‘Justice for J6’ rally puts GOP in awkward spot

Saturday’s rally at the U.S. Capitol in support of the more than 500 people charged in connection with the storming of Congress on Jan. 6 is an embarrassing development for Republican leaders in Washington.

Earlier this year, they condemned the “mob” that overran Capitol Police in January, but now they don’t want to further fuel divisions within their party over that violent day.

When asked this week what he would say to protesters who will be arriving in Washington this weekend with the stated goal of “freeing political prisoners” charged by the Department of Justice for crimes connected to Jan. 6, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) quickly sought to shift the focus on his efforts to make sure the Capitol will be secure.

“Apparently, there is supposed to be a gathering here on the 18th. [House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)] and I had a meeting [Monday] with the leaders of the police board. I believe they’re well equipped to handle what may or may not occur,” he said.

McConnell, however, stopped well short of again condemning the people arrested for breaking into the Capitol or criticizing the protesters who will gather over the weekend to support them.

It was a much more subdued approach than the Senate GOP leader took immediately after the insurrection, when he blasted the pro-Trump crowd that flooded the hallways of the Capitol and broke into the Senate chamber to disrupt the certification of Biden’s victory.

“We will not be kept out of this chamber by thugs, mobs or threats,” McConnell declared on the Senate floor after Capitol police finally secured the building again on Jan. 6, calling the protesters “an unhinged crowd.” 

McCarthy told reporters this week that he didn’t know of any members of the House GOP conference planning to attend the rally, but he hasn’t disavowed or criticized it, at least publicly.

He used much stronger language on Jan. 6, when he denounced the violent protests as “appalling” and “un-American.”  

The silence of GOP leaders in the Senate and House over the Saturday’s rally, which even former President Trump has disavowed, shows that McConnell and McCarthy are reluctant to pick any fights with Trump supporters who believe the 2020 election was stolen, despite the lack of any compelling evidence to support those claims.

“The events of Jan. 6 remain very contentious, but a lot of Republicans view the individuals who participated that day as heroes who were standing up for election integrity. Given how widespread that view is among Republicans, it puts a lot of pressure on GOP candidates to go soft on Jan. 6 or embrace what they did,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “Politicians worry about being on the wrong side of public opinion within their own party.”

Republican strategists and independent political experts say that the question of whether President Biden stole the White House — a claim that has been widely debunked — will likely become a rallying cry in next year’s Republican primaries.

A few little-known Republican candidates, including Mike Collins, who is running for the seat now held by Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), and Joe Kent, who is running for a seat in Washington state, are said to be attending. 

But embracing unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud in the last election also puts GOP candidates at risk of looking like extremists and is a potential liability in swing states, where winning over moderate and independent voters will be crucial to winning.

“I think McConnell is nervous that the longer Jan. 6 stays in the news, the worse it is for Republicans in a general election. I think he’s concerned about how this is going to play in suburbia, which is going to be the deciding grounds for the election. He’s been much quieter on that issue. He wants the economy and Afghanistan to be dominating the news, not Jan. 6,” West said. 

While McConnell and other GOP leaders in Washington have sought to put the focus on Biden’s messy exit from Afghanistan, rising inflation and the Democrats’ plans for a massive spending package, many Republican base voters are more fired up by hot-button topics such as election fraud and critical race theory. 

“It’s one of the top issues along with illegal immigration and critical race theory,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “Essentially the base of the Republican Party feels that this country is being stolen out from underneath and that [Republicans], particularly in Washington, are not doing enough to stop it.”

Even so, Republican strategists know that Saturday’s rally, which is being organized by Matt Braynard, a former Trump campaign staffer, is not a good look for the party. 

“I don’t know how many of my guys can continue to say, ‘Don’t go anywhere near this and this is all nonsense the media is focused on,’” said O’Connell.

Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster, said it’s smart of McConnell to want to focus on “the issues at hand,” citing the economy, national security, immigration and inflation.

“But, look, nobody has yet to explain to me why they stopped counting votes in all these major urban Democratic cities in the battleground states and then all of the sudden they decided to start counting them in the wee hours of the morning,” he added, expressing sympathy for Republican voters who are suspicious about what Trump supporters claim were voting irregularities, even though their challenges fell flat in court.  

Even so, McLaughlin said the mainstream issues he cited above — Afghanistan and proposed tax hikes — would do more to help Republicans win on Election Day.

He dismissed the rally as a sideshow being overhyped by Democrats and the press.

“I think Nancy Pelosi wants the fence up because she wants to keep it from the American people how much she’s raising everybody’s taxes,” he said. “It’s a figment of the press’s imagination. I don’t think there’s a lot going on there.” 

A crowd of only 700 people is expected to show up Saturday, far fewer than the thousands of Trump supporters who crowded on the East Front and West Front of the Capitol on Jan. 6.

The divide within the GOP over how to address fears of widespread election fraud was laid bare Thursday in the gubernatorial race in Virginia, where Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin broke with Trump by disputing the former president’s prediction that Democrats would try to steal the race.  

“What the Democrats want in their playbook is to make a nexus between 9/11 and 1/6,” O’Connell said of efforts by Democrats to cast the Jan. 6 insurrection as a serious threat to democracy posed by ideological extremists.

Democratic leaders have pushed for months for the creation of a special panel resembling the bipartisan 9/11 Commission to investigate the attacks of Jan. 6.

Matt House, a Democratic strategist and former senior aide to Schumer, said that “it’s astounding that at least a section of one party sees it as politically advantageous to stand with folks who attacked the Capitol.”

“Even though elected House Republicans may not be showing up at the rally, let’s not forget they stood outside of courthouses and jails to demonstrate solidarity with ‘the mob,’” he said.

“It should have a tremendous effect on the election particularly among moderates because this is not an issue that should be partisan. This is not Democrats versus Republicans. This is authoritarians versus democracy. One party has a very mixed record on those issues. The other is pretty resolutely pro-democracy. You hope that would show up with the middle of the electorate,” House added.

He also said that Republicans who have steadfastly criticized the perpetrators of the Jan. 6 insurrection and Trump’s role in inciting them, such as Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), “deserve tremendous credit … because the politics of the Republican base make it very difficult and thus very courageous.” 

“It’s not easy to go against your base,” he said.  

Tags Adam Kinzinger Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Jody Hice Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Liz Cheney Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi

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