Democrats hope Thursday’s prime-time hearing on the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol can begin a new effort to recast Republicans as the party of an extremist movement loyal to Donald Trump that poses a direct threat to democracy, a message they believe can limit their losses in November’s midterm elections.
The hearing, set to air on all major broadcast networks, will be the start of a weeks-long case assembled by the seven Democrats and two Republicans on the Jan. 6 House select committee from more than 1,000 interviews and 140,000 documents. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the committee investigating the Capitol assault, told progressive activists in February that its revelations would “blow the roof off the House.”
There is little hope among party operatives that the hearings can totally reverse a GOP-friendly political environment. Nearly every administration in history has seen its party lose seats during midterm elections, and rampant inflation has further hobbled President Joe Biden’s weak political standing. The GOP remains the heavy favorite to win control of the House and is likely to seize the Senate as well.
The strategy has its skeptics, even within the party, who note that a relentless focus on former President Trump was not enough to win the 2021 gubernatorial election in Virginia and that the party’s massive gains in 2018 came after its candidates focused on kitchen-table issues such as health care.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), speaking to reporters Wednesday, framed the hearings as the start of a referendum on American democracy.
“This is a way to have the American people make their own judgment: Was this ‘legitimate political discourse?’” Hoyer said, referencing a one-time Republican National Committee defense of the insurrection. “Is this the way you think democracy ought to be carried out? Is this the way you think citizens ought to make their points? If it is, we’re in real trouble, as a nation, as a democracy. Our Constitution is at risk.”
Without directly mentioning the midterm elections, Hoyer said he hoped the hearings “will lead to action by the American people that will diminish very substantially the efforts to stoke such anger, such violence.”
The hearings could be the highest-profile attempt by Democrats to tar the GOP as “ultra MAGA,” as Biden has put it: a party obsessed with false beliefs about the 2020 election, driven by a cult-like obedience to Trump, closely tied to extremist groups and willing to enact an unpopular agenda at any cost.
“When you look at Jan. 6 protesters, both mobilization [Democratic-leaning] and persuasion [swing] voters have a very strong reaction,” Guy Cecil, the chair of Priorities USA, a major Democratic super PAC, told reporters on Tuesday. “So there’s some real opportunity for us to continue to define what the next generation of the MAGA movement looks like.”
Much of Cecil’s briefing for reporters focused on the growing extremism of the GOP, noting the group’s polling data found the QAnon conspiracy network, the “Make America Great Again” movement and Trump all remained unpopular with swing voters in key states.
In surveys of persuadable voters from earlier this year, the group found Republicans held a general ballot advantage over Democrats — but that changed once a candidate was associated with Trump or the Capitol riot. Among the swing voters it polled in midterm battlegrounds — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, New Hampshire, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — nearly three-quarters found it unfavorable if a candidate participated in the attack on Congress and 64% found it unfavorable if a candidate believed the attack was “legitimate political discourse.” And 50% view Trump’s “strong backing” of a candidate as a turn-off.
Cecil highlighted an ad the group is running on digital platforms that uses the threat of Trump’s return as a presidential candidate in 2024 as a way to motivate Democrats who might otherwise be skeptical of the midterms’ importance.
“Since Trump lost, far-right extremist groups are organizing across the country,” a narrator says in the 15-second ad. “Recruiting, disrupting, organizing to take over Congress in 2022 and return Trump to power.”
Democrats have more work to do to convince even Democratic-leaning voters that the midterms are equally as important as the presidential election — 57% of Democratic-leaning “low-motivation” voters surveyed believe it doesn’t matter who wins 2022’s congressional races, up from the percentage who felt that way about the 2020 election, according to the Priorities USA survey.
Party operatives said the effect of Jan. 6 is likely to differ state by state and race by race. In some states, such as Colorado and Michigan, Republicans are backing candidates who are likely to put election denialism front-and-center. The GOP has also nominated two candidates who were at the insurrection — J.R. Majewski and Sandy Smith — for swing congressional districts in Ohio and North Carolina, something Democrats view as a major misstep.
“Republicans have the environment at their back. They’re going to make everything national, national, national,” said one senior Democrat working on House races. “We need to win these races one by one.”
Republicans also nominated Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who attended Trump’s Jan. 6 rally and has been subpoenaed by the House committee, as their nominee for governor — a development that dampened GOP hopes of seizing control of a crucial swing state.
So far, Jan. 6 seems to play a larger role in the battle for the House, gubernatorial races and secretary of state contests while playing a lesser role in the fight for control of the Senate. A majority of House Republicans voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, including GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell joined all but a handful of Republicans in voting to accept the election results.
Not every Democratic strategist thinks a focus on Jan. 6 is the best use of the party’s time. While none wanted to be quoted downplaying the importance of a hearing investigating an attempt to overturn American democracy, some suggested that focusing on the insurrection — and on the GOP’s Trump-inspired authoritarian turn more broadly — would do little to win over the working-class voters the party needs to win.
Instead, they recommended focusing on the GOP’s threats to strip abortion rights, on Democrats’ push to lower prescription drug prices or on Republicans’ loyalty to large corporations and the wealthy.
But even kitchen-table issues are hard to unhitch from Trump, the party’s de facto leader.
“He’s president of the Republican Party, and the Republican Party is trying to take control of Congress, and people need to understand that that is going to make their lives worse,” said former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia, who before the 2021 election warned that “being anti-Trump is not going to be enough” for Democrats.
Republicans — or at least every Republican not named Liz Cheney or Adam Kinzinger — are expected to downplay and dismiss the hearings entirely, aiming to keep the focus on inflation.
“Nancy Pelosi’s political witch hunt is purely partisan,” wrote Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), a member of the House GOP leadership.
Even in attacking Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who downplayed the insurrection as a “peaceful protest” and suggested the FBI knew about the attack on the Capitol in advance, Senate Democrats have avoided discussing Jan. 6.
Instead, ads from Senate Majority PAC, which is controlled by allies of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), have hammered Johnson for supporting tax cuts for himself and his wealthy donors.
Jonathan Nicholson contributed reporting.