As Democrats look ahead to what could be a challenging midterm election, the party — from operatives in key states to top officials in Washington — is publicly and privately gauging the political application of the violent insurrection and whether voters, many of whom are more concerned by pocketbook issues immediately impacting their daily lives, will set aside those frustrations in order to punish Republicans who have either aided Trump’s anti-Democratic maneuvers or stood idly by as his allies took hold of the party.
Other Democrats, without dismissing the gravity of the attacks, argue that the party needs to prioritize other issues while campaigning.
Where Democrats may disagree over how to talk about the insurrection, Republicans are almost entirely in lockstep with Trump’s strategy of discrediting and minimizing what happened on January 6. And the few who are speaking out about the insurrection — from embattled Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney to retiring Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger — have been attacked by their party’s base and viewed as pariahs by their congressional colleagues.
For those Democrats arguing the party should spend more time focused on economic issues, elections in 2021 provided a sharp proof point.
The strategy failed and Herring, along with all statewide Democrats in Virginia on the ballot, lost in a state that President Joe Biden won by 10 percentage points a year earlier.
Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who narrowly won reelection, offered a more varied message than Virginia Democrats, hammering his Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli over his appearance at a local “Stop the Steal” rally while keeping issues like the coronavirus front and center.
But it was Democrats’ failure in Virginia that reverberated across the country, raising doubts about the potency of insurrection messaging — especially when running against candidates like Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, who tried to walk a fine line between embracing former President Donald Trump and keeping the man who inspired the insurrection at arm’s length.
“It is not a silver bullet,” said Geoff Burgan, a top communications operative at the Democratic Attorneys General Association. “It’s a fair question and I think that you have got a lot of factors that go into closing messages, not the least of which is the national environment and additional outside spending.”
Burgan added: “Across the country you are going to have differing levels of voter attention on January 6. … Folks will have to run their races at an individual state level. It is not going to be something that everyone runs on in a closing message ad, but it is something voters should be aware of — which side is their attorney general going to take when the next presidential election comes along?”
‘It was a horrific shock to our system’
For many Democrats on the ballot in 2022, the issue is not whether you talk about the insurrection or not — you must, they argue — but rather how you talk about it.
“The Democratic Party can and will also focus on economic issues of immediate concern. We got to beat back inflation. We have to beat back this pandemic and get our lives back. And we will,” said former Rep. Max Rose, a New York Democrat who won his seat in 2018, lost in 2020 and is running against in 2022. “But I do not believe that January 6 was just some day that we should forget, some event that we got to move past. It was a horrific shock to our system.”
Rep. Andy Kim, a New Jersey Democrat who was in Congress at the time of the insurrection and who famously helped clean up the building after the rioters had left, said that day was “the most defining moment, in some ways, of my time working at the Capitol so far” and that it changed him as person, a congressman and a candidate.
“I fundamentally feel like it has shifted the way that I view the job that I have,” Kim said.
Kim added that he will talk about the issue in his reelection campaign and that he hopes to do so in a way that shows the issue is beyond partisan politics.
“We need to live in an America where January 6th is an aberration and will never happen again,” Kim said. “And I hope that people join me in that belief no matter what their political leanings are.”
That, however, may be easier said than done.
Although some Republicans, like McCarthy, spoke out against the insurrection at the time, their tune has largely changed. Spurred by Trump and other top Republicans, a series of Republican officeholders and candidates have sought to discredit the House select committee investigating January 6 and lied about what happened on January 6 — all while reporting has found Republicans implored Trump and his White House to quell the riot on the day.
The election rights organization Public Wise, formed in 2019, is currently working to launch a searchable database of records on individuals and groups in in powerful positions who were involved in the riots. The group told CNN it now has more than 1,000 records indicating that nearly 200 alleged insurrectionists are currently holding or seeking seats in Congress, statewide office, city councils and on school boards and other local offices.
It was only when respondents were asked about officials who “coordinated with protesters in advance to help them understand the layout of the Capitol building and how to move within it quickly” that a majority of GOP voters, 63%, drew a line and said they should not be able to continue in their roles.
“To me, that says that there is actually a swing-able amount of, I don’t know if they’re moderate Republicans, but Republicans, that are gettable votes that are on the table if there’s a clear message about how this candidate coordinated, telling the story, making it very clear, having receipts and making those messages clear in races where these people are,” Public Wise executive director Christina Baal-Owens told CNN.
The group, which met alongside partners with the congressional select committee investigating the insurrection, is still in the process of organizing, memorializing and, potentially, weaponizing information about election deniers who are now running for office themselves — including in jobs that involve overseeing future contests.
“We found people (seeking office) as local and as hyper-local as school board or city councils,” Baal-Owens said. “So on every level of election administration, of using taxpayer dollars, of decisions that affect people’s lives, there are insurrectionists that are infiltrating these levels.”
The initial backlash is also diminishing for high profile lawmakers in Washington who voted to block the 2020 election results, with large parts of corporate America quietly backing off their immediate pledges to withhold financial support.
“Following January 6th, we saw most major companies condemn the attacks, at the very least. Many pledged to halt political donations to those who voted to overturn the presidential election,” said Kyle Herrig, the president of Accountable.US. “But mere months later, many of these same companies chose to forget and forgive those who played a role in instigating the insurrection, donating sometimes millions to the campaigns of these folks.”
‘You can’t shy away from talking about it’
There are two key reasons that January 6 is still front of mind for Democrats in Congress and in a series of key states: The January 6 commission and the way that Republicans running for office in 2022 have spread misinformation on what happened at the Capitol.
The January 6 commission has created a steady drumbeat of news since it was created over the summer, creating headlines long after the insurrection occurred. Federal prosecutors have also drummed up countless headlines with their cases against nearly 700 rioters, keeping what happened on January 6 — including new revelations and galling details — in the headlines.
Jaime Harrison, chair of the Democratic National Committee, said that steady drumbeat of news has made it an important campaign topic.
“The way that I tell them to talk about is: Educate people on the gravity of this issue itself,” Harrison said of his advice to candidates. “We were heart beats away from actually having a coup in America. I never thought I would say that in my lifetime. But there almost was.”
He added: “You can’t shy away from talking about it. Because the same people who were in on it are the same people who want to become the chairs of the committees we have in the House and the United States Senate.”
Josh Kaul, the Wisconsin attorney general, told CNN that Republicans like Johnson in Wisconsin have not only ignored the violence that happened on January 6, but they have run towards much of the same messaging that sparked the insurrection.
“We were one of the states that former President Trump tried to overturn the rule of the voters in 2020,” Kaul said, arguing that what happened on January 6 is a particularly “salient” issue to voters in Wisconsin because of it. “We weren’t the only one, but this is an issue that was really significant here.”
Because someone like Johnson has become one of the most prominent promulgators of January 6 misinformation, Kaul said voters in Wisconsin are not only more aware of it, but more interested in it, too.
“I don’t think we can ever talk too much about how vital it is that we protect our democracy and our freedoms,” said Kaul, who is also up for reelection in November. “It’s important that we not talk about any one issue at the exclusion of others, but this certainly is a significant one.”