House Democrats are preparing to center their strategy for the far-off midterm elections on a simple, aggressive message: Republicans are the party of QAnon.
Making an unusually early move to protect their narrow majority, House Democrats’ campaign arm on Tuesday launched its first TV ad campaign, spotlighting supporters of the fringe conspiracy theory — including those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. It is the first step in a larger plan, orchestrated by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s new chairman, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, to exploit the growing friction between Trump hardliners and establishment Republicans in the GOP base, which Maloney sees as a major weak point for the party.
“If Kevin McCarthy wants to take his party to ‘crazy town’ and follow these dangerous ideas, he shouldn’t expect to do well in the next election,” Maloney told POLITICO in an interview previewing the party’s strategy, referring to the House minority leader. “And it’s important to the country that the Democratic Party continues to be the responsible adult.”
Maloney said the campaign message crystallized after the pro-Trump siege on Jan. 6, which was fueled, in part, by false Internet theories. “It was at the heart of the violent attack on the Capitol, but it had its roots going back years,” he said.
The new chairman has the uneviable task of shielding a razor-thin Democratic majority during a redistricting cycle and a midterm, when the president’s party typically loses seats. But he’s betting Democrats can mount a successful offensive using the kind of culture-war attacks that the GOP ruthlessly deployed against Democrats last cycle — including the barrage of “defund the police” ads that forced moderates to run away from their party’s far left.
The GOP’s waffling on QAnon has been on full display in recent days, as party leaders struggle to contain the fallout from the extremist rhetoric of freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). McCarthy has been largely silent as Democrats have moved to sanction her. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, took the highly unusual step of denouncing a House member, a move that Democrats say underscores the GOP’s split.
“They can do QAnon, or they can do college-educated voters. They cannot do both,” Maloney said.
The DCCC’s $500,000 TV and digital ad campaign will run in the districts of seven vulnerable members: Reps. Mike Garcia (R-Calif.), Young Kim (R-Calif.), Michelle Steel (R-Calif.), Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.), Don Bacon (R-Neb.), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Beth Van Duyne (R-Texas). The spots use footage of rioters storming the U.S. Capitol and accuses Republican members of standing “with Q not you.”
Party strategists are betting that the right’s embrace of the far-fetched conspiracy theory will be politically toxic and hamper their efforts to win back the House in 2022. Already Democrats are seeing some encouraging signs: Challengers in Republican-held districts are beginning to jump off the sidelines, citing the attack last month as a motivation for running.
“Republicans have done a hell of a thing by motivating really top-tier quality candidates to raise their hand,” said Tim Persico, the DCCC’s executive director. “The events of Jan. 6, and the subsequent coddling of QAnon and the refusal to take any responsibility — I think that that has had a profound impact on people’s interest in running.”
Democratic recruiters said they’ve heard increased interest from potential challengers to Fitzpatrick, Garcia, Bacon and Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), John Katko (R-N.Y.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) since the attack on the Capitol. A few others have already formally declared their bids, part of what Maloney described as a “game-changer” for recruitment.
One of those newly launched Democratic candidates is Jay Chen, a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserves, who lost his race for an Orange County-based seat in 2012. He thought he might return to politics one day, but after watching the events of Jan. 6 and Kim’s decision not to impeach then-President Donald Trump, he quickly launched a campaign against her — an unusually early move in the January right after an election.
Chen was a Naval intelligence officer stationed in Kuwait when a Shiite militia stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad in December 2019, attacks that he monitored in real-time. He said he experienced déjà vu watching domestic terrorists invade the seat of U.S. government.
“If this was orchestrated by any other country, this attack on the Capitol, it would have been considered an act of war,” Chen said, arguing the U.S. would have retaliated. “But because these were Trump supporters, because this was incited by the president, then all of a sudden patriotism is thrown out the window. Accountability is thrown out the window. And the No. 1 consideration is partisan politics and not offending Trump’s base. And that’s wrong.”
A focus on the riots and QAnon marks a shift from Democrats’ messaging in recent elections, which has been more squarely focused on health care and the economy — even as Republicans lobbed attacks claiming Democrats wanted to shrink law-enforcement budgets or ban private health insurance. Many Democrats blamed at least part of their unexpected losses last year on those GOP attacks.
Maloney argues there’s a big difference between the GOP’s attacks in 2020, which exaggerated Democrats’ position on policing reform and other issues, to the Democrats’ attacks against QAnon.
“Their characterization of our party in the last election was a lie and an effort to demagogue,” Maloney said. “What I’m talking about is a clear-eyed description of the power Marjorie Taylor Greene and others have right now in that caucus.”
Democrats want Republicans to spend the off-year answering for Q-curious members like Greene and Boebert, as well as the 139 House members who voted to block certification of the election results just hours after a violent mob overtook the Capitol.
They see an opening against many of those members — including Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who witnesses said nearly stoked a fistfight on the floor the night of the Jan. 6 attack.
Harris’s current eastern Maryland district is overwhelmingly Republican. But Democrats in Annapolis could draw a new congressional map that makes his district more competitive, and would-be challengers are ready to take advantage. Heather Mizeur, a 2014 Democratic candidate for governor and former congressional staffer and state legislator, said she had not been considering a return to politics until Jan. 6, after which she decided to challenge Harris: “It was like waking a hibernating bear. It’s like my fiercest mama bear came out.”
Mizeur said what Harris did in the aftermath of the riot — including violating House rules by attempting to bring a gun to the floor, just days after the siege — “compelled me into the race. It could not stand unchallenged.”
GOP campaign officials, meanwhile, have brushed off the Democratic line of attack, arguing that many Americans are not familiar with the intricacies of QAnon — whose followers believe Trump was secretly battling a cabal of Satan-worshiping child sex traffickers who worked in the “deep state” of his administration.
The real threats of QAnon, Republicans say, aren’t as readily apparent to the average voter, unlike Democrats’ policy proposals like policing or health care reforms.
And they point out that all but 17 Republicans voted to condemn QAnon in a floor vote last fall. The three non-freshman Republican members targeted in the ad campaign voted against it.
“We are going to continue hammering House Democrats for their job-killing, socialist agenda and leave elevating fringe conspiracies to the DCCC,” said Michael McAdams, an NRCC spokesman. “If anyone wants to know which strategy is more effective, just look at last cycle’s House results,” he said, noting that Republicans won 28 out of the 29 races that handicappers rated as the most competitive going into Election Day.
But DCCC officials say they’ve studied polling on fringe groups like QAnon and found that the issue does register with most voters: A poll conducted on behalf of the DCCC by two Democratic pollsters found that 68 percent of voters surveyed in battleground districts were familiar with QAnon — and that it had unfavorable rating of 63 percent.
“The American people are knowledgeable about QAnon and know it’s dangerous,” Maloney said.
Democrats, broadly speaking, say they expect Republicans to grapple with their ties to conspiracy theorists throughout the next two years, with Greene’s profile only rising in her first month in Congress as a trove of offensive comments she made resurfaces. And that could be crucial to turning out Democratic voters in a midterm just two years after their House candidates lost seats despite President Joe Biden’s win.
“Happy, healthy voters don’t show up to vote in midterms. It’s the pissed-off, angry ones,” said Ian Russell, a Democratic strategist who works with several endangered House Democrats. “Who do you really want in charge? Do you want Joe Biden and the Democrats, or this cast of crazy? It’s not just QAnon. It’s the whole package. Republicans have thrown us a midterm lifeline that we might not have had otherwise.”
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