Republicans Running in Moderate Districts Still Have Extreme Jan. 6 Views

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Onstage last week at a forum outside of Des Moines, Iowa, three Republican candidates running for Congress took turns weighing in on an issue of great importance to the party base: the Jan. 6 riot.

State Sen. Zach Nunn argued that the criminal prosecutions of Capitol insurrectionists have been a sham. “We have a Nancy Pelosi committee determined to find someone that they can hang a noose around,” Nunn said.

Nicole Hasso, a businesswoman, did say “no one is above the law”—but the “lawless” activity she was referring to concerned the 2020 riots over police brutality, not the violent attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

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And Gary Leffler, an activist, told the crowd he was actually at the Capitol on Jan. 6—though, like other candidates, he has insisted he did not go inside the building.

“Put me in Congress. Put me on that committee,” Leffler said. “And you're gonna get some real answers to what happened there that day.”

These three candidates are hardly the only Republicans who are amplifying their fringe views about Jan. 6 and the 2020 election on the campaign trail.

But Nunn, Hasso, and Leffler aren’t running to be the next Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a MAGA champion of a deep-red district. Instead, they’re running to unseat an incumbent Democrat in one of the most competitive swing seats in the entire country.

Iowa’s 3rd District, currently represented by second-term Rep. Cindy Axne, is the least Republican district in this state. Donald Trump barely carried it in 2020, by a margin of 0.4 percent.

It’s the exact kind of district that Republicans need to win if they are to flip control of the House of Representatives this fall. The party’s official House campaign arm has recognized that, and has officially put Nunn and Hasso on the path to their program to support the party’s most promising candidates.

Typically, both parties seek to recruit the cream of the crop to run in such races—polished candidates who are relatively moderate, generally agreeable, and disciplined enough to stick to the party’s overarching message.

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For Democrats in 2018, that message was health care. This year, Republicans want their message to center on the economy and immigration—and national party leaders believe that the less time GOP candidates spend talking about Jan. 6 and the 2020 election, the better.

But Iowa’s 3rd District is far from the only race where Republicans are breaking the mold of swing-district candidates by embracing the GOP base’s fixation on an ever-widening set of 2020 election conspiracies.

In at least nine of the swing districts that are at the top of the GOP’s target list, top recruits and leading candidates have amplified voter fraud conspiracies, denied the outcome of the 2020 election, and touted their own trips to the Capitol on Jan. 6.

One candidate in Virginia called for the “execution” of people convicted of voter fraud; one in Nevada called for the execution of General Mark Milley; another in Nevada contacted former “Kraken” lawyer Sidney Powell to help her overturn her own 2020 election loss.

Republican voters have already anointed a far-right figure as their chosen candidate in one of them: Ohio’s 9th District, where J.R. Majewski won a primary on Tuesday night.

Majewski—who gained MAGA-world notoriety for painting a massive mural of Trump on his lawn—proudly boasted that he raised $20,000 to send himself and dozens of Trump supporters to the Capitol on Jan. 6. He’s also embraced the QAnon conspiracy theory.

He will face Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a 40-year Democratic incumbent, in a newly-drawn district that is close to evenly split on partisan lines.

One Democrat working on House races said that polling demonstrates that candidates like Majewski are far more vulnerable in general election matchups than more palatable picks like Gavarone.

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If more candidates like him win their primaries, it could provide a badly needed boost for Democrats. The party may face a bleak outlook for maintaining control of the U.S. House in this November’s midterm elections, with Biden’s approval rating in the gutter and polls generally showing that voters favoring a GOP majority on Capitol Hill.

But if the GOP’s nominees in some of the country’s most competitive districts are Jan. 6 truthers and 2020 election deniers, Democrats believe voters will reject them at the polls—and potentially blunt what could be a historically strong election showing by Republicans.

Jesse Ferguson, a former messaging chief for the House Democratic campaign arm, said when GOP candidates embrace these conspiracies, it sends clear messages to voters.

“They reveal to voters that they want to overturn elections when they don’t win,” Ferguson said. “And two, that they’re part of a MAGA wing of the Republican Party that no longer looks, and acts, like the Republican Party that many of these voters remember.”

Republicans are betting that such stances will get lost in the shuffle, as the party focuses its attacks on Democrats’ handling of the economy and immigration.

Mike Berg, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that “public and private polling has shown Republicans hold double digit leads on the issues voters care most about: rising prices, rising crime, and the crisis at the southern border.”

“Democrats have cycled through dozens of messages this cycle because nothing is working for them,” Berg said.

Though Republicans believe they have a strong hand heading into the midterm election season, they also know that extreme candidates can lose even in the best political environments. The 2010 tea party wave gave Republicans a historic House majority, but it also elevated Senate candidates who lost winnable races to Democrats.

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Ken Spain, a GOP strategist who helped craft the party’s House messaging in 2010, said Republican candidates stray from their core issues of inflation and immigration at their own peril.

“Republicans have been dealt a winning hand,” Spain said. “One way to minimize Republican gains in the midterms is to relitigate the events of January 6.”

“Even Republican voters,” Spain continued, “don’t love relitigating the 6th.”

An April survey from the Global Strategy Group bears that out, finding that just 26 percent of Republican voters approved of the actions of those who broke into the Capitol. Meanwhile, 42 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of independents “strongly” opposed them.

That poll also found broad public backing for the special committee investigating Jan. 6, with more than two-thirds of voters supporting its work. Notably, 45 percent of Republicans support the investigation—the same share of Republicans who oppose it.

But a number of GOP candidates are running as if those numbers were vastly different, and are campaigning in purple districts—including many that Biden carried—on red-meat MAGA orthodoxy.

Nevada’s 4th District, for example, has been reliably blue turf in recent elections. Under the state’s new congressional maps, Biden would have won it by more than 8 points in 2020. But the two leading candidates vying to take on Democratic Rep. Stephen Horsford are running campaigns that seem more at home in Trumpland.

Annie Black, who was officially recognized as an “on the radar” candidate by the NRCC, is a state lawmaker who was at the Capitol on Jan. 6, though she has insisted she left when the building was breached. Her primary opponent, Sam Peters, ran in 2020 and is leading the race in fundraising. He tweeted conspiratorial allegations in November 2020 about “vote switching on live TV” and later agreed with Newt Gingrich’s assertion that it was the “most corrupt election” in U.S. history.

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In New Hampshire’s 1st District, a perennial battleground seat, all of the leading GOP candidates running against Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas have embraced 2020 conspiracies.

Karoline Leavitt, a former Trump campaign staffer, has insisted that Trump won the 2020 election. Gail Huff Brown, a former TV journalist who is married to former GOP Sen. Scott Brown, said “Covid won” the 2020 election and spoke of “irregularities.” Tim Baxter, a state lawmaker, has proposed election audits in every state. And Matt Mowers, another former Trump official, has insisted new voter fraud laws are needed—which is made all the more notable because he himself voted in two different states in the 2016 primary season.

In several top-tier races, strong campaigns by far-right insurgents are dragging establishment picks further to the right.

One of them, Virginia’s 2nd District, is a prime pickup target for the GOP: Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria is running for a third term in a district that, after redistricting, now leans Republican.

Republican candidate Jen Kiggans fits the profile of a typical swing district candidate: Navy veteran, nurse practitioner, state senator. Kiggans has raised over $1 million so far for the race. That earned her placement in the NRCC’s “Young Guns” program, which grants promising candidates special support.

But Kiggans is fighting off Jarome Bell, an extreme MAGA candidate who has said that people convicted of voter fraud should be executed. He is backed by former Trump advisor Michael Flynn and Turning Point USA, the right-wing activist group founded by Charlie Kirk, and he has notably raised close to $500,000.

“We must audit all 50 states from the 2020 election, and find out exactly what happened on Nov. 3, 2020,” Bell has said. “If we don’t have fair elections, we don’t have a country.”

Faced with that challenge, Kiggans has maneuvered to protect her right flank. In Virginia’s Senate, Kiggans was one of just four lawmakers to vote in favor of a bill—written by the far-right MAGA senator Amanda Chase—to initiate a $70 million “forensic audit” of the state’s 2020 election.

Speaking to the Washington Post later, Kiggans called her vote a “policy statement” and said voters were concerned about fraud.

The larger question for Democrats is how to craft a strategy that capitalizes on some of their rivals’ far-right views about Jan. 6 and the 2020 election.

Since the insurrection, House Democrats’ campaign and messaging arms have tried to define House Republicans by their most extreme members and their views. Last year, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office memorably branded the House GOP the “GQP,” referencing the Qanon conspiracy theories.

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But like Republicans, Democrats know that to a large extent, their success in 2022 will rest on how well they can convince voters that the party is addressing the problems that most affect them, like rising gas prices and the continued fluctuations of the COVID pandemic.

Axne, whose GOP rivals downplayed and doubted Jan. 6 at a forum last week, has focused intensely on inflation. But she has emphasized her concerns about threats to the democratic process. On the one-year anniversary of Jan. 6, Axne wrote an op-ed in the Des Moines Register defending the effort in Congress to learn more about the attack. A spokesperson for Axne said that it is an issue she regularly discusses with voters.

Democrats believe there are races where it makes sense to emphasize an opponent’s conspiratorial views and embrace of the Big Lie—and races where other lines of attack might have a greater impact. One operative said a Republican who has a vulnerable voting record on issues like taxes or health care would likely be attacked on those grounds more than any incendiary statements about the 2020 election.

The most important thing Democrats can do, several strategists believe, is to connect any Republican candidate’s extreme viewpoints on that issue to their broader worldview.

In some races, Ferguson argued, Democrats could make a case that Republicans are “willing to say anything and do anything to get themselves in power—whether it means overturning your vote or overturning your health care.”

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