our community,” said Mandy Hall, a council member for Eddystone Borough, in Delaware County south of Philadelphia. “I don’t know anyone who, you know, doesn’t go into a Wawa at some point. At least once a week. So when you hear that something [happened] to Wawa, that’s what resonates with us. It’s not so much the fear of what’s happening; it’s who it is happening to that we feel.”
She said a location in the neighboring town of Chester recently closed after struggling with shoplifting and robberies.
“They got robbed all the time, and they shut it down,” Ms. Hall said.
P.J. Dolan, who owns a bar in Ridley Park that has been in his family for three generations, said it is impossible to ignore the wave of violent crime in the city, even for those living in the suburbs.
“It’s senseless, it’s random and it’s not going away,” said Mr. Dolan, who also teaches culinary classes at a charter school in North Philadelphia. “It’s just getting worse and worse. … I’ve lost three of my students in a year and a half. We’ve lost upwards of a dozen or more in the community.”
Mr. Dolan, an independent, said the crime surge is significantly affecting suburban voters even though they are removed from the brunt of the violence.
“A lot of people do point blame at the Democrats for that, right or wrong,” he said.
Mr. Biden, who remains underwater with voters on his handling of the nationwide surge in crime, has little to offer Mr. Fetterman as he tries to dig out from under his soft-on-crime label.
Across the country, Democrats are backed into a corner by the crime issue. Mr. Biden has attempted to project a firm law-and-order stance but to little effect.
At an event in northeastern Pennsylvania in August, Mr. Biden announced a plan to fund police departments and promote effective prosecution of crimes.
He has, in large part, steered clear of talk on crime as the midterm campaign season progresses. He is focusing more on the economy, abortion and casting the elections as an existential battle for democracy.
The topic came up just briefly during Thursday’s closed-door fundraiser.
“What has Dr Oz ever done anything about fighting crime?” Mr. Fetterman asked the crowd. “He certainly doesn’t live in a kind of community that hears gunfire or has to fight gun violence. “
“I’ve watched these ads going after John on law enforcement” Mr. Biden said, but adding that if elected Mr. Fetterman will help Democrats ban assault weapons — a key component of Mr. Biden’s plan to reduce crime.
However, Mr. Yost said, Mr. Biden is simply losing his edge among voters in Pennsylvania.
Mr. Biden claims Pennsylvania as a surrogate home state because he spent his early childhood in Scranton. He announced his 2020 presidential run in Pittsburgh, and Pennsylvania is the state he has visited most as president other than trips to his home in neighboring Delaware.
“The general trajectory for Biden in this state has been a long, slow decline to the point where his numbers are pretty far underwater,” Mr. Yost said. “And that’s an issue for him.”