Candidates tied to Jan. 6 create new headaches for Republicans
A small but vocal group of Republican midterm candidates with ties to the Jan. 6 insurrection is threatening to upend the GOP’s effort to make the 2022 cycle a referendum on President Biden, sparking a brewing headache for a party that’s been boasting of a wave next year.
The GOP has pounced on issues like stubbornly high coronavirus infection rates, a sluggish economy and the ugly Afghanistan withdrawal to train voters’ attention on Biden. But some Republicans say their messaging efforts could be disrupted by candidates who are running fringe campaigns but could force more mainstream contenders to spend time answering for their connections to the riot and former President Trump’s spurious election fraud claims.
“If those voters understand who’s controlling the levers of the federal government, they’re going to vote against that. If that’s not the case, if we’re talking about rehashing Jan. 6 or some of these people who want to talk about fraudulently run elections, yeah, we sound like the kooky party,” said one GOP strategist working on House and Senate races.
To be sure, many of the candidates with some connection to the insurrection are not expected to win the GOP primary in almost every race. But their campaigns still threaten to derail those of more conventional contenders who will inevitably be asked about their own stances on the riot.
Among the most prominent candidates with ties to the riot is Arizona state Rep. Mark Finchem, who is campaigning to become Arizona secretary of state with Trump’s endorsement.
Finchem, who did not respond to a request for comment, has centered his bid on the need to restore “election integrity,” and footage has shown him outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 as the pro-Trump mob formed, though Finchem maintains he did not participate in the riot.
Joey Gilbert and Ryan Kelley, both of whom were also outside the Capitol before it was overrun, are running for governor in Nevada and Michigan, respectively, while Dan Cox, who organized a caravan to the event preceding the riot, is running for Maryland governor.
Tina Forte, Jason Riddle and Derrick Van Orden, who were also seen outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, are running for House seats, and Jo Rae Perkins, who was near the Capitol that day, is running in the GOP Senate primary in Oregon. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who is running for Senate, also spoke at a rally prior to the riot.
A half-dozen Republicans who spoke with The Hill emphasized that the candidates who attended the insurrection are mostly facing long-shot odds and remain unhelpful distractions at best.
“Competitive primaries are always a challenge when it distracts a candidate from the general election, especially in states that have, for example, a Democratic incumbent opponent,” said one Republican familiar with the party’s midterm strategy. “Having the flexibility to be able to focus on that target is something that’s always going to be helpful to a successful campaign. And so as far as sucking attention away from that, that’s never going to be a good thing.”
Besides those candidates who were seen at the site of the insurrection, Republicans are fielding other controversial candidates who have voiced support for affiliated election fraud claims. Among them are Kari Lake, who is running for Arizona governor and has voiced support for the allegations and the imprisonment of Arizona’s secretary of state and some journalists, and Ron Watkins, a conspiracy theorist running for Congress in Arizona.
And while Republicans are fighting among themselves over the insurrection and Trump’s role in the party, the issue is handing Democrats a cudgel to hit the GOP writ large as intrinsically tied with the riot.
“Far-right insurrectionists running for governor have made supporting the dangerous lies that led to the violent storming of the capitol the number one issue in GOP primaries across the country. As a result, Republican candidates are stuck in a lose-lose situation: they can either reject these lies and lose their primary or continue advancing this extremism that is toxic to the vast majority of Americans,” said Democratic Governors Association spokesperson Sam Newton.
Both Republicans and Democrats have said they’re eyeing next week’s gubernatorial election in Virginia as an early test of how damaging the controversy is.
Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee, has sought to paint GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin as a Trump acolyte, pointing to the former president’s endorsement of him and past supportive comments from Youngkin.
And while Youngkin has sought to put some distance between him and Trump in his bid to convert suburban voters, he’s still had to nod to the GOP’s right flank, digging in on calls for an audit of voting machines used in Virginia in 2020.
“I think Virginia is going to be a good test case for that. Off-year elections are all about base turnout, and I think clearly nothing motivates the Democratic base like Donald Trump, and Jan. 6 is a way to remind Democratic base voters about Trump and get them out to the polls,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant.
Still, some Republicans say the insurrection will fade from memory by the time the midterms roll around nearly two years after the Capitol was ransacked.
“Most Americans were very upset by it. But unlike, say 9/11, it didn’t change our security, it didn’t impact the economy,” Conant said.
Yet Republicans are still dead-set on trying to avoid discussing the topic on the trail — even if it means icing out reporters’ inquiries.
“For the most part,” said the strategist working on House and Senate races, “avoiding a phone call or an email is not the hardest thing in the world.”
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