Democrat Quaye Quartey, a Navy veteran running for Congress in a California swing district, reminds voters about Jan. 6, 2021, every chance he gets: During stump speeches. On calls with voters. In the video announcing his campaign to try to unseat Republican Mike Garcia, who voted that day against certifying the electoral votes of two states.
“It’s my ‘why,’” he said during a recent phone interview. “Every single time I communicate, I let people know that that is a defining issue, not only for me, but for our community.”
A year after leaders from both parties came together to condemn the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, the events of that day have become a partisan messaging point in the midterm elections.
Quartey and other Democrats and party groups have released campaign materials laden with images of protestors scaling walls, shattering windows in the Capitol or shoving police officers. The argument is that Republicans, even some who did not vote against certification, condoned such behavior by closing ranks around President Donald Trump in the weeks after he was impeached for inciting the violence.
A burst of ads making that case were released in the days leading up to the Jan. 6 anniversary, including a six-figure ad buy in battleground states from the left-leaning group Priorities USA; a five-figure digital ad buy from Wisconsin state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, who is in a competitive primary for the Democratic nod to challenge GOP Sen. Ron Johnson; and a digital ad in English and Spanish from BOLD PAC, the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Such images could help counteract the voter apathy that typically works against the party in power during midterm elections, Democrats say.
“It reminds voters of the stakes of the election,” said Ian Russell, a Democratic strategist who works on House and Senate campaigns.
Republicans, meanwhile, have largely avoided Jan. 6 references, preferring instead to focus on issues such as inflation, the rising cost of gas and rising crime rates during the pandemic.
Those are all topics that they say reflect poorly on the direction the country has taken under President Joe Biden and a Congress controlled by Democrats. November’s election in Virginia, where Democrats who campaigned against the insurrection suffered losses up and down the ballot, has convinced Republicans it’s not an issue that moves voters.
“There’s a lot of things going on in the world other than what happened a year ago with 500 people,” said Jeff Roe, a Republican strategist. “It was a mess, and a dark day. And nobody’s happy about it. But people can’t remember what they had for breakfast yesterday, let alone what happened a year ago. And in politics, if you’re not talking about the future, you’re probably losing.”
Recent polling indicates voters are deeply divided over how to interpret the events of Jan. 6, 2021.
An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released Monday, for example, found that Democrats (89 percent) overwhelmingly considered it to be an insurrection while a plurality of Republicans (45 percent) said it was a political protest. An additional 35 percent of Republicans thought it was unfortunate but not something to worry about in the future.
A University of Massachusetts Amherst poll released Dec. 28, meanwhile, found that 71 percent of Republicans — and one-third of the nation — still believed that Biden’s victory was illegitimate and that Republicans continued to blame Democrats, antifa and the Capitol Police for the events of Jan. 6. They also opposed both the continuation of law enforcement efforts to prosecute the rioters and attempts to learn more about what happened that day.
Democrats said such findings indicate that they will have to couple Jan. 6 messages with other talking points, especially what Democrats in Congress are doing to heal the pandemic-ravaged economy.
A Priorities USA poll of voters in September of voters who voted for Biden in 2020 but did not vote in 2016 found that messages about Jan. 6 and “Donald Trump’s extremism” were much more persuasive among white voters than voters of color. The most salient messages across the board, the poll found, were messages about Democrats’ initiatives in Congress to address pandemic relief, making the wealthy and corporations pay “their fair share of taxes” and the Democratic plan to expand Medicare and lower drug prices.
Dems see inflection point
Quartey said he sees all those issues as connected.
“If we do not safeguard our democracy and the right to vote and proper representation, then everything else is completely off the table,” he said.
Quartey is one of several Democrats seeking to challenge Garcia in California’s newly drawn 27th District.
Even before redistricting, Garcia was facing a battle as one of nine Republicans representing districts Biden carried. Garcia beat Democrat Christy Smith by just 333 votes in 2020 as Biden was carrying his current seat by 10 points, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. Under the state’s new map, Biden would have won Garcia’s redrawn seat by 12 points, according calculations by Jacob Rubashkin of Inside Elections, which rates the race a Toss-up.
Garcia is also one of only a handful of the 139 House Republicans who voted against certifying Biden’s victory to be facing a competitive race after a redistricting cycle that seen dozens of competitive House seats eliminated.
Quartey, one of several Democrats, including Smith, challenging Garcia, said he took the congressman’s vote personally because Garcia is a retired naval officer. “He should have known better so it’s much more hurtful, that someone like him betrayed our country,” Quartey said.
Garcia’s campaign did not respond to requests to comment for this story but said in a statement the day after the Jan. 6 attack that his votes against certification were rooted in concern about “constitutional missteps” in states and not an attempt to overturn the election results.
Seven of the eight GOP senators who voted against certifying Biden’s victory are not up for reelection this year, and the one who is, Louisiana’s John Kennedy, is in a race rated Solid Republican. But Democrats see Johnson, the Wisconsin senator, as especially vulnerable to Jan. 6 messaging because of his statements downplaying the events of that day, telling Fox News it was “by and large” a peaceful protest.
In other battleground Senate contests, competitive GOP primaries are forcing candidates to take positions supportive of Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud — the issue that brought the Jan. 6 rioters together in the first place, Democratic strategists said.