The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol has established that Donald Trump was the central figure in a coup attempt that sought to install Trump as an illegitimate pretender president for a term he did not win. Set to hold what could be its final hearing on Thursday, the committee has done the meticulous work of placing the former president at the center of a conspiracy to upend democracy that involved not just Trump and his closest aides but also key figures in Congress and the states—a number of whom are seeking election on November 8.
Yet Democrats seem to be wrestling with whether to focus on what happened on January 6, 2021, as a 2022 election issue. Throughout this challenging midterms season, we’ve seen reports that, as an August Politico headline put it, “There’s a Huge Divide Among Democrats Over How Hard to Campaign for Democracy.” The article explained that “Democrats competing in elections this year have not been pressing the issue anywhere near as hard as other concerns.” In fact, political ads mentioning the insurrection accounted for less than 4 percent of all Democratic spending at the time, according to Politico.
That’s a misguided strategy that needs to be rethought as midterm voting begins.
Of course, there are other issues candidates must address—abortion rights, price gouging and inflation, the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and an increasingly unstable international circumstance. But to neglect the role that Trump-aligned Republicans have already played in assaulting democracy is political malpractice. Even if viewership of the January 6 committee hearings has waned since they began in June, the threat to democracy that they have illustrated remains very real—and very potent as a political issue with the voters Democrats need to mobilize in advance of the November 8 election.
What happened on January 6 was jarring in and of itself. But the shock to the system did not begin or end on that day. It pointed to threats to democracy that have only become more significant as the midterms approach. Dozens of insurrectionists—extreme right-wing activists who went to Washington at Trump’s behest and who were at or near the Capitol when it was attacked by his supporters—are running as Republicans for top posts in states across the country. They all deserve to be called out for their embrace of lawlessness. The same goes for Republicans in office who refuse to break with Trump over his Big Lie about the 2020 election. Advocates for democracy should take every opportunity to remind voters about what’s at stake if they lose and if Republican insurrectionists and their allies win on November 8.
US Representative Liz Cheney recognizes this duty. In an early October appearance organized by the John McCain Institute at Arizona State University, the Wyoming Republican who serves on the January 6 committee warned that the GOP has a growing “Putin wing” that refuses to defend democracy.
“In Arizona today you have a candidate for governor in Kari Lake, you have a candidate for secretary of state in Mark Finchem, both of whom have said—this isn’t a surprise, it’s not a secret—they both said that they will only honor the results of an election if they agree with it,” Cheney told ASU students. “They’ve looked at all of that, the law, the facts and the rulings, the courts, and they’ve said it doesn’t matter to them.”
“We all have to understand that we cannot give people power who have told us that they will not honor elections,” Cheney bluntly added.
Democrats should be just as blunt.
It’s the right thing to do. It’s smart politics. And a few Democrats have provided a template for how to get it right, by recognizing that, at a time when Republicans are pouring millions of dollars into TV ads that falsely paint Democrats as soft on crime and anti-police, Republican insurrectionists and their allies are vulnerable on these issues. In Ohio, Representative Marcy Kaptur has used the issue to devastating effect against scandal-plagued Republican challenger J.R. Majewski, an incendiary extremist who was in D.C. on January 6 and who enjoyed enthusiastic support from House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
Kaptur hit Majewski hard in her first ad for the fall campaign, which described the Republican as an “extremist candidate for Congress” and made specific references to the Capitol attack. The Kaptur ad portrayed Majewski as someone who “blames the police” for violence on January 6, and Kaptur as the candidate who “supports law enforcement.” The message, and allegations that Majewski inflated his military record, look to have tipped the balance toward Kaptur.
In Wisconsin, where US Senate candidate Mandela Barnes, a Democrat who has been one of the chief targets of Republican attack ads, has been trailing narrowly behind incumbent Republican Senator Ron Johnson in recent polls, Barnes focused on January 6 issues during a debate last week with the millionaire incumbent.
After Johnson attacked Barnes for supporting cash-bail reform in order to assure that nonviolent offenders aren’t jailed simply because they lack the money to pay for bail, the Democrat explained why the reform is a matter of equity. He said, “Now, Senator Johnson may not have encountered a problem he could not buy his way out of, but that’s not a reality for the majority of the people in this state.” That threw the wealthy Republican for a loop and he tried to suggest that Barnes’s policies were disrespectful toward the police. The Republican claimed he went out of the way to show that respect. Barnes replied, “The senator, on the last question did mention police officers. Now, with that being said, I’m sure that he didn’t have the same interaction with the 140 officers that were injured during the January 6 insurrection. One officer was stabbed with a metal stake. Another crushed in a revolving door. Another hit in the head with a fire extinguisher. So when we talk about respect for law enforcement, let’s talk about the 140 officers that he left behind—because of an insurrection that he supported.”
That wasn’t the only point at which Barnes reflected on the insurrection to hit back against the incumbent. When the senator—who tried to deliver slates of fake electors to Vice President Mike Pence—attempted to downplay the seriousness of the violence, Barnes was ready. “He may not have noticed that an insurrection was happening because he called those people ‘patriots.’ He called them ‘tourists.’ These are the folks that he supported. This an act that he supported,” said the Democrat. “He can make whatever comparisons he wants to. But the reality is, this was an attempted overthrow of the government by trying to overturn a free and fair election.”
It was one of the most powerful moments of the debate for Barnes—so powerful that his campaign would be wise to make it part of the October advertising campaign that will be needed to close the gap with Johnson. Why? Because what Republicans like Johnson did on January 6, 2021, and what they have said and done since then, remains at the top of the list of issues concerning Democrats, according to a recent NBC poll.
In a midterm election where mobilizing the base is essential, January 6 is an issue that can move voters—if Democratic candidates are prepared to talk about it.