(Bloomberg) – Democrats have taken a risky strategy in a handful of House races, targeting opponents for backing Donald Trump’s bogus 2020 voter fraud claims instead of safer, poll-tested issues like the right to abortion or the economy. And two-thirds of the time, it worked, shrinking the GOP majority for the rest of President Joe Biden’s term.
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In the final weeks of the midterm cycle, Democratic campaigns and outside groups focused on nine candidates with ads showing images of the Jan. 6 uprising on the U.S. Capitol and attacking them for supporting outright one way or another Donald Trump’s baseless claims about the 2020 election.
Six of those candidates lost, limiting the margin of the new Republican majority to 218 to 210 Democrats, with half a dozen races still up in the air.
The little-noticed strategy built on larger efforts to criticize election deniers running for governor and secretary of state. Biden raised democracy protection as an issue in a speech days before Election Day.
At the time, Democratic strategists criticized the speech as ineffective when voters cited inflation and the economy as a major issue.
But the attacks seem to have worked. Overall, candidates who have expressed skepticism about the 2020 presidential results have been squarely beaten from New York to Arizona in Senate, House and state races, even when anti-Republicans -Trump won.
The losing House candidates who were targeted included Representatives Yvette Herrell in New Mexico and Mayra Flores in Texas, as well as challengers April Becker in Nevada, Bo Hines in North Carolina, Allan Fung in Rhode Island and Yesli Vega in Virginia. All were in races rated “toss-up” by the Cook Political Report.
A similar ad campaign helped Democrats maintain control of the Senate. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto aired several ads in the final weeks of the campaign targeting Republican candidate Adam Laxalt for his efforts to try to undo Trump’s loss in Nevada, helping him secure a narrow victory in the state which gave the Democrats their 50th seat, securing control.
Sarah Longwell, a Republican political consultant who ran anti-election ads through the Republican Accountability Project, said they were effective because swing voters were put off by extreme candidates.
In focus groups over the past year, Longwell said swing voters cited issues like inflation, crime or the coronavirus pandemic as their top concerns, but when asked why they didn’t like certain republican candidates, they often mentioned the right to abortion and the attacks of January 6 among their reasons.
Similar ads also ran in districts that leaned toward Republicans or Democrats, including several ads against Derrick Van Orden, a House candidate in Wisconsin who was outside the Capitol on Jan. still won his seat.
Along with losses of gubernatorial candidates refusing elections in the critical 2024 states of Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and of candidates for Secretary of State in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada , Minnesota and New Mexico House races lent added weight to Republicans’ concerns about Donald Trump’s streak on the party as he launched his third presidential run on Tuesday.
The nine targeted Republican candidates faced ads featuring footage of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol as well as comments in which the candidates said the rioters were ‘persecuted’, claimed the 2020 election had been “rigged and stolen” or spread conspiracy theories.
Many drew on tropes more typical of Republican campaign ads that lash out at opponents as soft on crime.
An ad, from Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger in Virginia, featured Republican Police Chief Chris Jenkins of Culpeper criticizing Vega for calling the FBI ‘corrupt’ and ‘disgusting’ in a fundraising email and saying in a candidates’ forum that the January 6 rioters were “persecuted” and “shameful.”
“That’s just wrong,” he said.
Other advertisements stated that Hines “sided with the rioters against the police” and Flores “even blamed the police for the attack on the Capitol that left five police officers dead”.
Ads were just a fraction of overall spending by pro-democracy groups, which focused mostly on issues like abortion, especially when the candidate favored bans without exceptions on rape, incest or the life of the mother. The expenses also pale in comparison to the $46 million spent attacking Holocaust deniers who run for secretary of state, which is often the position responsible for administering voting and counting.
Longwell said the election denial was not just an isolated issue. The types of candidates who used it to win Trump’s approval or pass a Republican primary also tended to hold other views that swing voters found problematic, she said.
“There was a high degree of overlap between people who denied the 2020 election and also said a lot of other crazy things,” she said.
Hines, for example, came under heavy criticism when he said victims of rape and incest should only have abortions if they were approved through a “community-level review process”, while that Vega gained national attention for suggesting that it’s harder for women to get pregnant after rape. . Advertisements often associated these positions on abortion with election denial that the candidates were too “extreme”.
The ads did not necessarily target the most extreme Holocaust deniers. Fung, the former mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island, presented himself as a New England moderate, but ads called him an extremist for failing to condemn Trump. Herrell was attacked for voting with other Republicans against a decision to strip Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of committee assignments for her call for the execution of top Democrats.
Three of the Republican candidates targeted by the ads still won: George Santos and Brandon Williams in New York and Jen Kiggans in Virginia.
Santos, who was at Trump’s rally on the Ellipse that preceded the attack on the Capitol, was filmed saying he ‘wrote a nice check’ to a law firm to get the insurgents out of jail. Williams repeatedly refused to blame Trump for the Jan. 6 attack until the Nov. 3 debate. Kiggans raised doubts about electoral systems, backed an election audit in Virginia and declined to say whether Biden won fairly.
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