(Reuters) - When a senior Republican state lawmaker demanded that Minnesota’s Democratic governor apologize to “moms out in the suburbs scared to death” about protests over racism and police brutality, Jamie Becker-Finn responded on Twitter with the “#IAmASuburbanMom” hashtag.
“I don’t need an apology,” Becker-Finn, a Democratic member of the state House of Representatives and a mother from the Minneapolis suburb of Roseville, wrote in response to Minnesota Senate Republican leader Paul Gazelka’s comment last Friday.
“I need the GOP Senate to be more than just sad and sorry that George Floyd was killed by police,” Becker-Finn added, using shorthand for the Republican Party.
Tens of thousands of people have since taken to Twitter with the hashtag, saying they are suburban women standing with protesters over the death of Floyd, a black man, after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis last month.
President Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans are trying to win back suburban voters around the United States with promises to impose “law and order,” aiming in particular to appeal to women who have drifted away from the party since he took office in 2017.
It may be an uphill battle. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week showed that seven out of 10 suburban women expressed sympathy toward the protesters and six of 10 disapproved of Trump’s handling of the civil unrest.
“I think there is a maternal instinct that kicks in seeing someone’s son calling for his mom,” said Carrie Firestone, 49, a mother of two teenage daughters in Avon, Connecticut, referring to Floyd’s plea caught on video before his death.
Firestone, who is white, said she organized a Black Lives Matter protest last week with hundreds of people in the predominantly white Hartford suburb of about 18,000 people, photos of which she posted with a tweet: “#IAmASuburbanMom who brought the protest to the suburbs.”
Becker-Finn said she coined the hashtag and added it to her Twitter post on Friday without much thought. As of Monday, it had appeared in more than 40,000 tweets.
“This law and order message, while we’re seeing videos every day of officers doing things that none of us should feel comfortable with, it’s not in line with the humanity of most folks,” Becker-Finn said.
Gazelka did not respond to requests for comment.
Republicans have expressed confidence that Trump’s strong stance against the demonstrations - he advocated a militarized response - would resonate with suburban voters, as activists on the left advocate to “defund the police.”
The term refers to eliminating or cutting spending on police departments, often the largest expense for municipalities, and using the funds for education, social welfare, housing and other community needs. Trump and Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate in the Nov. 3 U.S. election, both oppose the idea.
“Voters can trust in President Trump to protect their communities and return the country to peace and prosperity,” said Courtney Parella, a Trump campaign spokeswoman.
Trump’s calls for “law and order” resemble the campaign message of Republican Richard Nixon when he was seeking the presidency in 1968 in a year marked by anti-Vietnam War protests as well as urban rioting triggered by the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
The changing demographics of America’s suburbs and cities may make it harder for Trump to sell that message, according to University of Florida history professor Paul Ortiz.
“Times have really changed. You do have more African-Americans and people of color who live in the suburbs. You have more white individuals who have moved back to the city,” Ortiz said.
Biden and allied political groups have experienced a swell in donations since the protests, according to top fundraisers.
Wintana Melekin, executive director of the nonpartisan advocacy group Minnesota Voice that promotes social and racial justice and voter participation, said volunteerism through her organization was now “through the roof.”
“It has skyrocketed in a way that I never imagined,” said Melekin, who served as political director for liberal U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar’s 2018 campaign.
Suburban women played a key role in a wave of Democratic victories in 2018 U.S. House of Representatives races. A Reuters/Ipsos poll last month showed college-educated white women supporting Biden over Trump by a margin of 23 percentage points, up 4 percentage points from the previous month. Hillary Clinton, Trump’s 2016 Democratic opponent, won this group by just 7 percentage points.
Jason Lewis, a Republican seeking to defeat Democratic U.S. Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota, reiterated his party’s message that suburban voters want law and order.
“Without public safety, nothing else matters,” Lewis said. “Time will tell.”
Reporting by Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Jarrett Renshaw and Jason Lange; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Will Dunham