“We triggered Terry McAuliffe,” a triumphant Fredericks told former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon on his podcast — shortly before Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin said it was “weird and wrong” for the flag to be displayed at that rally.
As President Biden's approval ratings sag, and as the House's special Jan. 6 commission begins to enforce subpoenas against Trump allies like Bannon, Democrats are invoking the Capitol riot on the campaign trail in a hunt for independent votes. Pollsters are finding voters growing less interested in investigating what happened that day, but conservatives have become bolder about defending it. That, Democrats say, is why reminding voters of what happened at the “peaceful rally” can keep swing voters in their tent and prevent liberals from skipping off-year elections.
“Democrats need to really lean into this,” said Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego (D), the chair of BOLD PAC, a Latino Democratic group that’s run several Jan. 6-themed ads in swing districts. “It’s one of the few times that we have a natural ability to claim the high ground when it comes to patriotism.”
Few elections have tested that theory yet. The results of Jan. 6 advertising have been mixed, but with no obvious Democratic downsides. Operation 147, a new super PAC whose name refers to the 147 Republican members of Congress who voted to challenge election results, ran its first ad ahead of a May 1 special congressional election in North Texas.
The PAC spent nearly $40,000 to run a spot that began with a quote about the “big lie” from Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, continued with Republicans falsely insisting that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, and urged Democrats to turn out for activist Jana Lynne Sanchez. Turnout stayed low, and weaker candidates split the Democratic vote, leading to an all-Republican runoff, but Sanchez didn’t blame the ads.
“I certainly thought they were amazing,” she said. A month later, in a New Mexico special election where Operation 147 made a smaller $10,000 ad buy, Democrats improved on their 2020 margin.
“We can’t simply run on a midterm record, because history tells you, in the best of circumstances, that there is a mixed record of success,” said Paul Maslin, a pollster and strategist for Operation 147. “Since what’s at stake next November is the majority in Congress, you’ve got to talk to people about the consequences of that. Whether that is the insurrection, the assault on democracy or Donald Trump, I don’t know yet. But clearly that is something we’re figuring out.”
Believers in the Jan. 6 strategy say it helped Democrats win California's Sept. 14 recall election by a landslide, after some doubts that voters would want to hear about it. A week after the Capitol insurrection, the California Democratic Party compared the recall effort to a “coup,” drawing an expected backlash from Republicans and a surprising amount of angst from Democratic activists. But by June, the Democrats' anti-recall campaign was running ads with footage of Jan. 6, warning that Republicans “won't stop their election rejection,” and Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) was invoking the Capitol riot in nearly every campaign speech.
California and New Mexico's 1st Congressional District are far more liberal than the places Democrats are worried about losing now, like Virginia. And there's some evidence of voter fatigue about Jan. 6. A national Quinnipiac poll released this week found 56 percent of registered voters saying “enough is already known about what led to” the insurrection, and just 40 percent of voters wanted to “know more.” Among independents, just 38 percent said the investigation should continue. Among Black voters and Latino voters, who were more supportive of Democrats in general than White voters, just a third said they wanted to know more.
But the liberals focused on Jan. 6 say that's a flawed way of looking at the issue; a voter who doesn't personally want to keep thinking about Jan. 6 is not a voter who supports what happened that day. If Jan. 6 weren't a Republican problem, Youngkin and other swing-state Republicans would not be moved to condemn it and distance themselves from Trump's actions. In June, after Fox News rejected a Jan. 6-themed ad by the liberal PAC Meidas Touch, the PAC's co-founder Ben Meiselas figured that conservatives were nervous about the topic, an idea bolstered by how little the network has covered the Jan. 6 commission compared with other national news channels.
“The ad made it clear that there's one party that's pro-democracy and one that's fascist,” Meiselas said. “Are you going to convert the people wearing MAGA T-shirts by saying that? No. Is there a group of individuals who recognize that if Republicans stand for insurrection, they’re less likely to vote Republican? Yes.”
In both New Jersey and Virginia, where Trump lost handily in 2020 and remains unpopular outside the Republican base, Democrats have liberally invoked Jan. 6 to turn out their own vote and, they hope, suppress any defections by independents who've grown more frustrated with the cost and quality of life. Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has relentlessly attacked GOP nominee Jack Ciattarelli for appearing at a pre-Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in the state, which Ciattarelli says he attended without knowing the theme. “Confederate flags, white supremacists and Jack Ciattarelli,” says a narrator in one of Murphy's ads, before it cuts to footage of Trump supporters breaking into the Capitol.
Both Ciattarelli and Youngkin responded to the attack by accusing Democrats of distraction and desperation. And while Democrats believe what they're saying, they acknowledge that they are trying to shift the conversation to one that rattles independent voters. Republicans did it with 2020 ads that showed footage of rioters setting fires, warning of an urban apocalypse if Biden won.
“Whether it's three, four or five percent of people who can be moved by this, in a polarized environment like this, that can be the difference in a dead-heat race,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who works with both Operation 147 and the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group of Republicans who have run a series of Jan. 6-themed online ads. “It's defining the stakes of the election.”
Democrats are trying that in plenty of races next month, not just McAuliffe’s. In a new spot, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring goes after Virginia’s GOP nominee Jason Miyares for his support from the Republican Attorneys General Association, which promoted the Jan. 6 rally. (“They brought them to Washington,” a narrator explains.) State Del. Nancy D. Guy is on the air in the same state attacking her swing-seat Republican opponent for “represent[ing] the most violent” people arrested on Jan. 6.
Republicans in safer seats, and conservatives who aren’t on the ballot, don’t see how any of this will work. In another interview with Bannon, after the Oct. 13 rally and the brief controversy it generated, Fredericks said that Democrats like McAuliffe wanted to talk about far-right violence long after most voters had moved on. Democrats had benefited in 2017, after the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville soured more independents on Trump and the GOP. But Republicans were sick of hearing about it, and being blamed for it.
“Charlottesville was five years ago,” Fredericks said, overstating the time since the rally. “Nobody even remembers that. Who cares what happened in Charlottesville?”
A behind-the-scenes history in Republican politics.
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“The $100 million plan to completely fix Washington,” by Theodore Schleifer
A(nother) Silicon Valley campaign for election reform.
Terry for Virginia, “Our Values.” Former president Barack Obama will campaign for McAuliffe on Saturday, and we have a sense of what he'll say: that a Republican victory would risk both democracy and the progress Virginia's made under Democrats. We know that because it's how Obama had campaigned for Democrats since 2016. “You're also making a statement about what direction we're headed in as a country,” Obama says of the Nov. 2 election, amplifying McAuliffe's message that a win for the GOP would be a win for Trump-style politics.
Glenn Youngkin, “Terry McAuliffe's Tax Collection Agency.” The Republican campaign has now run two ads based on a conservative think tank's analysis of McAuliffe's spending plans. The Democrat has pointed to a windfall of stimulus money and not suggested raising taxes; the think tank found that the raw cost of the plans, split among every household, would be $5,400. The Youngkin campaign calls that McAuliffe's plan, and dramatizes it here with black-suited agents going to homes and demanding their tax payments.
314 Action, “Fanatical: Youngkin.” McAuliffe and his allies were slow to react to Youngkin’s campaign focus on school board protests. One reason: They assumed that voters would see the footage of angry people and side against them. This spot tries to make that reaction happen with clips of a vehicle being flipped over and protesters yelling at police, and two clips of school board protesters sounding unhinged — one of them warning of “demonic entities.”
Michelle Fiore, “Michelle Fiore for Governor.” The crowded Republican primary for Nevada governor got a new candidate this week: Fiore, a Las Vegas City Council member, former state legislator and RNC committee member. Better-liked among conservative activists than some of her rivals in the race, Fiore’s introduction spot used the tried-and-true gimmick of the candidate shooting objects that represent the things she wants to stop: “vaccine mandates,” “critical race theory” and “voter fraud.”
“Do you think American democracy is under threat?” (Grinnell College/Selzer & Co., 915 adults nationwide)
Major threat: 52% Minor threat: 29% Not under threat: 14%
National political figures fared very poorly in this poll, with President Biden's approval rating falling below 40 percent, and 20 percent of voters unable to choose in a potential Biden-Trump rematch. Voters were also wildly divided on what sort of behavior epitomizes “freedom” — while a majority of voters favored masking requirements, for example, a majority also said that “freedom” included the ability to refuse a vaccine. There was widespread agreement that “democracy” is under threat — but most of that sentiment came from conservatives. Three-quarters of voters who backed Trump in 2020 said that democracy faced a “major” threat, compared with 41 percent of Biden voters. For Democrats, the question prompts thoughts of stricter election rules and attempts to overturn the 2020 result, while Republicans, most of whom believe that the 2020 election was stolen, hear that in the question.
Virginia governor 2021 (Monmouth, 1,005 registered Virginia voters)
Terry McAuliffe (D): 46% (-2 since September) Glenn Youngkin (R): 46% (+3)
Virginia Republicans have said for weeks that their data shows Youngkin pulling ahead. Democrats, who say they always expected a close race, say that polling could underestimate their support, as it did four years ago. We'll find out who's right; in the meantime, Monmouth's third look at the race finds McAuliffe growing less popular over the race's final stretch, and the share of voters who rank “education” as a top issue rising from 31 percent last month to 41 percent now. It lags covid-19 and the economy, but not by much, which suggests that Youngkin's relentless focus on school curriculums, and warnings that McAuliffe would not let parents shape it, has raised the salience of the issue he wants to talk about.
“When it comes to the Boston police, which of the following three options comes closest to your opinion?” (SUPRC/Boston Globe/NBC10, 500 likely Boston voters)
I believe in defunding the police in order to reduce their power in our city: 10% I believe in a strong police force, but we need to reallocate police funding into mental health and social programs: 56% I believe the police need more funding and support to better protect our community: 26%
Most Democrats have erased the “defund the police” slogan from their lexicon, and most of them never bought into it in the first place. This look at Boston's overwhelmingly Democratic and liberal electorate finds a majority of voters open to moving police funding in order to fund “mental health and social programs” while still fighting crime. That's one interpretation that activists assigned to the slogan, but another — shrinking police departments — polls terribly, with just 1 in 10 voters supporting it. Opponents of the highest-polling candidate, city council member Michelle Wu, have accused her of wanting to “defund” police, but Wu's actual position mirrors the one most voters have here. In the poll's ballot test, Wu leads rival Annissa Essaibi George by a 2-to-1 margin.
Illinois Democrats were rebuked by federal judges Tuesday, with a trio of Democratic and Republican appointees ruling that the state legislature violated the Constitution by drawing new legislative maps before delayed census data was ready.
“The General Assembly’s interest in enacting a partisan map to avoid a bipartisan Commission is not sufficiently compelling to justify legislative districts” with heavy pro-Democratic slants, the judges wrote. “Accordingly, the June Redistricting Plan is unconstitutional as a matter of law.”
That decision won't affect negotiations over the state's next congressional map, which Republicans have highlighted to counter negative coverage of pro-GOP gerrymanders in Texas and other red states. In a Thursday tweet, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) highlighted his state's new congressional map, which divided liberal Pulaski County into three safely Republican seats, to contrast it with a liberal mapmaker's look at how Illinois could cram Republicans into as few seats as possible.
“Illinois Democrats created an atrocious gerrymander to take power,” Cotton said, though the Illinois map is not the one Springfield Democrats intend to use.
In Iowa, where the Republican majority in Des Moines voted to reject a map that would have created a safely Democratic seat, a new proposal from the state's commission would create four districts won by Donald Trump, ranging from a landslide in the conservative 4th Congressional District to a nearly even Trump-Biden result in the 3rd Congressional District.
In Virginia, the state Supreme Court is likely to get the say over the next decade’s maps, after a commission composed of eight Democrats and eight Republicans deadlocked on every option presented to them. While four of the court’s seven active justices were approved under Democratic governors, including current gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, all were appointed by Republican majorities in the state legislature.
And in Ohio, the state redistricting commission has not held a meeting to review potential maps before the Oct. 31 deadline, and isn’t likely to hold one soon. If there’s inaction, the Republican-run legislature in Columbus will draw the maps; if Democrats vote to reject it, the new map may only be in place for four years, thanks to a voter-passed initiative from 2018 designed to make a partisan gerrymander harder.
David Pepper, the most recent former chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, said he impasse wasn’t surprising. In “Laboratories of Autocracy,” a book he wrote this spring, he notes that just eight seats changed hands over every election from 2012 to 2020, proof of the last gerrymander’s effectiveness.
“We hadn’t appreciated just how warped things have gotten since 2010,” Pepper said. “You have a supermajority of Ohio politicians who have no connection to democracy personally, and now the people who draw the rules of democracy are afraid of it. Those who care about democracy are always playing a catch-up on how bad things have gotten.”
In the states
Florida. Fred Guttenberg, a Florida father who became a gun safety activist after his daughter Jaime was killed in the 2018 Parkland high school shooting, will join Brady PAC as an adviser, taking a more direct role in political campaigns ahead of the midterm elections.
“With such thin margins in Congress, we are one election cycle away from reforming our gun laws or one election cycle away from losing the chance,” Guttenberg said in a statement.
Texas. Democratic candidates continue to abandon their campaigns for House seats after a Republican gerrymander eliminated swing districts in the suburbs of Austin, Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Michelle Beckley, who had been running in the 24th Congressional District — which, under old lines, narrowly elected Rep. Beth Van Duyne (R) while backing the Biden-Harris ticket — dropped out after the new map made the seat safely Republican.
“I have decided to suspend my Congressional campaign for the TX24 due to the extreme gerrymandering,” Beckley said in a statement, adding that her home, previously included in the district, was not part of the new map. Several Democrats have rebooted their 2022 plans, with some quitting races entirely and some, like state Rep. James Talarico, leaving swing seats that became redder to seek reelection in safe Democratic seats.
Five weeks after polls closed in California's gubernatorial recall election, the ballots have been counted, and the state is ready to certify the results. Just 38.1 percent of Californians voted to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom — identical to the 38.1 percent of the vote that 2018 Republican nominee John Cox won against Newsom that year. A total of 7,944,092 voters cast ballots to keep Newsom in office. In 2018, Newsom won 7,721,410 votes. A recall campaign that attracted dozens of candidates and cost the state close to $300 million to manage led to a nearly perfect copy of the last election.
Nearly, but not exactly. One of California's 58 counties, Merced County, voted for the recall by a 52-to-48 point margin after supporting Newsom in 2018 by exactly the same margin. There were fewer than 60,000 votes cast in the county in both races, but a similar, small shift happened in more populous parts of the Central Valley — and most residents of Merced County are Latinos.
The “yes” campaign hoped for a surge of support from Latino voters. It was encouraged over the summer, when polling showed Latino voters nearly divided on the recall after voting for recent Democratic nominees by landslides. Democrats reversed the drift with their anti-recall campaign, and while recall support ran ahead of the 2018 Cox vote and 2020 Trump vote in majority-Latino counties, the difference was marginal. Riverside County, which rejected Newsom by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2018, backed Joe Biden for president last year, and went for the recall by around 7,000 votes.
Biden ran stronger than the “no” vote basically everywhere, and the four House Republicans who represent seats won by Biden in 2010 saw a much closer local result on the recall; the Orange County-based 48th Congressional District went for Biden by 2 points, but supported the recall. But Newsom raced ahead of his 2018 support among White liberals. In Napa County, the site of the 2020 French Laundry dinner that became fodder for the recall campaign, support for Newsom moved from 65 percent to 68 percent. In the whole of Orange County, Newsom's margin grew from around 3,000 votes in 2018 to around 39,000 votes this year.
… 12 days until elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and primaries in Florida’s 20th Congressional District … 82 days until the election in Florida’s 20th Congressional District … 131 days until the first 2022 primaries